Ungrading for Integrity

Topics: Blog, Editorial

I love reading about educators who are continually trying to improve the process and the environment for teaching and learning. It is inspiring and refreshing, I think especially for those of us who more often deal with the aftermath of teaching or learning gone awry. When teaching goes awry, students become frustrated, disempowered, or angry and in response, may act out bad choices implemented in an attempt to right what they see as a wrong. When learning goes awry, faculty become disenchanted, disheartened or tired and in response, may stop trying to reach their students. Neither of these scenarios serve our educational missions well. 

So, when I hear about nuggets of good teaching and learning being tried out in practice, I am naturally drawn to extrapolate to how the practices might help to enhance cultures of integrity in the classroom. You see, I believe that academic integrity is a teaching and learning issue, which means that cheating can be made the exception and integrity the norm when we make changes to pedagogy, assessments, activities, assignments and, yes, even to teacher practices. This does not mean that I don’t see the responsibility of the student within the cheating scenario; I do. However, I also believe that if we shift from asking “how can we stop cheating?” to asking “how can we improve or facilitate learning?”, we can both reduce cheating and enhance integrity, thus facilitating learning. You can read more about this philosophy here.

What’s got me thinking about this today? A recent piece written by an educator who experimented with “ungrading” – the practice of removing grades, otherwise known as extrinsic motivation, from the learning process. Now, Susan Blum, the educator featured in this story is not the first to talk about ungrading. Just google “ungrading in higher education” and you’ll see what I mean (NOTE: google will likely change it to “upgrading” so make sure you pay attention!). However, Susan has also written about plagiarism, so I’m particularly drawn to what she thinks and has experienced when it comes to ungrading or other teaching strategies intended to enhance learning. 

In case it’s not clear, the premise behind ungrading is that grades actually hinder, rather than facilitate, learning. While there are many reasons for this type of grade effect, perhaps the most simple explanation can be stated as follows – intrinsic motivation is more likely to lead to learning, grades are extrinsic motivation, thus grades can interfere with learning. So, if we want to facilitate learning and reduce cheating, the question remains – is getting rid of grading the answer?

To be sure, this is a tough concept to sell within our grade- and degree-obsessed global education system. Get rid of grades – are you crazy? How will we certify to external audiences what our students know and can do? How will we compare candidates for graduate school? How will we interpret learning, knowledge and skills? These are good questions – it’s probably impractical to think that we can, en masse, replace grades-as-currency with some other measure of student knowledge, skills and learning. And, even people experimenting with ungrading throughout the term, like Susan Blum, admit that they still have to submit grades at the end. 

Despite grading being a difficult issue to tackle, I think it is impractical and frankly unethical to continue to rely on grades with an almost religious zealousness that is impenetrable to questions, critique and reconsideration. After all, if students (and parents) were not so focused on extrinsic motivators like grades and degrees, learning might be able to take the front seat in their lives and within our educational institutions, and this would be for the betterment of all of us.

About the Author
Tricia Bertram Gallant, Ph.D. is the author of Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative (Jossey-Bass, 2008), co-author of Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), editor of Creating the Ethical Academy: A Systems Approach to Understanding Misconduct & Empowering Change in Higher Education (Routledge, 2011), and section editor for the Handbook of Academic Integrity (Springer, 2016). She is the Director of the UC San Diego Academic Integrity Office and Board Member of the International Center for Academic Integrity, and has been an ethics lecturer with the Rady School of Management. When Tricia blogs, the content is hers and should not be attributed to her employer or ICAI.
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