Learning Technology Coach Podcast

S1E2. The Ungrading Approach

July 19, 2022 Dr. Jeannette Byrne Season 1 Episode 2
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Featuring Dr. Jeannette Byrne - Associate Professor, School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Memorial University

The Learning Technology Coach Podcast is a CITL production.

Javad  (00:09):

Hello everyone. My name is Javad.

Timilehin (00:10):

And my name is Timilehin.

Javad  (00:12):

Welcome to the Learning Technology Coach podcast, where we talk to educators about adapting to the new normal.

Timilehin (00:21):

Here we talk to instructors about how Covid-19 affected their teaching style, the challenges they had to overcome, the technologies they used

Javad  (00:29):

Plus a whole lot more. Hi, Timilehin, longtime no see. How have you been?

Timilehin (00:35):

I'm doing very well. Thank you. How about yourself?

Javad  (00:38):

I'm doing great, thanks. When you were in your undergrad, what was your focus point? Did you just want to pass a course or did it matter with what grade you're passing that course?

Timilehin (00:47):

Java. In all honesty, I wanted to pass all of my courses, but then the grades really, really mattered to me.

Javad  (00:54):

Why though?

Timilehin (00:55):

Well, because I'm someone that loves excellence and you know, I try to achieve excellence in all. I do. So the grades actually give me some kind of conviction that I did my best, you know?

Javad  (01:08):

Hmm, that's true. But I don't think we are quite on the same boat about it. I like grades, but grades have been associated with higher level of stresses, anxiety, and so many other negative things.

Timilehin (01:18):

Well, that's the debatable,

Javad  (01:20):

That's true. Let me rephrase myself. Do you have a driving license?

Timilehin (01:25):

Of course I do.

Javad  (01:26):

How happy were you when you passed the test

Timilehin (01:29):

Java. Like a normal human being I was very happy.

Javad  (01:32):

See, that was not graded. That was a pass/fail exam. And you, you know,

Timilehin (01:37):

You really think so. I passed my road test at the second attempt, and I lost the first one just because I raked too many points, you know, and that means that I was still graded in some way

Javad  (01:51):

Well, yes, but who cares about the grades at that point anyway? You have your driving license and can drive. No one is gonna ask you, you know, what grade did you take?

Timilehin (02:00):

Well, I'm still telling you it was graded.

Javad  (02:03):

Well, I don't think I can convince you on that maybe I need backup on this one. And who's better than Dr. Jeanette Byrne from the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, who we had this chance to sit down with earlier this week and talk about ungrading approach? So, to be graded or not to be, to find the answer to this question, stay tuned.

Javad  (02:35):

Welcome back to the studio. Grades are everything in academia. They motivate students to study harder and perform better, or at least that's one theory. Some students and instructors don't think like that. The debate about whether grades can help learners or create spar has long history. Today we are pleased to have an expert with us to help us shine some light on this merit. Timilehin, would you please introduce our lovely guest to our listener?

Timilehin (03:01):

For sure. Javad, I'll gladly do that. She has quite a fantastic profile, so it will be my honor to do it. Dr. Jeanette Byrne is,a professor in the school of human Kinetic and Recreation. She teaches the school's most challenging courses for students just as the department puts it, Human Anatomy and Biomechanics. But her students strive and rise to the challenge. They are focused and engaged and enjoy learning. She has won the President's Award for distinguished teaching in 2018. Most of her students present and past refer to her as the most amazing professor any student can have. One of them in a Facebook comment,entioned that they looked forward to going to each of her classes, and they felt really lucky to have her as a supervisor. Great, great, great profile. <Laugh>. Welcome Dr. Byrne. How are you doing today?

Jeanette (04:02):

I'm doing great. Thanks for, thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to chatting with you. And that was a great that was a great intro.

Javad  (04:09):

For a person like me who doesn't know what's ungrading, how could you explain ungrading in comparison with the traditional methods?

Jeanette (04:17):

I'm gonna, before I get into answering that question, I'm just gonna comment you referred to me as an expert in grading and or in ungradingsorry. I'm definitely not an expert. I've done it once. So I did it in the winter of, of 2022. So this past winter. So I'm learning a lot about un grading, so I'll just just make that that clear now your question.

Javad  (04:39):

Well, that makes you even better candidate because you've done in, like, you've seen it from both sides.

Jeanette (04:43):

Yes, absolutely.

Javad  (04:44):

My question is, like, in comparison with the traditional method, the method that you've been doing before the last semester first of all, which one do you prefer? And also, what does ungrading mean?

Jeanette (04:56):

So I'll go with the second half first. So what does ungrading mean? And I was anticipating that question. And it's, it's really hard to define because it really isn't a thing. Right? It's not simply a matter of saying, okay, we're not gonna have grades. It's an approach to teaching. It's a pedagogical approach for me. It's part of your teaching philosophy. And if you look online and you look at different research, there's multiple different definitions of what ungrading is. For me, ungrading is an alternative approach to that traditional grading. So for me, traditional grading has always been, and I've been teaching for 15 or 16 years now here at MUN, it's been, students do assignments, they do labs, they do midterms, they do finals, all of which are given a grade.

Jeanette (05:41):

And at the end of the semesterwe average them up somehow and we get this final grade. So that's sort of that the traditional approach, everything that a student does over the course of the semester is, is worth something. And that's how we arrive at this final numerical grade. For me, ungrading is in a sense removing the focus on the grade. Because there still has to be a grade at the end, but how we get to it is different. So it's removing the focus on the grade and switching the focus to the learning that the students are doing.

Javad  (06:13):

Right. That's actually a really great point because at the end of the day, what matters is what students learn in the class

Jeanette (06:19):

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Javad  (06:21):

Well, grades can be stressful. I agree on that. But,t also provides students, you know, I mean, it helps the students to work harder. Like how do you keep your good students motivated when you're removing the grades?

Jeanette (06:35):

Interesting question. And that was something I I was a little bit concerned about. As a former student, I was, I was, I got very good grades and, and it was something that I, you know, it motivated me to work. So I was like, how is this gonna work? How are, you know, are students still gonna be motivated to do the work? And in fact, there were more, the response I got from them was that most of them were more motivated to do the work. So, I mean, I probably should tell you a little bit about what I did in my course to give some context to this. So the course I used, I only used ungrading for one of my courses. It's a fairly big process to do, to do this thing called ungrading.

Jeanette (07:21):

And I used it in a course I teach HKR 4703, which is, it is an advanced bio mechanics course that I teach in human kinetics. And it's taken by students in our program. So kinesiology students. Plus there's a cohort of students that come from biomedical engineering. And I use the ungrading approach for the lab portion of that course. So labs are worth about 40% of the total course. And I'd been struggling for many years. I really encourage students in my goal for the labs in that course, such that it gives students the opportunity to really integrate all of the learning they've done over the course of their four years with us. And students really struggled with that. And I really focused on that in the labs. It happened throughout the course, but I really focused on it in the lab.

Jeanette (08:12):

And students were really struggling with how to do that because we don't do a really good job of challenging students, or at least I don't think we do a really good job of challenging students to think that way. So they were really struggling with this integration, and as a result, they would get terrible grades in the first lab or two. And by the time we got to the end, they were doing great. But those first two labs were super stressful for them. And I would have students coming to my office in tears. I only, it was like, that's the first time I've got a B or that's the first time I've got a C or I've never gotten an F before. And I'd be like, it's gonna be okay. It's gonna be okay. But it was so stressful for students, and it was removing the learning from the whole process because the focus was on, I got an, I got a D, or I got a C.

Jeanette (08:59):

What am I gonna do here? But yes. What did you learn in that process? They weren't able to focus on the learning. So I removed the grade from that process, right. I removed the grades because I wanted them to focus on the learning that was happening. And to get back to your question, which was all about motivation. Students in their reflections to me about the learning that was happening said, I'm actually working harder now than I used to before. Because a lot of the work was group work. We were doing a lot of work in small groups, and there was a lot of learning happening from those small group discussions. And they wanted to be ready, they wanted to be able to contribute to their group, they wanted to be able to have conversations, and they were actually motivated to do more. So it didn't affect motivation.

Timilehin (09:55):

Thank you for that great answer. And then now we know that removing grades does not, you know, decrease productivity. Now, you have confirmed that through your own class let me say as an example. But how do you judge what the relationship between mental health, you know, is with ungrading, you know?

Jeanette (10:20):

Oh, I mean, that's really, that's a no-brainer, no pun intended. I mean, so as part of this process of ungrading, there's a lot of reflection involved in it. So I actually got to hear a lot from students about how the process was going for them and, and struggles they were having with it, but also things that about it that were helping them. And I mean, hands down, some of the most common feedback I got was how it just removed that stress, that fear of failing, of I'm not, and by failing, I don't mean getting an F, I mean fear of not getting an A, right? These are 'A' students who just, that's their focus and they're so afraid of not performing like they normally do. And then when the grades are removed, that stress just goes away.

Jeanette (11:12):

Yeah. It's not there. And it's, I can just, how many students said to me now, I can just now focus on learning. I don't have to be afraid of getting the wrong answer anymore. So absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I don't have any quantitative data, but definitely reduced stress levels for students. Although I think initially there was a bump in stress because initially, so you can imagine, I mean, we've all been students and you, you get thisinformation from your, your professor saying, okay, for the labs, there's no grades. Right? And there's a whole explanation about how it happens. But you've gotta remember that the students I was dealing with, or I was teaching had been, they were like in the last semester of their programs. So they've gone through a university program where grades is, that's what they're used to. And all of a sudden I'm saying to them, well, there's gonna be no grades. Guess what? You get to pick your own grade. So initially that created some stress. It was a little bump of stress until we did the first lab, until we went through the first, through it one time. And then we're like, oh, okay, now I see how this is gonna work. And then I think the, the stress level went down and, and sort of stayed down for the term, for the labs anyway.

Timilehin (12:37):

No, that makes sense. So if I heard you correctly, this last semester was the first time you tried it.

Jeanette (12:42):

Yes, absolutely.

Timilehin (12:43):

So was this motivated by the pandemic?

Jeanette (12:46):

Not, not really. So it was, it was something I had been, I knew I needed to do something with the labs in this course. And I stumbled upon ungrading and thought, you know what? That might work. And I had planned to do it this semester in winter of 2022. So I would say it's something I did in spite of the pandemic, right, because I had it all planned out, it was gonna work, we're gonna be in person, and then we shut down and went online in January and I'm like, okay, what do I do here? Do I wanna roll out a totally new course? Cuz it was basically a totally new course when we're online. And ultimately I pushed the play button and said, yes, we're gonna do it. So I would say it's something I did in spite of the pandemic. But the pandemic, I think, so when we switched to to virtual in March of 2020, everything had to change. And I think it enabled me to sort of start to reflect on what I was doing in all of my courses and gave mean opportunity to really think about what do I wanna do with these labs? Cuz I was changing everything. And yeah, that's where I ended. And I think it worked.

Javad  (14:05):

You mentioned that for a student in the last semester you had this opportunity to have an ungrading scheme. One question I have here is about those, specifically those students, because usually students like to transfer from one university to the other. So doesn't it make it more difficult for students to go to another university where everything is judged by grades?

Jeanette (14:32):

Do you mean more difficult from a transcript perspective?

Javad  (14:37):

Yeah. Let's say like, I wanna go, like I had a course with you and I passed your course , and now I wanna apply for another university. But in the other university how can they judge me? Like they have different method, like, because grading, has been used for years and years and years.

Jeanette (14:53):

Yeah. I mean, so students will still get a grade in the course. I mean, I'm required by the university to submit a grade. The differencein this course that I did in the winter is that, that the 40% from their labs weren't based on grades that I assigned to the labs that they submitted. So instead at the end of the process, and it's a fairly, there's a whole bunch of steps to the process, but at the end of the process, I had the students write a final, I called it a process letter. And I provided them with some guiding questions. It was basically a reflection and they did a lot of reflections throughout the semester. And this was all building up to this final process letter. And in that process letter, the ultimate goal, or the ultimate endpoint was to say, okay, based on all of the reflecting that you've done, how much do you think you've learned?

Jeanette (15:45):

What grade do you get out of 40 in these labs? So they still got that grade. The difference was it, it wasn't coming from me meticulously going through each of their answers and saying, well, that's a nine out of 10, that's a seven out of 10. Right? It was based on them reflecting on ultimately what did I learn in this process? What did I accomplish? How engaged was I in the learning process? And that's where the grade came from. So they still had a grade. So there's no issue really with them going to a different program. And not having a grade, the grade is still there. And as far as the method of evaluation being different, I mean, I think if you were to pull you know 20 people on campus and say, tell us how you would evaluate this piece of writing, or tell us how you evaluate your lab course. Evaluations are so different between, you know, I don't think we can assume just because, you know, you got an A in course A and an A in course B and an A in course C, that you're necessarily at your level of performance is identical in all three of those. Because we all have different ways of approaching and evaluators especially,

Javad  (17:01):

Especially some parts like lab reports because it's not like a mathematical question that whoever gets the answer, like the answer is for whoever get four full mark, or whoever doesn't get four. So based on my understanding, you just put the ungrading scheme on a portion of your course, which in this case was the lab part and I'm assuming the lab part was the most stressing part of your course?

Jeanette (17:22):

Most stressing for the students or most stressing for me?

Javad (17:25):

For the students.

Jeanette (17:26):

I guess you'd have to ask the students that. I mean it's certainly a very demanding portion of the course. And the one that I think I was most concerned about from the point of view of was the evaluation method I had chosen really evaluating my objective? Which was to help students really develop critical thinking skills and problem solving skills and communication skills. And I think my approach, my switch to ungrading has enabled me to do a better job of really getting at those key objectives that I had set.

Javad  (18:03):

Right. And I think like one good way to see like if a student like it or not, is if we take a look at the registrants for the same course.

Jeanette (18:13):

Yeah. I mean, it's a required course, so it's probably, and I don't tend to get students who just pop in and do it for the sake of doing it, cuz it is a pretty challenging course. Sobut I mean, I think certainly the feedback I got from students was overwhelmingly positive and actually quite eye-opening for me, you know, students reflecting on how they finally feel like they've learned something in a lab because of the process that we went through. So it wasn't just removing the grade here it was the process that we, we took in the labs. And that's why I sort of referred to initially that ungrading is not a thing. It's a process. So how did we facilitate, how did we sort of facilitate the learning and the engagement?

Jeanette (19:03):

That was really the aim here and it just so happened to be ungrading was the way we did it. So, and I just wanted to mention something. So you use the example of the math example. You know, if the person answers four, then they get marks and if the person doesn't, they don't get marks. And that is isn't necessarily the way it should be because by saying the person who got four gets marks and the person who didn't get four shouldn't, you're assuming that the person who answered four learned something in that process, right? Oh yeah. Maybe they didn't, maybe they just followed a recipe and they don't actually, if you ask them something outside of the context of that answer, they can't explain it. But the person who didn't get four probably learned a tremendous amount. And that is the essence of ungrading.

Javad  (19:48):

That's exactly what I've been like dealing with myself for years and years, especially when grading students because at the end of the day, we are always judging students by the grade they get, not by the effort that they put to get that number.

Jeanette (20:11):

Oh, absolutely.

Javad  (20:11):

And I've been always thinking, what, how can we measure the effort that one student put in a course or in an assignment regardless what he or she gets as a grade?

Jeanette (20:11):

Ask them , we ask them.

Timilehin (20:14):

I love that <laugh>.

Jeanette (20:16):

Right? And it comes down to me and this is something that I've sort of started to articulate, even though I think I've always been guided by it is, we trust students, right? We trust students to be able to evaluate, okay, what have you accomplished in this process? And in some cases the learning is not the content, right? They've learned something about themselves. And I had so many students in this process say to me, I learned that I have a voice or I learn that it's okay to be wrong. What's important is that I contribute because then we learn from that process. To me, those lessons are far more important than I learned how to apply this formula. Cuz I can always go back at the textbook and learn how to apply this formula. But if I've learned that I have value in this discussion and I'm always gonna be learning and contributing. Right. And for me, that was the real, one of the real positive things that came out of this ungrading experience for sure.

Timilehin (21:18):

Right, right. So you mentioned that oftentimes we trust students like we trust them to have a realistic judgment of how far they've learned or how much effort they put in in a particular course. But that brings us to an ethical question in the part of the students, like how sure are we or how can we absolutely trust them that if you say judge yourself, do a self-assessment especially the approach that you used in that laboratory component. How sure are you that they have been, alistic or honest

Jeanette (22:01):

So I mean I'm still, we are still reading so students are still submitting lab reports. Right. Which we read, we read them all. Yeah. We, I'm talking myself and the learning facilitation teams myself and two TAs. At the end of each lab, students also do a reflection, which I read and I provide feedback on.And we're interacting with them in the labs all the time. So we can see the learning, we can see who's engaged. Even just knowing did you come to the lab or not? Right? And if you didn't come, did you reach out and say, okay, I couldn't come because of this. Cuz it's fine to not have reasons why you can't come. So I mean there's things that they are producing that we are reading and they usually correspond, right? Right. That the student's evaluation of how they're performing and also the work that they submit usually correspond. So, and I mean at some point you just have to trust them cuz the alternative is to not, not trust any of them. And then what, how is, what kind of a relationship is that? Right. If one I see teaching as a relationship. So if one partner in the relationship doesn't trust the other, that doesn't work. Got it. Right. Got it. That doesn't work.

Timilehin (23:24):

Yeah. Now, I see why Javad was eferring to you as an expert because he had tried so hard, you know, to convince me that ungrading could be a thing. Yeah, but you know, you are doing a good job.

Jeanette (23:35):

Yeah. Yeah. Very good. Very good.

Javad  (23:37):

As a last question that I'm gonna askis in this series, like we usually talk about how covid changed things. It could be in a good way, it could be in a bad way. In terms of ungrading, I know that that's new for you as well but in terms of ungrading, did covid change anything that if it was not because of covid, we didn't have that change?

Jeanette (23:59):

As far as ungrading goes? Yeah. I mean, in a way I think Covid almost made ungrading easier or more authentic to a certain extent. And I'll explain why. So most of the basis for the ungrading that I did was having students work in small groups and almost sort of do problem-based learning, both in the labs and in the lectures. And when you're in WebEx, and even when we went back to online, I kept my small group workvirtual, or sorry, even when we back to in-person, I kept my small group work virtual just because we would, anyway, it was just a safety thing. And I kept it virtual. And when you are in a WebEx breakout room with four other students, that's it. Right?

Jeanette (24:54):

You're in this bubble and you five people have gotta come up with the answer, right? There's no external clues. I mean, you have all the, you can Google or whatever right? But there's no external clues versus if you are in a large lecture hall in a small group, you've got all these groups around you and they're all talking and they, and you, we always listen right to the group and you get cues from the group which in essence takes away from your group's ability to tackle that problem and solve it on their own. Right. So for me, being in that sort of breakout room bubble in WebEx was the ultimate small group learning experience because they had to figure it out. Right. They didn't have the cues. Not that the cues from the classmates are necessarilya negative thing, but it's something I'm struggling with now. It's like, do I really wanna go back to in-person small groups? Because we're gonna learn, we're gonna lose some of that authenticity of that group of five, just having to figure it out. And you'll have to ask me next year how I decide to approach that.

Timilehin (26:00):

Just Awesome. So now that you have tested ungrading as an approach, as a process, do you have any message for your, you know, colleagues, instructors or you know, professors that are not receptive of this change, so to say?

Jeanette (26:20):

So I mean, for me it was, it was transformational. It was the most amazing experience I've had teaching. It was, it made me realize how stressful grading is when it was removed. I still had to read, I still read everything I would've normally read. Right. But I wasn't reading it to struggle with, what is the grade? I was reading it to look at what does this student understand? Yeah. And that was, in a lot of cases that was fun and reading the reflections was great. It was so insightful to see the thought process of students and, and how they were engaging with the course and with life and all of those things. So I think it's, I don't really know how to answer what advice do I give? Be open, examine, I guess examine how and why you are doing your assessment the way you're doing them.

Jeanette (27:22):

And if it doesn't feel right, consider ungrading. Ungrading isn't for everyone. And every course I teach, the anatomy course that I teach in HKI won't go ungrading a hundred percent with that cuz it doesn't quite work. Right. It won't necessarily work with everything. But if you're not quite feeling the way you're currently evaluating or currently assessing, do some reading. Think about ungrading. Reach out. I'd love to chat, as you can tell, I can talk about this all day long. And reflect a little bit about why are we applying grades. Hmm. Right. It's not motivation. If we actually look at the research on grades, it decreases people's interest in learning and it decreases their critical thinking, right? Because the end result is, I just need to get the grade right. So yeah, like, just do some reading, do some thinkingand you'll be amazed at how you see your students grow and how much they actually learn.

Javad  (28:39):

Thank you so much. It was our pleasure to have you today.

Jeanette (28:42):

You're most welcome. It's been a real pleasure as well. Thank you.

Timilehin (28:45):

Thank you. Thank you so much. You're welcome. I mean, this has been educating for me,

Jeanette (28:49):

I'm glad you and there's no grades. Right. And you still learned

Timilehin (28:54):

That's it.

Jeanette (28:54):

There you go.

Timilehin (28:55):

Thank you. Have a Great day.

Jeanette (28:57):

You too. Thanks.

Javad  (29:11):

That was wonderful. What do you think, Timilehin.

Timilehin (29:14):

That was a super amazing interview. I mean, our guest was chill. You know, she's got a great personality.

Javad  (29:22):

That's true.

Timilehin (29:22):

Calm and really responsive.

Javad  (29:24):

I know. And I learned a lot about it. One thing that I really liked was she mentioned about the hybrid situation. When you don't need to have a full ungraded course. You can have, you know, graded and ungraded, like both combined in a course. That was really nice. Imagine you have a course and one part of your course is very stressful and you can just say, okay, I'll do this part ungraded and I'll do the rest graded. So at the end of the day, you know, I'm making everyone happy.

Timilehin (29:50):

Right. I can imagine how happy you are now because you tried to convince me and she did it effortlessly. And that was just super amazing. Right. So we are grateful forDr. Byrne's presence and her, you know, wealth of knowledge that she shared with us, but then we would like to appreciate our lovely listeners. That's true. For sticking by throughout the interview. That was great. We appreciate you. And until the next episode of the Learning Technology Coach podcast, I remain to Timilehin

Javad  (30:23):

And my name is Javad.

Timilehin (30:24):


Javad  (30:26):

Stay warm.


Episode Introduction
Guest Introduction
What is 'ungrading'
How to keep students motivated
How ungrading can reduce student stress
Was introducing 'ungrading' a result of the pandemic
Do students still receive a final grade
Feedback from students
Importance of measuring a student's effort
Ethical concerns when using the ungrading approach
How the pandemic affected the use of 'ungrading'
Advice for instructors
Summary - Big Learning Moment!