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Ungrading Pomona’s Immunology Course – An Interview with Professor Sharon Stranford

As the group in ITS that collaborates with Pomona College faculty to bring excellence, enhanced by technology, to scholarship and pedagogy, we stay up to date with educational research and the technologies that underpin the most effective pedagogies. One topic that’s been on fire lately in educational research literature is ungrading. Ungrading removes the traditional and formal process of grading from the curriculum in favor of one that provides more continuous feedback aimed at improvement. In the fall of 2021, Pomona’s own Sharon Stranford, Professor of Biology, revised her advanced immunology course to be ungraded. She met with RITG, who helped her use Sakai as a way to communicate with students when they had mastered concepts—without using grades. To learn more, I recently sat down with her to discuss the student experience, what motivated her to undertake this revision, the process of the revision, and her advice to others considering ungrading. 

Please note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.  

What did your students think about ungrading?  

Several times along the way, I would ask them questions about how they felt about the ungrading process. Students said exactly the sorts of things that we’ve read in the literature: “I started wanting to do the work just to understand it,” and “I stopped thinking about what you wanted me to know, what I needed to write, what I need to regurgitate, and I started being more curious about things.” “Why don’t I understand this? I want to understand this better.” So, it really did shift a lot of their motivation for what they were doing and what they were spending time doing.  

I also asked them how they felt about the structure of the course, and they told me two things about those metacognitive questions.   

  1. Nobody’s ever asked them those types of questions: “I’m a senior, and I’m learning how to learn for the first time.” And it was a little like, “Yeah, it is crazy, isn’t it?”  
  1. They wish they had known about this earlier: “I wish I had been asked these questions when I was a freshman or sophomore.” They told me that to answer the questions took a lot of time because they took a quite a bit of thought, but they actually learned from writing.  

I have to say, they were really generous guinea pigs, very open in sharing with me the struggles, what they were learning, and giving me constructive feedback.  

Please share what motivated you to try ungrading.  

I’ve taught immunology for a long time, so it felt safe, and I know the subject really well. I literally wrote the textbook for the class. I’ve taught it here at Pomona every year since I’ve been here [almost nine years]. 

I had been thinking about ungrading or specifications grading for a while. I had gone to some workshops. There was a really great one given by NIST, the National Institute on Science Teaching. I also read the Ungrading book [by Susan Blum] for book club with the CTL this year, so that was very timely. I had been gathering resources, I would say, for about a year before I jumped in. Given that I know this course pretty well, I could anticipate the conceptual struggles with the students and the hurdles. I also think coming off the pandemic, somehow it felt like the right time to make this move.  

And then the other thing that drove me to do it was, literally, right before the pandemic, I was sitting outside my room during an office hour. Several students were talking to each other about a different course that they were taking and saying something about an exam that was coming up. They were kind of commiserating over—expressing worry—about it. One of them said, “I actually really liked this material. Someday I’d like to learn it, but for now, I just want to get through the exam.” And I had this moment of thinking, “Ah, I remember that feeling from being an undergraduate of, ‘I just have to get through this and not really understand the material—just need to get through the exam.’” And I thought, “I don’t want students to say that about my class.”

I don’t want the exam to drive what they’re doing. I want learning the material and being interested to drive what they’re doing.

-Sharon Stranford

So that conversation with the students just really stuck with me. 

How was your course redesigned for ungrading?  

I am a strong proponent of just-in-time teaching. It’s been part of my toolbox from the very beginning. My students are used to doing pre-class questions like reading material or watching or listening to something and then answering questions before we discuss them in class. Therefore, I converted those pre-class questions into a form of self-assessment that students would complete on a weekly basis. I took the word “exam” completely off the table. We had self-assessments and learning opportunities. I also had two mentors who had taken the course with me the year before who were instrumental. They were the ones who sat down with me logistic-wise and helped me figure out what a weekly breakdown should look like, and that really, really helped. 

I created weekly modules in Sakai, so students could see all the material a week in advance, sometimes more. 

A snapshot of weekly instructions in Stranford’s Sakai course site

Each lesson included specific learning objectives, a study guide, the content for the week (typically a combination of readings and videos on a given topic), feedback mechanisms, and always an individual online assignment that needed to be submitted by Tuesday mornings. I awarded credit just for completing the online assignment [which were pre-class questions]. I was looking for an initial snapshot of their understanding. I used their responses to these assignments to keep tabs on how they were doing and to design my in-class lectures around what students were most confused by.  

On Wednesdays they would come to class, and we’d make a list on the board of the most confusing concepts. Sometimes I’d have them in groups, discussing their responses straight away to work together as a team. Sometimes I would talk a little bit and then put them into their groups. After class they could all resubmit answers to me, based on their team responses, and they did this individually via Sakai. I would give them either a zero or a one. I gave them a zero if I felt like they hadn’t mastered it, and I would give written feedback on what I thought they were confused on. Then they had until the next week’s pre-class questions to redo it. I also had them complete self-assessments and asked them each to reflect on what they learned out of their team experience, what things changed in their thinking, where their confusions were, what helped them move along, how their team helped, etc. 

Then on Fridays we would have some sort of an interactive activity, where they would apply that week’s concept, for example, rearranging gene segments on little pieces of paper or replicating somatic recombination and affinity maturation with people play acting as cells. Mondays were for office hours.  

What were some of your biggest takeaways? 

What students told me was the most important part for them was my one-on-one feedback via Sakai. My questions in Sakai were a combination of true/false, multiple choice, matching, and then there would always be at least two or three essay questions. For every question I required a rationale. That’s how I got all my information. For example, they could answer correctly, choosing true, but if their rationale was way off, I would know there was some faulty thinking. So, I would make a judgment call. If they’re a little bit confused, I would give them one point and write things back to them about it. Then there were other times when I was like, “No, they’re still fundamentally confused,” so I would give them a zero and write back, explaining what they’re missing so they could go back at it.

They told me that getting that individual feedback for every question that they hadn’t mastered was like me talking to them, as if we were having these very personal mini-dialogues every week.

-Sharon Stranford

So, I think that’s one big takeaway for me. And it helped them to feel very heard and seen and known as individuals.  

What challenges did you encounter? 

I would say the hardest thing was figuring out the structure, making it manageable for me, timely for them, and giving them enough time to go back over the material and redo it, and not have it be such an amorphous amount of time for either one of us. We got into a really nice cadence after the first few weeks. In the beginning, I think we were all aiming for 100% mastery, and after a while, I was like, “This is crazy. If I give you 15 questions, why isn’t 80% or 85% good enough? You don’t have to have everything perfect.” So, then we got to the point where we were like, “Okay, if you hit the 80% mark, don’t bother to redo them unless you really want to.” I’d consider they mastered sufficiently the concepts for that week. And that—Wow!—that saved me and the students a lot of time, especially the ones who were putting a lot of effort into the last 5 or 10%, and it just wasn’t fruitful time spent. 

And the other thing I would say is, after each of those self-assessments, I asked them to grade themselves. They struggled with this. The mistake I made was that we didn’t have a conversation early in the semester about how should we grade ourselves. Like, “What are we looking for?” Not just me as a professor, what do I look for, but, “What do you think you want to look for?”  

They wanted more of a structured conversation around this. Like, “What would it look like to get an A in this class, a B, etc.?” And yet, I warned them that I feel like even for faculty, this is somewhat arbitrary. It’s not consistent. It can be very subjective. It’s not as if I have a formula that’s perfect. Some of the pain they were feeling—I said to them—is literally the pain I feel in grading. “You’re just having to do it yourself now instead of me doing it.” They told me it was the hardest conversation to have.  

What advice would you give to others looking to do something similar?  

It really helped me to find people with models in my own discipline. It took me a long time to find anyone that had constructed a STEM course that was ungraded. Many of the examples I had seen were writing-based courses, and so, it was so hard for me to imagine what this would look like until I finally found some examples that were more like STEM. I think a lot of structure helps—A LOT of structure. Students appreciated the regularity of what we did, the predictability of things.  

They also absolutely adored working together. This was a big take-home for me. It’s not part of ungrading per se, but it helped me know to do more of this. They learned so much from taking an assessment together. They just kept coming back to, they learned something; they learned to have more confidence in themselves. They would feel vulnerable about their own assessment sometimes until they’d talk to others about it and realize everybody was on the same page with the same confusions. So suddenly, it was like, “Okay, I’m not as weak in this as I thought I was,” or “I’m not any more confused than anyone else. I struggled in the same places a lot of other people struggled.” The other thing they said was it didn’t feel high stakes anymore. They liked the assessments because they knew they could go back at them as a group, and so they felt them to be much lower stakes, which allowed them to actually enjoy the process and get more out of it. 

It is evident from this interview with Sharon that Pomona’s LMS, Sakai, is the technology that underpinned her ungrading course design. Sakai provided the necessary structure and was the vehicle for student input and Sharon’s feedback. RITG is hoping to continue our collaboration with Sharon, and we have some ideas on how technology might create efficiencies for her in giving student feedback. We welcome working with you too—whether you’re thinking of ungrading or some other pedagogical move!  

Ready to have a discussion about your next teaching with technology move? Schedule a consultation with RITG.