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A Look at Ungrading, Part 1 | Social Learning Amplified


This episode of Social Learning Amplified focuses on the growing "ungraded" movement in higher education. Dr. Matthew Winslow and Dr. Travis Martin, both from Eastern Kentucky University, speak with host Eric Mazur on what the Ungrading movement is, why it is effective for teaching, and how Perusall assists in making it possible.

Eric Mazur:

Welcome to the Social Learning Amplified podcast, the podcast that brings us candid conversations with educators who are finding new ways to engage and motivate their students inside and outside the classroom. Each episode of social learning amplified will give you real life examples and practical strategies you can put into practice in your own courses. Let's meet today's guests.

Welcome to Social Learning Amplified. I'm your host Eric Maur, and our guests on the episode today are Dr. Matthew Winslow and Dr. Travis Martin of Eastern Kentucky University. Thank you both for joining us.

Matthew is Professor of Psychology and Teaching Enhancement Coordinator, and Travis is Director of the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies and first year courses administrator. The topic of today is ungrading, and I was thrilled to see that you both published an article on ungrading across disciplines just at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Now, I'm not sure how many of our listeners are familiar with this whole ungrading movement. So can you perhaps in a few words, tell us, our listeners, what ungrading is?

Travis Martin: (photo right)

When we have our professional learning communities or when we're talking to students, we try to describe ungrading as any practice that moves a student's emphasis away from grades and on to learning. And Matt actually has a really good kind of synopsis of the history of how we got here. If you wanna share that, Matt?

Matthew Winslow: (photo below)

Well, yeah, it's it's a long story. I mean, ungrading is a philosophy. It's, it's really a philosophy and not really a practice. It sounds like you just take grades away and it's that's what ungrading is, but it's really not that. It's, it really goes back to, you know, even John Dewey. the idea of really focusing on learning and what we know is that grades and grade, grading and scores really capture the attention of our students. And not surprisingly, because we tell them over and over again in so many ways that it's their grade and their score that is important, that really defines them. We calculate their grade point average, and we use that for scholarships and fellowships and admission and all the rest. And so students very smartly focus mostly on grades and grading. but that's not really what education is about.

headshot (2)

It's not what anybody becomes a teacher to do, is to give a grade. We give become teachers to help students learn, and really have, hopefully the joy of curiosity and exploration and mastery. And ungrading really tries to get us back to focusing on those wonderful aspects of teaching and learning and not the drudgery that is grading. No one, so many professors and teachers I've talked to, you know, they say the worst part of teaching is the grading. Students will say almost the exact same thing but what we all love about it is the learning and the exploration. And so ungrading is really of the approach that says, let's focus on those things and try to get away from the teaching or the, the grading and the scoring.

Eric Mazur:

So how widely is ungrading spread at Eastern Kentucky University?

Travis Martin:

We're a growing community. So we, I first got into this like many things from Matt and him going out and evangelizing throughout the campus about the value of intrinsic motivation and how we can harness that to improve our general education curriculum and just have, from the assignment level all the way up to the programmatic level, a way to get students engaged. And so we started out with just a few teaching and learning innovation series classes, one time workshops. And then we brought together, I think about a dozen educators for what we call professional learning communities. And now we're on our third iteration of that following a campus-wide general education wide ungrading pilot that we completed last fall where we brought instructors from almost every discipline featured in our general education and to experiment with ungraded you know, philosophies, practices, techniques be it the entire class went gradeless or just an assignment or unit. We wanted our teachers here to see that, you know, there's a way to frame education in such a way that it's not gonna release students from the obligation of doing the what's required then that the, the requisite challenge to learn. But it's going to, it's gonna free them up from the ceiling that we place on them with grades that there's only so much you have to do to get to that mark, but rather how far can you go within the amount of time we have?

Eric Mazur:

So in in my case, I, I would, I would love to implement ungrading you know, in my course and, and across my campus. But at the end of every semester, the registrar will knock on my door and say, give me a list of grades. How does that work in your case?

Matthew Winslow:

Well, it works lots of different ways, but one way to do it, and this is the way I do it in my classes, is I ask my students to give, to tell me their grade. Instead of me assigning a grade or calculating a grade, they tell me what their grade is and why. I don't like to call it a justification for their grade, but I like to call it really an explanation or a description of really what they've gotten out of my course. So instead of focusing on the points of the scores, I try to get my students to focus on the benefits of my course. What have they gotten out of my course? So I ask them to reflect on all the things they've gotten out of my course. And, and those are certainly content based sometimes, but other times they're focusing on skills or connections or you know, sometimes it's focused on mental health or you know, just the anxiety that having an ungraded class releases them from.

And so there are lots of potential benefits from, from my chorus, and I ask them to focus on those benefits and then based on those benefits, tell me their grade. And I try to tell them, I do tell them, I try to get them to understand that I really don't care what their grade is. Their grade is really almost unimportant to me in the grand scheme of things. I'm gonna get paid no matter what their grade is. My job is to help them get the benefits from my class. And, and if they feel like they've gotten something out of my class, then any grade is appropriate and they can tell me any grade they want. And so the first question I know you have is, don't they all say they get A's and the answer is no. They don't all say they get a's now many of them do, but not everyone.

Some say B I've had students tell me they they think a C is the most appropriate grade for them, and I accept that. I take that whatever they say. so students are, are aware of what they're getting out of a class and what they've put into the class. And when you give them this freedom and when you trust them, when you respect them, they hear that and they respond in a, in a really marvelous way. And the student, the, the things that the students write about what they've gotten out of my class are some of the most rewarding things I've ever had a student turn into me. So it's just been a wonderful experience for me.

Travis Martin:

So radically respecting your students is something that we've we've said before, and it's this trust that Matt was talking about that we put in the students to us, not assume that they're gonna try to take the path of least resistance, but assume rather that they're there to learn and that they wanna learn. Now they've been taught their entire lives to kind of hide that desire to, you know, couch it in the language of transactional education, but grading kind of undoes all that. It reframes the whole scenario. And so Matt and I both use the great proposal system, and we have them look at things like the course objectives and the assignments they completed. And, and these justifications, we said they described, you know, how they met those goals for the course using evidence from their work, the way you would cite a source in a paper.

And to me, if that's not, you know, more effective than grading, I don't know what is, because they're telling you not only what they learn, but what they still need to learn too. They're telling you what they don't know. And that's, that's probably one of the most valuable things you're gonna get. Because we've used the word mastery a lot, we throw it around, but really we've got 16 weeks to, especially in courses like my, introduce them to a subject and they're not gonna be masters of that, but if we can equip them with the skills to keep learning when they leave, and more importantly the desire than that's, that's a win. And so proposals are only one way. We, in our communities, we have people who do grading contracts, we have people who do mastery and specifications based grading. We have people who only do it on assignments by doing things like more opportunities for revision. Again, there's a lot of different ways to go about it, but it's that unifying philosophy I think that runs through all of it that we're empowering students to learn, that we're encouraging them to embrace it as something that can be fun, you know, is a big change to the way we traditionally think about these things.

Eric Mazur:

You mentioned briefly specifications, grading, and for the past I think two or two and two and a half years I've been I've been using specifications grading, and it's been it's been a game changer. It's essentially a form of of ungrading. How, how are your colleagues reacting? Because I, I, I assume, I assume the reaction is not as uniformly positive as it is from the students who feel themselves sort of liberated from this tyranny of of grades. How have your colleagues and the administrators at your institution reacted?

Matthew Winslow:

Oh, I think most of my colleagues are curious about it. There is of course, some resistance from other professors, other instructors. it's a radical way of thinking about teaching. It's turning things upside down. And again, I think not only are students used to this transactional educational atmosphere, faculty are as well, we are used to being the ones in control that teach through, essentially through obedience. I tell you what to do and you do it. And when you un grade, a lot of that is allowing students to have more control over what what they do when and how. And and it's allowing them to follow their interests more. And that's a little scary for the instructor because it's, it's losing control. But you know, some, some faculty really take to it. Some are sort of stuck in the old way of thinking and they have a harder time coming around to it.

I will say that the administrators on our campus, I think have been nothing but encouraging. We have actually met with them and I'm, you know, friends with our provost and our dean and I've told them what I'm doing almost while I was developing it. So, and they were excited about it. And, and, and really as you said at the end of the semester, the registrar comes around and says, what's the grade? And as long as I've got an answer for that, they're happy. And they don't really stick their nose in how I get to that point too much, which is really nice. One of the academic freedom issues that we are so so controlling of or so, so possessive of. So I, I think it's been a success on our campus in terms of resistance.

I think there hasn't been a, a large resistance. Now, Travis said a minute ago that we tried to do sort of a general education push, and there were, there were faculty that volunteered to be part of that effort because they were curious and interested that nonetheless came away saying that they are not going to now adopt un grading going forward. They were, you know not happy with the outcome. So, you know results may vary as they say. And so I, I'm not surprised that there is variability in their responses, but I think it's been pretty positive overall.

Travis Martin:

I, it's like with any teaching philosophy or practice, it's gonna take time to learn how to do it. And so when we did our pilot, we had people using ungrading for the very first time ever. And so they're walking in the classroom, me and Matt are there to consult with them. We give them resources, we have our, our professional learning community members there to help as well. But, you know, the first time I did this, like I, I had to fix a lot of things. Like, I just went in and kind of did the great anarchy approach and said, okay, let's see what happens. Cause I'm really curious. But my students over time responded to me, at least in my class and, and how I teach, which is very important for developing your approach, is that they wanted more structure than what I was giving them.

And so I've kind of started finding new ways to kind of find balance between structure and freedom to help the students learn, but also give them you know, again, take away that ceiling, that, that, that cap that we place on our expectations. It's a limiting factor. But you know, un-gradings have in its moment right now, we've heard lots of valid criticisms from places like the Chronicle for Higher Education. You know, one of the things that Matt and I have noticed is that students from disadvantaged backgrounds sometimes have a proclivity for rating themselves lower than what they deserve. And some of that can be rooted in imposter syndrome, or it can be rooted in just being overly harsh on themselves. We don't know. But that's something you have to keep in mind when you're designing your, your curriculum and your approach when you're developing your philosophy is that we're not trying to take one set of rigid rules and just create another one and replace it. Ungrading is all about being flexible. It's about meeting the student one-on-one and trying to understand them. So my usual response to that criticism is that, you know, of course we're gonna have to be responsive and adapt our practices whenever we learn through this very novel approach how to teach, because it's just part of, you know, the scholarship of teaching and learning, learning ungrading is no different in that regard.

Eric Mazur:

Yeah. I see in a sense, ungrading as a transition to what I would call really ungrading more a narrative type of of evaluation, which of course, a number of schools have have you know, experimented with from, you know, UC Santa Cruz to Hampshire College, to to name it where we essentially evaluate people along more than one dimension, right? Because a grade is sort of a single dimensional measure of a person. And, you know, I keep thinking, how can we possibly capture the complexity of a human being, even in a fairly narrow domain with a single number or a letter. Right. And you mentioned a moment ago learning goals and satisfying learning goals. It's never a learning or it's many learning goals. So that sort of suggests there's a measure along these different dimensions corresponding to different learning goals. How do you collapse that into a single grade?

Travis Martin:

So for me, it's the grade proposal system is not, again, it's not really based on a grade. It's it's based on, like you said, a narrative of how they learn throughout the semester. So whenever they're going through their great proposal packet, they're telling the story of themselves, well, this fits in with my background in English, and expressive as pedagogies as well. They're telling the story themselves in relation to another thing. And so what I'm looking for the students to do is to show me the growth, and then again, importantly where they still have to go. And so you, we talk about like, do we have administrative support? You know, and our provost from down has been very supportive of our experimentation with this. But for me, you know, the first thing teachers will ask is almost like a reverse of what the students ask.

Like, is this a trick? You know, if I try this in my class, am I gonna get in trouble? Because I have to put in a grade? And, and for me it's like, well, I've got this entire packet of how the student explains to me verbatim, like how they met every goal for the course and used examples from their work. I mean, I have more evidence and more of an argument for each student's learning progression than I would think that a letter could do. Like you said, how does a letter or a number define a person? You said narrative exploration. This is what we're doing, at least in the way that Matt and I are experimenting with it.

A Look at Ungrading, Part 2 is available to listen on!

Eric Mazur:

So just yesterday I saw this tweet from James Lang, I don't know if you're familiar with him. He's an author. He wrote a book, Small Teaching, I think six or so years ago, and a book distracted. He's also a columnist for the Chronicle education. And he tweeted that essentially, you know the ungrading movement had a long way to go because, or, or had had many challenges to overcome because his auto insurance was asking him for proof of his children's good grades or grades for, you know, the good student credit. There are so many things in society that are in a sense demanding these grades, even though I think we can argue that in professional life we don't have the equivalent of grades. So I think we have a lot of barriers to to overcome. Would you agree with that statement?

Matthew Winslow:

I would, and actually you mentioned UC Santa Cruz a minute ago. I went to Santa Cruz for graduate school for a few years, and I was there when they still had the narrative evaluation system. I know that they have since gotten rid of it. But and I had a professor there who used to be at Harvard and went to Santa Cruz and was there and, and he was he didn't like the narrative evaluation system because he said that his undergraduate students, some of which were, you know, good enough students to go anywhere in the country for graduate school, weren't getting into graduate school anywhere other than, you know, Stanford or Berkeley, which just happened to be, you know, nearby and knew about Santa Cruz, but places like Harvard or Princeton and Yale, instead of getting a GPA from Santa Cruz, that was easy to process.

They got a big stack of narrative evaluations that had no grades, and they just couldn't look through that big stack of narrative evaluations for one applicant when they had thousands of other applicants to look at. And so he was like, you know, look, this is hurting our students. So there are lots of structures that are so built on this grade tradition that it is very difficult. I guess I would say, and this is a kind of the critical pedagogy view that, you know, my job is not to help my students conform to the world as it is. My job is to help students become the best person they can be. And if that means that they don't fit into the world as it is, that means that they're going to change the world to make it more accommodating to who they are.

And I think that is really, you know, what our job is. And so I'm concerned about my students and I want to help them as much as possible. And I understand that the world is based on grades, but at the same time, I want to give them sort of a peak outside of this world as it is to see a world that could be. and that's what the, you know, pedagogy of liberation is. and that's, that's really what I want to focus on. And yeah, so I, I just think this, this grade structure is so it's so dominant. The other thing I've learned in this is that, you know, grades have not been around forever. It feels like grades have been around forever, but they really haven't been around forever. They've only been around for, you know, a hundred or maybe 150 years depending on who you ask. And so most of the history of education going back as long as you want to go back there, have not been grades A, B, C, D were not part of the educational process for most of the history of education is only recently that we've had this. And it, it's not required, it's not essential. It's not at the bedrock really of teaching and learning. It's something we've come up with and we can get rid of it if we wanted to.

Eric Mazur:

I think you mentioned something important, right? I think the reason that we transitioned from no grades to grade was precisely to solve that problem that you mentioned earlier by you know, Santa Cruz and having to grow through a, a large stack of you know, narrative evaluations is, you know, how do you quickly sort through a large number of people and data to select a few? And probably the balance is somewhere in between. And maybe that the ungrading movement is exactly the right balance between between the two. I guess only time will will tell. One final question. When I transition to specifications grading you know, as you know, I've used Perusall for probably close to eight or or nine years in, in my classes. First as a prototype and later as the platform in which it evolved. But when I adopted specifications grading, I found that Perusall in a sense, fitted much better into the overall evaluation of my students than ever before. Have you had a similar experience? I'd love to hear your comments on that and your experience with Perusall in an ungrading context.

Travis Martin:

It's worked great for me. I I'm always thinking about Stanford's challenge and support theory. So if we provide enough challenge that's gonna lead to satisfaction. If we don't give enough support, they won't meet the challenge. We give not enough challenge, it leads to stagnation and Perusall, like I said, with my own approach with ungrading gives them that structure while also obfuscating the focus on the grade. And especially if you really get in and play with the features and somebody, you know, I think said one time, well, it's a form of surveillance. Well, I'll tell you what's a form of surveillance is grading any sort of assessment where we're taking and we're evaluating what the student covered and how well they covered it. We're essentially surveilling their performance in our class and what they did. Perusall, although keeps them on the on the rails while also doing a form of assessment or evaluation that doesn't focus on numbers, it doesn't focus on time because all that stuff is hidden from them. And only what they gotta do is focus on that social aspect, that learning that should happen naturally when exposed to content. And that's what I'm grading for us, is all about. It's about focusing on the content. And Perusall does a great job of just kind of like bending the lens in such a way that that comes in the full view.

Matthew Winslow:

And I would say the thing I like about Perusall is that as the instructor, you do have control over the scoring algorithm. So all of those settings are really great because you can, you can decide you want it to be based on reading time or interactions or now I've taken to basically turning the scoring off so that what Perusall is for my students now is it really just a way to read the material with other students. It's that social aspect of it that is just incredible to me. The idea that you could read something that's challenging while someone else is reading it, and you can have a conversation with that person in real time or, you know, even asynchronously. It's really a game changer for my students. I think that they, some students really dive into it, and it's just been so wonderful for them to feel connected to other students and to me. I love that you know, they can, they can tag me and I get the email and I can respond to them. And, and it's great to have those, those interactions, but most of the time I try to stay out of it because i's such, such a great thing to see the students having those conversations and struggling and asking questions and then answering questions. It's just been such a great thing for my students.

Travis Martin:

We talk about narratives. Yeah. We talk about narratives and we talk about telling the story of themselves through their learning. Perusall does that, you know, when we're talking about a video or we're talking about the, the sidebar where we're discussing in our annotations critically how we reacted to a piece of writing. That's the student telling the story of their learning process as they go. And if they do that, I mean, that fits into all the best science of learning stuff about connecting it to what you already know, to previewing the text, to talking to it, to making connections with the world around you. I mean, this is this is all like part and parcel for what we talk about when we're having our professional learning communities at our different colleges and our learning innovation series and all these things. Perusall is just, it's tapping into that in a very natural way.

Eric Mazur:

So to amplify what what Matt just said I like to think as, as the Perusall platform as a window into the brains of my students. It sort of permits me to see what, what is going on when they interact with the text, when they try to interrupt. I interpret the material in the classroom. Well, unfortunately, our time is up. I think we could have continued this discussion for another 20 minutes, if not an hour. I really wanna thank everybody for listening, and I want to thank you both, Matt and Travis for opening our eyes for a different approach to evaluating our student. Thank you both so much for joining me for this episode.

If you're listening, you can find our podcast and more on, and please subscribe to join us on our next episode. Thank you all.

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