What is critical digital pedagogy?

Grading, ungrading and critical digital pedagogy

I just read this article in EdSurge by Jeffrey R. Young.

In this article, they discuss these different concepts with Jesse Stommel, director of teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington, and Martha Burtis, director of the Digital Knowledge Center at the University of Mary Washington. You find the article and can listen to the interview here. I’m sharing some of the highlights and in the end, it was the grading and ungrading that was the most interesting topic to me. That is why I have chosen to share most about grading. There were many takeaways for me here, especially the use of rubrics. Because I use rubrics in my learning platform, but even if I like using it they never seem to cover every student. That is why I like the way Jesse Stommel describes student made rubrics. That makes a lot more sense to me.

The word “critical” means to engage digital technology and our own teaching practices with one eyebrow always raised. And it’s not with one eyebrow always raised with critique, but one eyebrow raised with both critique and also curiosity—sort of a wonder and a marveling at this thing that we do when we come together as human beings and learn in an environment together.


Stommel; I find that grades are essentially a way of controlling students, and they’re a way of controlling the output that the teachers expect of students, even when that isn’t the intention of the teacher. Would I eliminate grades all together? Yes, I would eliminate grades all together. What we want is students to be engaged and thoughtful participants in their own learning. Grades are not helping us toward that.

Martha Burtis, The students will say, what do I need to do to get an A on this? And I’m like, well that’s because the language we’re speaking to them as languages of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s, and so they’re simply trying to speak that language back to us. If we actually want to change that, if we actually want to change the way they talk to us about their learning, I think that means we have to change the thing that’s underpinning all of that, which is the grading, and the way in which that influences the practice in the classroom

How to Ungrade

If you’re a teacher and you hate grading, stop doing it. Wow, could it be that simple? In this article, Jesse Stommel talks about how to ungrade. This is how she does it:

Currently, I have students write self-reflections 2 – 3 times throughout the term. The first of these is usually more directed (with specific questions) than the last (which opens into something more like an essay). My goal is to help students develop their ability to do this kind of metacognitive work. Self-evaluation and metacognition are not easy, even for me, so I give students space to figure out how to do this work as they go.

Over many years, I’ve found that not grading begins a set of necessary conversations among my colleagues, between me and students, and among students in my classes. What students write to me in self-reflections and self-evaluations is profoundly different from the kinds of interactions we would have in a purely transactional system. Their self-evaluations (which I sometimes call “process letters”), and my responses to them, become a space of dialogue, not just about the course, but about their learning and about how learning happens. Not every interaction rises to that level but many do. What happens with almost every single student is that any assumption I might make about them is squashed by what they write about themselves and their work. My view of students as complex and deeply committed to their education is fueled by the thousands of self-reflection letters I’ve read throughout my career.

At the end of the term, every institution where I’ve worked has required me to issue a final grade for students. So, I ask the students to grade themselves. I wish I didn’t have to do this. I wish the conversation I had with students could focus purely on authentic assessment, process, and formative feedback. But I have found that asking students to give themselves a grade also makes the why and how of grades a valuable subject of the conversations we have—valuable because they will go on to be graded in other courses and thinking critically about how and why grading happens helps that become more productive for them.

Grade Free Zones
Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine diving right into the deep end of ungrading, so try having the first 1/3 of the term be ungraded, a sandbox for students to experiment inside before moving on to the more formal activities of a course. Or decide to grade only a few major assignments.

Process Letters
If you’re only grading a few assignments, you may not feel like you have enough information to determine a final grade at the end of a course. I have students write process letters, describing their learning and how their work evolves over the term. This can be text, including (or linking to) representative examples of work they don’t otherwise turn in. You might also ask students to take pictures of their work as it evolves, add voiceover to a screencast, or I’ve had students shoot video for a film documenting their learning (a sort of behind the scenes reel for the class.

Student-made Rubrics
I’m really not a fan of rubrics. Alfie Kohn, in “The Trouble with Rubrics,” describes them as an “attempt to deny the subjectivity of human judgment.” Rubrics are often recommended as a way to make standards for evaluation transparent, but for me, a 5×5 grid filled with copious text is bewildering and inscrutable. Rubrics have never helped me make sense of grading or being graded. Peter Elbow encourages making rubrics plainer and more direct, a 3×3 or smaller grid. The rubrics I find most exciting are ones crafted by students—so that the making of the rubric becomes an act of learning itself rather than a mechanism (or set of assumptions) created entirely in advance of students arriving to a course.

I would love to hear from you