How I Almost Undermined My Ungrading System

It seemed like a simple explanation at the time. By the time I was almost done, I realized that I had almost undermined my entire ungrading system.

This fall, I have a few hard deadlines. Most work has a grace period that does not end until the last full week of classes. For example, peer review activities have a firm deadline for technical and logistical reasons. I explain the system in my Short Guide to the course:

Firm Due Dates explanation, transcript at the link

I further explain the two rounds of peer review in a course FAQ:

How do the two rounds of peer feedback work? Do I have to do both of them?

The idea of two rounds is more to help people who are working more slowly. Nearly all students I’ve had either choose the first round or the second-chance round. I don’t remember anyone trying both, but you can. You do provide feedback to 2 other people whenever you participate (but you get feedback from 2 people too). The activity is essentially the same. It’s just the time frame that changes.

Despite the fact that information is out there, some students remained confused. I wasn’t worried. Students cannot possibly remember everything I tell them or recall where are the details are in the course documents. What did worry me was that their email messages communicated a bit of panic through comments like this one, “I missed the feedback post. Can I still achieve the grade that I want?”

My first impulse was to find a way to clarify in a way that would calm the panic (and end the extra emails I was receiving). I decided that perhaps students needed a better understanding of the expectations for the work. For the peer review work, they needed something to clarify that I only expected them to complete half of the posted activities (either the first or second opportunity).

I immediately thought, “Infographic!” and I worked up the image below. Pie charts seemed like the perfect way to express the expectations. I started with the “Complete Half” section of the graphic and then added the other sections to represent all the work in the course.

I was quite pleased with the emerging look of the graphic: very polished, and very Virginia Tech (If I do say so myself). It was that “Complete Most” section that started my teacher-senses worrying.

Activity Expectations, with transcript at link

I couldn’t decide how much of the pie chart properly represented “most” of the work in that section. Obviously more than half. And the image needed to be visually distinguishable from the Half Pie. Alternately, shading 3/4 of the pie seemed wrong too. I didn’t want a pie chart that suggested a firm number. I wanted a visual representation that was less specific. I settled on approximately 60%, as shown in the image.

I felt that the infographic was about ready to go and turned my attention to writing up the transcript. As I wrote it up, I realized that it was likely to raise more questions:

  • Exactly how many is most?
  • How many activities are there? I need to figure out if I have most of them done.
  • What if I completely only 51% of the activities? Is that most?
  • If I have 60% of the work done, can I skip the rest?
  • What happens if I don’t complete all of the activities in the “Try to Complete All” section?

As these questions bubbled up, I realized that I had almost undermined the entire system. The moment I started to put numbers on the work, I turned on the traditional grading system. Students were going to shift immediately from a focus on improvement and their best effort to an obsession with reaching the right number. And so this infographic will never be used in my courses. Instead it prompts me that I have to be careful to return students to details on the ungrading system when questions come up. I have to remind them that they are in charge of their grades. I have to turn the question to them. When a student asks, “Can I still achieve the grade that I want?” I need to remember to reply, “Are you putting in the effort that grade would require? Does your work represent your best effort?”