Exploring ‘ungrading’ and other experiments in student assessment

For any educator looking to cultivate a more equitable dynamic in the classroom, using different models for assessment beyond traditional grading can be a big asset. 

Each month, our virtual potlucks bring together a community of journalism educators to share ideas and resources on a particular issue. We dedicated our March potluck for educators to this practice, exploring ideas and tools for self-assessments and peer-assessments. 

The main dish for our March potluck was presented by Andrew Calderón, a computational journalist at The Marshall Project and adjunct Journalism + Design professor, who teaches innovative community engagement journalism techniques.

Calderón uses assessments, surveys, reflection and iteration to give students agency not only to determine the grades they receive but also how the class is run. He believes this preparation will help students to better navigate professional environments – places where grades don’t exist, but the need to defend, justify and be self-critical of one’s work does.

The assessment he uses has two parts that he distributes after each big class assignment. The first is geared for self-assessment, where students ruminate on their goals, whether they accomplished them, what they could have done differently, what made them proud, and what they found challenging. Since students have different levels of journalism skills and experience, this technique has been a useful equalizer that allows them to judge their performance against their own growth. 

The second part of Calderón’s assessment has the students focus on the peers in their group. The aim is to hold themselves and each other accountable and to think about what worked and what didn’t. At the end of the semester, students complete a final assessment. After reflecting on their performance over the entire course, including their previous assessments, the students, using concrete examples, have to explain why they deserve their desired grade. Andrew reserves the right to raise or lower it.

Class surveys complement the assessments. Calderón distributes the first survey mid-semester to see what is and isn’t working in the class. The final survey asks students to tell him what he could have done better as an instructor and what they thought he could change about the class. 

Student feedback to Calderón’s surveys has spurred people to change groups, go solo, and the class to change course. While Andrew admits that these changes did increase his workload and do require flexibility, he believes they created better outcomes for the students. 

Calderón’s approach – using surveys and assessments for self, peers, class and professor – is meant to reinforce the practices and outcomes that journalists committed to community engagement most seek: listening to community members in order to better serve their needs. Calderón based his tools on other disciplines and earnestly welcomes feedback from other educators who try them or are exploring similar approaches.

During the potluck, Sarah Bennett, a journalism and media studies professor at Santa Ana College and advisor to the student magazine el Don, shared a side dish that was inspired by gamification and a sushi menu. She created a Reporter Assignment Sheet that breaks assignments into easy to digest skills and stepwise tasks to help students stay on track and on time.   

Here’s a roundup of all the resources and links participants shared during our March potluck:

Save the date: our next virtual potluck for educators will happen on Thursday, April 14, at 1pm EST. We’ll talk about how student newsrooms are filling local information gaps with special guests Lisa Armstrong, an award-winning journalist, professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, and advisor to their student newsroom, Oakland North; and Sarah Bennett, assistant professor and department chair of Communications and Media Studies at Santa Ana College, and advisor to el Don, their award-winning student media organization. RSVP here to join.