A Student’s Perspective on Ungrading

by Guest Author

Yerim Lee Guest Blog by Yerim Lee

Growing up in America with stereotypical Asian immigrant parents, I was constantly expected to receive all A’s on my report cards. Even in elementary school, I have vivid memories of grabbing my backpack when I heard my mom come home from work and proudly showing her that I scored a 98% on my spelling quiz. After she took one glance at my score she curiously asked, “That’s good, but why didn’t you score a 100%?” Not to say my mother wasn’t impressed by my performance in school, but she didn’t quite understand if I was so close to a perfect score, why didn’t I get it? To say my mother’s expectations were high from the start would be an understatement. But as a result, I was also determined to impress her by showing her that I could get straight A’s. And I did.

Grades are the traditional metric of measuring how successful students are learning in a classroom setting. Grades provide universities a uniform metric of their applicants and their academic success. However, the effectiveness of this system has recently come into question as students across the country have reported excessive stress as a result of their grades and GPAs, especially those preparing for college admissions. This is exactly why Jesse Stommel, an instructor for over 20 years, practices and preaches “ungrading” where he doesn’t provide traditional grades for his students’ works.

As the name would suggest, the ungrading approach provides students with written feedback instead of a letter grade assessment. Stommel assigns his students self-reflection assessments and converses with them to gauge how they are performing in his course. Not to say all of his students simply write themselves A’s for their work. Stommel claims that in the past he has intervened when necessary, but over the years he has seen students award themselves F’s and a whole range of self-reported grades that he deems reasonable and fair.

Now even though the traditional grading scale may have worked on pressuring me to get straight A’s throughout high school, I would not recommend this amount of pressure on any student. I became so obsessed with having a perfect GPA that I started showing symptoms of anxiety before every little quiz or final exam. I would cancel plans with my friends just to make sure I had an extra hour or two to prepare for my tests. At its worst, I would belittle myself for being incompetent or unprepared if I didn’t receive the score I wanted on a difficult test. I convinced myself that my self-worth was completely dictated by my academic performance. And I was not alone in this! Jennifer Crocker, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, found that more than 80% of college freshmen based their self-worth on their grades more than any other factor.

It is completely reasonable to question how effective grading actually is and if it’s worth the detrimental effect it has on students. Personally, I strongly believe that our education system has jeopardized students’ passion for learning with the rising demand for perfect GPAs and test scores. I can recount several times where I was disappointed that I couldn’t fully invest my time into learning about topics I was genuinely interested in just because it wasn’t going to be tested. Instead, I had to invest my time studying for the material that would actually impact my GPA. Even now at Northwestern, I regret going through courses at such rapid pace and zooming through topics (pun not intended) that I wish I could spend more time learning. I suppose the trade off is that the quarter system does allow me to occasionally enroll in a course or two that may not be pertinent to my major, which is refreshing to say the least. Last quarter I was able to enroll in Positivity Psychology as my fifth class, and although the course load was a lot, it was liberating to make room in my schedule for a course topic I was excited to learn more about!

Now that being said, I do acknowledge how traditional grades do provide structure and incentive for students to practice and prepare for their exams or projects. Especially with my many STEM courses that require regular practice, I do find the pressure to prepare for exams and the assignments to keep me at pace with the course and it challenges me to practice more on my own time to score well on these exams. I may still have testing anxiety and be stressed by deadlines and the never ending schedule of exams that are a given for the quarter system, but I can appreciate how much I eventually do learn at the end of the course versus what I knew at the beginning.

After a year of remote learning in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I certainly have a clearer perspective of how the education system appears to value their reputation or status over the wellbeing of their students. Although Northwestern University has attempted to compensate for the effects of the pandemic by providing Pass/Fail options for a limited amount of courses for this past school year, I still felt the pressure to keep up with the same pace as my peers. I have been frustrated about how professors were not considerate to the vast amount of students who do not have access to luxuries such as having a quiet work area or even having a supportive family at home. Some students may even be dealing with grief due to a sick family member. Now it is completely ridiculous to have professors grade students on the same scale when there are so many inequalities in the learning environment. In this circumstance, ungrading is a perfect solution to combat these inequities.  

In the end, I do believe this structure is effective at organizing a classroom of students to stay on the same pace and keep the instructors informed about the specific topics their students may be struggling with. On the other hand, the surreal pressure that scores have on students throughout their academic career is stripping them of the joy of learning at such a young age. Ungrading provides students with an opportunity to invest in their genuine interest in the material without the stress of how they score on an exam may affect their GPA. So while ungrading relinquishes students from studying out of necessity to intrinsic motivation, it is difficult to prioritize a course that won’t affect my academic standing compared to the other courses in my schedule that will impact my GPA.


About the Author


As a Course Development and Digital Accessibility Aide, I will be assisting the Office of Distance Learning Team with basic web page design and setting up course sites in Canvas. I am a third-year student at Northwestern University pursuing a BS/MS degree in Mechanical Engineering, expecting to graduate in the Spring of 2022. I am excited to collaborate with this team and assist with this unprecedented large-scale migration to online learning.

As a student, I am aware of the challenges that have arisen from remote learning, especially via Canvas, but I have also received many apologetic emails from professors who are also struggling with this new classroom arrangement. Understanding that these complications from remote learning is not any of the professors’ fault, I am glad to use my experience in web page design to ensure organized Canvas pages for both staff and students, while also certifying that these pages are accessible and well-maintained for smooth e-learning instruction.

Outside of work and being a student, I have a 5-month old Corgi pup named Winston who takes most of my free-time (if I have any), and he loves to make new dog friends and play fetch all day. I have also tried to stay fit at home and create an organized space for my work. I’m looking forward to make the most out of 2021, and I’m glad to start it off here!


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