Escape from Grading Hell: How to Move Away from Grades and Focus on Learning

In recent years, many college instructors have begun to explore new ways of assessing students that shift the focus away from grades and toward learning.  Inspired by the work of Alfie Kohn, Susan Blum, and many others, this praxis can take many forms, from “ungrading” to “contract grading,” “specifications grading,” and beyond.  The reasons for making a move away from traditional grading vary, but often stem from a strong sense that traditional grading does not reflect real learning well and can even have harmful impacts on both students and instructors.

What impact have these ideas had on the German studies classroom?  At the 2022 GSA conference in Houston, a group of Germanists (Nicole Coleman, Elizabeth Drummond, Eli Rubin, and Janice McGregor; Phil Keisman was unable to attend but has contributed his thoughts here) held a roundtable, sponsored by the GSA Teaching Network, to discuss their approaches to and experiences with alternative forms of assessment.  What follows is a summary of our discussion at the roundtable in Houston.  We hope that it might be useful to help you think about how to move away from traditional assessment in your German studies classroom.

Nicole Coleman (German, Wayne State University): Since 2016, I have experimented with different forms of assessment that center learning over performance for grades. My first attempt was a small change: I let students set their own goal for 10% of the grade. I had hoped that students in this advanced German language course with mostly majors would choose an area that they were genuinely interested in improving and they did. In contrast to going with an easy grade, students challenged themselves. Later, I found that studies have shown a similar effect: grades decrease motivation and stifle creativity because it is too risky to choose a more challenging task when a grade is at stake. Opening a path to self-directed learning, however, will allow students to focus on their learning. Encouraged by this early result, I read Linda Nilson’s seminal book about specifications grading, or specs grading in short, and implemented the system in the same class the following year. I designed bundles (see an example for a third semester language class here) that would show that students who sought a specific grade met a specific set of requirements and learning outcomes. Each assignment was graded as satisfactory/not satisfactory and students were given tokens to revise assignments that weren’t yet satisfactory. Although still focused on my expectations of what students should be able to do at the end of the class, students reported that they felt they had more freedom to learn. The rapport in the class improved tremendously because we were forging their path through the class together. And work also got better in that students were more motivated which showed in the results of projects and writing assignments. Specs grading is something that I still do in lower-level classes because it gives a framework that is easily explained and transparent. In upper-level classes, I have since moved on to more complete “ungrading” by going gradeless in the sense that I don’t formulate exact expectations of where students should be at the end of the class. Every student comes into the course with a different background and circumstances; it is therefore impossible that everyone should exit the class with the exact same outcomes. For language classes, I now emphasize improvement in all areas of language learning. Students self-assess their progress at multiple points throughout the class, formulate their own goals, and do assignments accordingly. The benefits have been that students enjoy the assignments they choose and gain intrinsic motivation to keep working on skills until they are satisfied. I have seen students revise more readily and because of those revisions leave the class with better skills than in traditional settings. The challenge is mostly with myself; I still catch myself thinking with a grading mind about submissions and falling into grading language, e.g., “this is a good paper,” when giving qualitative feedback. I will keep working on that: giving feedback that shows students how to improve rather than secretly grading them.

Janice McGregor (German, University of Arizona): It’s December 2020. I’ve just finished up my first semester of pandemic teaching (I was on leave in Spring 2020). I can’t stop thinking about the state of, well, everything. As a teacher (and human), I am tired. I am dejected. I can’t keep doing things this way. My Spring 2021 courses, I decided, would be different. They would both acknowledge the reality of and continually push for two things: Meaningful human-being-ness and meaningful learning. Days later, I learned of a new book titled Ungrading, edited by Susan Blum. I immediately saw many of my concerns reflected in this book. I felt excited again about the upcoming semester and kept working. Today, my approach to assessment in my classes depends wholly on context: the level, modality, size of the class, the subject matter. I decided that my first “go” at designing an ungrading-adjacent syllabus would be in my grad seminar on second language assessment. This class was the perfect space to make my assessment approach an explicit model for students. Here, it made sense to be vulnerable with the group. I told them: “I’ve been teaching this class on approaches to second language assessment for years. I always talk about the fact that as teachers, we must build trust with our language learners, and consider the intersections of teaching, learning, and assessment as we do it. Yet I see now that my own approach in this class has not always lived up to those aims.” Opening up those tensions to the class helped establish trust and see what emotions do in educational contexts. Each week, we read, discussed, and prepared and collaboratively guided one another towards course project work. The students constantly participated in our Zoom class “feedbacking loop” (I stopped saying “grading” altogether). Multiple revisions, a required Zoom conference with me, peer discussions and feedback, and a final process letter later, they left the course with a professional unit plan pack (a suite of 3 lesson plans, among other documents) that could be added to any teaching portfolio. Each student’s path to the final version of their project looked different, and that was okay. A major benefit: The heightened transparency. The group saw in my and their peers’ feedback what they’d done well and what might’ve still needed some review. They took the individualized feedback and continued revising. As long as they eventually hit the mark, their work was successful. My main challenge today: Keeping myself in the “feedbacking loop.” I catch myself sometimes thinking that I’m “grading” – but I’m not, I’m facilitating learning. Ungrading syllabi can also require constant re-articulation in class – I find that continually reminding my groups that learning is our focus, not rating and monitoring, helps.

Eli Rubin (History, Western Michigan University): I came to “ungrading” somewhat organically. I had been feeling a growing sense of alienation from the experience of grading assignments, typically, papers and projects in my history courses. Simply put, I found grading a stack of papers to be an unpleasant experience that I dreaded and ended up doing often in a perfunctory way that drained the purpose from what ought to be a meaningful, even magical, experience. Occasionally, I would hear from students that they felt the same way about writing papers. Moreover, I would hear from colleagues that they too felt similarly about grading papers – sometimes using very strong terms like “grading hell” or “paper hell” or “I hate grading.” I kept thinking, “why are we all engaged in this practice that no one is happy with?” It was at that point, in 2020, that I discovered a movement on social media following the hashtag “ungrading,” in particular associated with Susan Blum, who had just published a short book entitled Ungrading. I read the book and found that it was extremely helpful. After speaking with some colleagues who had already adopted alternative or “un”-grading into their teaching, in particular with Elizabeth Drummond, I decided to try it out in the Fall of 2021. The system I created focused, I hoped, more on the development of the individual student than on holding students to an abstract (and usually arbitrary) “standard.” Especially at my school, a regional state school, students come from very diverse backgrounds, with very diverse goals and levels of preparation for college. What mattered to me was where they were when they started and then where they were when the semester ended, in terms of their own goals for themselves as well as my goals for them. So, my TA and I left comments on their weekly work and midterm and final projects and exams but did not assign letter grades. Instead, the students filled out a self-assessment as their first assignment, and that along with all their other work was uploaded to a portfolio (in the form of a google drive folder). At the midterm point of the season, I met with each student for 15 minutes and reviewed their portfolio, including their self-assessment and their work, and then we would agree on a midterm grade. We then repeated this process at the end of the semester. The system has worked well – students feel a stronger sense of accountability when they know they’ll have to have a discussion about their grade and their work, and they generally respond very well to the focus being placed on their self-improvement and growth as opposed to a sense of being judged arbitrarily by a nearly anonymous instructor.

Elizabeth Drummond (History, Loyola Marymount University): A B is a B is a B is a B – or is it? We have been socialized to think that grades are objective scales of student learning and that being a “tough grader” ensures academic rigor. But what does a B mean if it is earned by a privileged student who coasts the whole semester? And by a student who overcomes challenges to show considerable improvement over the semester? And by a student whose submitted work is top-notch but who suffered penalties for missing or late work? Have they all learned an equivalent amount in the course? My “come-to-ungrading” moment came when I had an excellent student, who was deeply engaged in the course, grappled with the readings, participated actively in class, visited me in office hours frequently, and excitedly jumped into a research project that took them down several rabbit holes, but who struggled to turn in the reading responses. In the interests of “fairness,” I applied the policies outlined in the syllabus, and the student’s final grade suffered from the penalties assessed on the reading responses. The student understood, but I was not satisfied. I had long thought that I was empowering students to take control of their learning by outlining clear and detailed policies and expectations on my syllabus, but I realized that I was really only reinforcing the sense that the grade – not learning, not curiosity, not creativity – was the thing that mattered. So I began to experiment with ungrading. My initial experiments were halting: I withheld grades from students, providing them only with feedback, but I was still noting grades in my own records. More recently, I abandoned grades even for my own record-keeping. I engage students as fellow historians, providing feedback, asking questions, and making suggestions. The grade at the end of the semester is a holistic assessment of the student’s learning, which acknowledges individual students’ strengths, weaknesses, and growth. I also involve students in the process of thinking about their learning: they set learning goals, include a “process paragraph” on each assignment, complete self-assessments, and meet with me to discuss their learning. My turn to ungrading has been part of a broader rethinking of my teaching. In the syllabus, I focus on creating structures to help students succeed rather than articulating punitive policy statements. I’ve redesigned courses to de-emphasize coverage and foreground historical thinking. Ungrading has also enabled me to develop new kinds of assignments, projects that engage students by giving them more freedom to follow their own interests when doing research and that encourage risk-taking – that create space for students to get out of their comfort zones, to take chances, to make mistakes, and to pursue avenues that lead to dead-ends and then to change course.

Phil Keisman (History, CUNY Graduate Center): As a philosophy, ungrading demands that I constantly examine where in my teaching I retain elements of a “process” over “product” approach to assessing student understanding. In planning for teaching a new course in Spring 2023, I find myself considering the humble reading assignment. How can I help students gain content knowledge and grow in reading skills through their course readings? Reading is a thorny activity to give feedback on because it takes place inside the student’s brain, a domain outside of my purview. Typically, I’ve addressed this by having students externalize this learning into a product I can assess. The reading response essay, in-class comment, and mandatory note taking are all attempts to assess students’ abilities to read and understand information. These can be effective means of externalizing student cognition; they are all examples of taking the process of reading and turning it into a product. In keeping with theorist Alfie Kohn’s reminder that grades make our classrooms “more about performance than learning,” I want my practices around assigning reading to emphasize the process of engaging with secondary literature rather than performing that engagement. Inspired by one of my Graduate Center colleagues, I will try something new this coming semester. For each class, students will have a small annotated bibliography instead of a reading assignment. There I provide three to four selections with two to three lines about each. To prepare for the seminar on the “Nazi Occupation of Eastern Europe,” students will choose between selections from Christopher Browning, Peter Longerich, Omer Bartov, and Timothy Snyder. After reading, students will write one to three sentences about why they chose what they did, and one to three sentences on if it met their expectations. I hope that doing this kind of reflective exercise every week can build a reflective practice into their reading. During class, I have students who read different works discuss their findings together, in the process assessing how well each student read. The informality of talking with peers will continue to bring out the process of learning rather than the product. I want students to think “I have to come to class prepared to try out some of my ideas about the reading” rather than “I have to come to class prepared to sound like I know everything the reading said about the Holocaust.” I hope that this experiment will bring my courses’ approach to reading more in line with their approach to writing and help me lean in even more to the ethos of ungrading.


For us, trying to move away from grades – to “grade less” – has been about trying to find ways to emphasize learning, both in the specific class and as a habit of mind. Such a focus on learning should not seem revolutionary for higher education, but the reality is that the system has gotten bogged down in a culture of quantitative assessment and retention statistics. It should come as no surprise that we all – administrators, faculty, and students – end up focusing on grades as stand-ins for learning. By taking risks in our own teaching, we hope to model for students a spirit of open inquiry and to create spaces for learning less encumbered by the stress of constant measurement and more focused on developing students’ curiosity and reflective practices.

We hope that sharing our experiences and experiments in alternate forms of assessment might help you think about ways to escape from the “grading hell” that burdens both students and instructors (we’ve also compiled this list of resources). This is still a nascent movement, which is emerging through experimentation and the sharing of experiences. We welcome any and all dialogue and engagement with anyone interested in this approach. 

Nicole Coleman, Wayne State University

Elizabeth Drummond, Loyola Marymount University

Phil Keisman, CUNY Graduate Center

Janice McGregor, University of Arizona

Eli Rubin, Western Michigan University