April 3, 2023

Ungrading and alternative assessment: A Q-and-A with Jesse Stommel

Keynote speaker shares his thoughts ahead of UCalgary Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, online April 26-28
Jesse Stommel on a white background with various coloured hexagons

UCalgary’s fully virtual 2023 Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching will offer more than 120 conference sessions from April 26 to 28, as well as four keynote speakers who will discuss why robots won’t inherit the Earth, ungrading and alternative assessment, a "Métissage" on digital environments and Indigenous education, and the role of equity and care in our transformation. 

Over the next few weeks leading up to the conference, UToday will feature interviews with the keynote speakers about their presentations, their research and their views on our collective transformation. Today, we’re hearing from Dr. Jesse Stommel, PhD, teaching assistant professor in the Writing Program at the University of Denver.

Q: Tell us a bit about who you are and your area of research.  

A: I've been teaching for almost 24 years and doing faculty development work for 20 years. I am also co-founder and executive director of Hybrid Pedagogy: the journal of critical digital pedagogy. My research is focused on higher education pedagogy, specifically critical digital pedagogy, ungrading and alternative approaches to assessment. 

Q: What is “ungrading?”

A: "Ungrading" is a term I've been using in workshops and presentation for almost 15 years. In 2017, I began a series of posts on my own blog, which have helped continue to frame the term. I’ve defined ungrading as “raising an eyebrow at grades as a systemic practice, distinct from simply ‘not grading.’ The word is a present participle, an ongoing process, not a static set of practices.” Ungrading is a systemic critique, a series of conversations we have about grades, ideally drawing students into those conversations with the goal of engaging them as full agents in their own education.

I don't believe that ungrading constitutes a set of best practices, because different students learn in different ways at different times with different teachers in different disciplines at different institutions. So, the work of teaching, the work of reimagining assessment, is necessarily idiosyncratic.

Q: What does collective transformation mean in the context of assessment? 

A: Ultimately, what's most necessary is that we ask hard questions of our traditional approaches to assessment. Grades are a relatively recent technology, and how we use them in education has a considerable influence on our pedagogical approaches. While there is a distinction to be made between grades and assessment, at this moment, I'd say that our approaches to assessment, our syllabi, the work we ask students to do, the shape of academic labour, is increasingly structured by grades. Rather than wondering at how we fit our pedagogies into systems that have become increasingly standardized and quantitative, we need to look askance at those systems, and find ways to dismantle barriers to teaching and learning. 

Q: Why do you think assessment is such a big issue right now?

A: Grades are inequitable. As they are increasingly centred at our institutions and within our educational technologies (like the learning management system), the inequities of grades are exacerbated, and our most marginalized students are further marginalized. This is one reason it has become imperative that we rethink our approaches to assessment.

The work of teachers is increasingly precarious. The majority of teachers in higher education work in contingent, adjunct or sessional positions. And so, teachers are rightfully skeptical of approaches to assessment that increase our labour with little benefit to us or students. Teachers are rightfully skeptical of approaches to assessment that create a culture of suspicion and competition, while further fracturing the already strained relationships between students, between teachers, and between students and teachers.

Q: What can people expect from your pre-conference workshop?

A: Because asking hard questions about grades as a system is at the core of ungrading, the workshop will be structured as a conversation. We'll start with a brief presentation and Q-and-A, but we'll also spend time doing activities, sharing our own approaches and the hurdles we face in our practice, and discussing possible ways forward.

One goal will be to reconsider how we talk to students about grades and assessment, so participants should have their own syllabi nearby (especially policy statements around grades, participation, cheating and plagiarism, etc.).

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