My professor let me pick my own grade, and I might fail myself

(FILE) Illustration of a girl looking focused while writing in a notebook.
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You’ve taken courses for a grade and you’ve taken courses pass/no pass, but have you ever taken a course ungraded? I hadn’t either, until this semester when my professor announced during syllabus week that the class would be ungraded. “Ungrading” attempts to alleviate the stress and anxiety of traditional grading and test-taking by allowing students to determine their own grades. This meant that as students in the course, we would be responsible for assigning our own grades at the end of the semester. My professor hoped that by ungrading the class, we’d be able to engage deeply with the content and not get hung up on its potential effect on our GPA.

In addition to emphasizing the course’s content, this method of grading allows students to learn and participate in a way that works for them. For example, strictly allocating points for participating in discussion might disregard shy and reserved students while unfairly rewarding talkative ones. During remote learning, students without the privilege of a quiet and secluded learning environment may be prevented from speaking out in discussion. Ungrading recognizes that participation looks different for every student by allowing individuals to gauge their own effort. 

It seems clear that ungrading could be a healthier way to learn, especially during a pandemic and a virtual semester. Why, then, did I fail so miserably at it?

This type of learning model values intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation. An intrinsically motivated individual is enthusiastic about learning simply for the sake of deepening their own knowledge. On the other hand, an extrinsically motivated individual may be more likely to work hard in the class simply to receive a high test grade. My ungraded class did not have any exams — most ungraded classes steer clear of any traditional forms of testing — effectively ripping the rug out from beneath extrinsically motivated students.  

Despite possessing a strong interest in the course subject, I fell behind on course readings and lectures very early in the semester. I simply could not get myself to prioritize work for the class. As things piled up and my to-do list became longer and longer, I always chose to focus on courses that were graded and tested, and I profusely neglected my ungraded class. If every class was ungraded, I would have devoted an equal amount of time to each of my courses. But when forced to pick between an assignment evaluated by myself and an assignment evaluated by a GSI, I’d almost always choose the latter. I’d do what needed to be done and then go to bed. 

It’s likely that my experience is rooted in a deeper societal flaw, not just the structure of the class. Within our capitalist system, everything we do is quantified in some way. As students, we are taught from a very young age to be motivated by the accumulation of tangible progress markers: points, gold stars, letter grades and report cards. After years of instant gratification, how can the accumulation of knowledge alone be enough? 

How can we choose to prioritize something even if it doesn’t “count”?

As the weeks trickled by, I was left wondering: Do I simply not have enough intrinsic motivation to learn? Am I not as passionate about the subject matter as my classmates? Am I lazy? These thoughts snowballed into feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, which is ironic because ungrading is supposed to improve a student’s mental well-being. As the semester winds down, I’m trying to curtail my negative thoughts by treating this as a learning experience. If I truly want to contribute to a more equitable, healthy and kind world, I can start by dismantling my outdated and elitist approach to learning.  

I sincerely believe that ungrading could mark a progressive change in classrooms of every age. I wish it had worked for me, and hopefully, I will have an opportunity to try it again. Maybe, by the next time I’m taking an ungraded course, it will have become more of a norm. But after a lifetime of being graded, I simply wasn’t yet ready to be ungraded. 

Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].