If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Undergraduate Education

Chemistry educators try ‘ungrading’ techniques to help students learn

The approach aims to give STEM students more dialogue in their education and free them from the constant pressure of assessment

by Claire L. Jarvis, special to C&EN
April 26, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 16


Credit: Molly Ferguson

As the threat of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, became apparent in early March, US universities and colleges rushed to implement contingency plans that protected their students and staff but also ensured that learning continued. In addition to extending spring break and moving courses to an online-only format, schools such as the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill gave students the option of switching from letter grades to pass-fail in their major courses. This move took pressure off both students and professors during a difficult time. “When we think about what our students really need—how do we get through this, how do we focus on the essentials—for some institutions, grades took a big back seat,” says Karen Cangialosi, a professor of biology at Keene State College.

Cangialosi thinks that prioritization says something about the importance of grades in general. Are they really necessary, during a pandemic or otherwise, to ensure students have learned the required material?

For educators like Jesse Stommel, a digital studies lecturer at the University of Mary Washington, the answer has always been no. Stommel advocates what he calls the ungrading approach. With this approach, “the goal isn’t always to remove grades completely,” he says. “The idea of ungrading is turning grades on their head.” Stommel wants to involve students more deeply in the grading process, including having them assess themselves.

C&EN has made this story and all of its coverage of the coronavirus epidemic freely available during the outbreak to keep the public informed. To support our journalism, become a member of ACS or sign up for C&EN's weekly newsletter.

Ungrading means different things for different instructors. In the ungrading approach that Stommel and Cangialosi adopt, students fill out self-evaluation forms during the semester, assigning themselves a grade at the end based on their perception of their performance. The instructor has individual conversations with students about their evaluations, discussing where their self-assessments diverge from the instructor’s observations. “Grades are very punishing to students,” Cangialosi says. “They have a lot of fear about grades that we have to break down and talk about.” Concerns that a bad or failing grade will permanently mark them can prevent students from evaluating themselves honestly.

Although ungrading may seem a radical departure from the norms of education, Stommel argues that the concept of assigning letter grades to students became a feature of education only in the early 1900s. Stommel has practiced ungrading in his courses for nearly 20 years but reckons the term ungrading was popularized in 2015.

According to Stommel, although social sciences and humanities instructors have shown increased interest in trying ungrading in their classrooms over the past few years, interest in ungrading from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) instructors is still restrained. “Almost any time I talk about ungrading, I get a comment suggesting this couldn’t work in STEM classes,” says Stommel, who attributes this response to the fact that there are more traditional exams in STEM classes than in the humanities.

Still, some STEM instructors, motivated by a number of different reasons, are trying to make ungrading work for them. For Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, a chemistry instructor at Central New Mexico Community College, a sense of justice drove her adoption of ungrading in 2018. “I had just assumed for pretty much my entire teaching career that grades were a monologue,” Sorensen-Unruh says. “They were me telling the students what they needed to do.” But before adopting ungrading in 2018, she decided that grades should arise from a dialogue with the students.

Credit: Molly Ferguson

Sorensen-Unruh also noticed—and found her observation supported by education research in other fields—that when her students received both a letter grade and feedback on their assignments, they focused only on the grades and ignored constructive feedback. Sorensen-Unruh discovered that if she divorced grades from feedback, students were more likely to absorb her advice on improving their performance. She realized that midterm exams and quizzes could be a learning experience for the students, not just a way of assessing their progress.

For Courtney Sobers, a teaching-track chemistry professor at Rutgers University–Newark, the decision to try ungrading came after questioning the true purpose of her general and organic chemistry classes. Sobers teaches sophomore courses taken by many students, such as premedical students, who won’t major in chemistry. The purpose of teaching them organic chemistry is not because they need to know a list of chemical reactions. “Organic chemistry is one of the first times we’re asking students to do abstract thinking,” Sobers says. The idea is for students to learn example reactions and then apply them in new situations. “The theory is preset, but how you apply it is personal,” Sobers says. Looking at it that way, she thought grading students against strict criteria of right and wrong answers set by the instructor didn’t make sense.

In Sorensen-Unruh’s ungraded organic and general chemistry courses, students take closed-book midterm exams but grade their exams themselves. After taking the exam, they figure out the correct answers on their own, decide how to assign points for each part of their answers, and then submit corrections on wrong answers. All Sorensen-Unruh provides is written feedback on their answers and the point totals for each question.

Credit: Molly Ferguson

Every question in Sorensen-Unruh’s midterms is accompanied by a selection of emoji for students to indicate the level of confidence in their answers. When the students grade their exams later, they can easily see if their confidence in knowing a particular topic was misplaced and where to focus their studies for the next test.

Conversations about grades and back-and-forth discussions over midterms work well in smaller classes, but these activities don’t scale to introductory courses with more than 100 students. Instead, instructors using ungrading apply the approach through peer review and group collaboration. For example, in Sobers’s summer organic chemistry course, students take a midterm exam, afterward working together in small groups to develop a grading rubric. Her students receive some points for their midterms but receive more credit for discussion and justification of the grading rubrics they create.

Grades are very punishing to students. They have a lot of fear about grades that we have to break down and talk about.
Karen Cangialosi, professor of biology, Keene State College

Designing rubrics after midterms gave students in Linda Grabill’s class at Western Washington University insight into the grading process. “I had students tell me, ‘I’ve been studying wrong this whole time!’ or ‘I’ve been taking exams wrong. I hadn’t been thinking about demonstrating understanding,’ ” says Grabill, a physics instructor. As a result of these efforts, Grabill says, a large proportion of the students in her electromagnetism class began double-checking their answers during tests with an alternative set of calculations. This extra step would let them know if they had the right answer, something only a small fraction of the students in her conventionally graded classes did.

Other STEM instructors agree with the central ethos of ungrading—that students in STEM are overassessed—and have used this thinking to create versions of their courses that use less grading. Six or 7 years ago, Daniel Price, a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Glasgow, decided that grading lab reports after every experiment took up too much of his teaching assistants’ time without greatly improving students’ writing ability. Now his second-year students write up every experiment in their lab notebooks but type up and submit only one of the seven or eight experiments for formal assessment at the end of the semester. They’re still graded on the quality of product they synthesize and still receive a midsemester worksheet they can collaborate on, but the burden of assessment—for both teacher and student—is significantly lower. “I feel it’s very important students have points in the curriculum where they have the freedom to not be under that pressure of being constantly assessed, so they can actually learn,” Price says.

Credit: Molly Ferguson

One of the biggest roadblocks that faculty face when ungrading is whether university regulations will support it.

Stommel encourages faculty to closely examine their institutions’ rules: “Read the fine print and figure out what the restrictions are and how you can meet the letter of the law while still having agency in your own approach. Usually what we find is that the restrictions are less onerous than faculty think they are.”

Cangialosi says her university requires that she assign final letter grades at the end of the course, but she’s still able to use ungrading by allowing students to assign their own grades, as long as they can justify them to her. “What I’ve tried to do,” she says, “is reframe the meaning of those grades for me and my students.”

When Sorensen-Unruh’s premed students expressed concern that medical schools might not view ungraded organic chemistry courses as valid, she went directly to officials at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, who agreed it was her academic freedom to assign grades however she thought best. “The medical schools did say, ‘It would be good if you assigned final exam grades,’ ” Sorensen-Unruh notes. So students grade and correct their midterms, but Sorensen-Unruh grades the final exams herself.

When you remove this giant extrinsic motivator, they start to tap into this really cool, deep intrinsic motivation.
Jesse Stommel, digital studies lecturer, University of Mary Washington

Another challenge for ungrading, Cangialosi notes, is that students sometimes under- or overassess their course performance. Although she notices that women often undergrade themselves relative to men, there isn’t a huge gender disparity. Cangialosi therefore reserves the right to adjust final grades when she thinks people are selling themselves short. “I don’t have a problem raising grades for students. It’s been pretty rare that I’ve had to grade them down.” Sorensen-Unruh observes that students are often reluctant to give themselves partial credit when the final answer is wrong and that students with the strongest grasp of the course material are often the harshest judges of themselves.

Stommel believes that by taking away the pressure of grades, ungrading massively reduces student anxiety, but students must trust the instructor. If students feel that instructors are only pretending to let them assess themselves, then ungrading won’t work, he says. Instructors must be transparent about what they are doing and how an overall grade will be determined. If instructors may use their discretion to change the grades that students assign themselves, they must be transparent about the circumstances under which they’ll make such changes, he says.

“The kinds of things I hear from students are ‘I can finally just learn’ or ‘I wanted to come to class,’ ” Stommel says. “All of a sudden, when you remove this giant extrinsic motivator, they start to tap into this really cool, deep intrinsic motivation.”

Credit: Molly Ferguson

Although anecdotal evidence suggests that ungrading increases students’ ability to learn, the literature on its effectiveness in chemistry is sparse, focusing on ungraded writing exercises rather than on adapting more common STEM assessment tools such as quizzes and midterms to the approach. With more chemistry educators interested in trying ungrading in their classrooms, heightened research interest is likely to follow.

Because an ungrading approach in which students create their own exam rubrics or complete self-evaluations requires time and planning, it has likely not been an option for instructors facing the sudden disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sorensen-Unruh also says the online-only format that instructors are using because of stay-at-home orders doesn’t lend itself to group discussions of exam rubrics. Right now, her students must focus their energy on “survival” rather than self-assessment of their knowledge of organic chemistry, she says. But the low- and reduced-grading approaches that instructors are using, and wider acceptance of pass-fail grading, may open the door after the crisis is over to greater exploration of ungrading and other techniques.

In the meantime, Sorensen-Unruh is still giving her students agency in determining their grades: with her traditional ungrading approach off the table this semester, she let them vote on the alternative assessment they wanted.

Claire L. Jarvis is a freelance science and medical writer based in Atlanta.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.