Origin of the Learning and Teaching Club in the School of Theology and Religious Studies (STRS)
In the Spring Semester of 2023, Dr. Mary Catherine Stoumbos—at that time working in CUA’s Center for Teaching Excellence—hosted a book study of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (Lang, 2021). One of Lang’s final recommendations for those aspiring to improve as teachers is to engage with a community of like-minded people. Lang’s recommendation, together with encouragement from Dr. David A. Bosworth in the TRS 550 courses, inspired Philip Mohr to form a “Learning and Teaching Club.” The founding members of the club were the other authors of this report, all of whom are Ph.D. Candidates and Teaching Fellows in the School of Theology and Religious Studies.
Summer Study of the Book Ungrading
At Matthew Lineberger’s suggestion, the club agreed to read and discuss Ungrading (Blum, 2020). Dr. Stoumbos agreed to help us organize hybrid meetings over the summer months and, through the generous support of the Center for Teaching Excellence, procured hard copies of Ungrading.
We met five times in a hybrid format, each time discussing a different section of the book. At a final meeting, we discussed whether and how we might implement insights and recommendations from Ungrading in the upcoming semester’s First-Year Experience course in theology, a course regularly designed and taught by STRS doctoral students.
Reflection on the Summer Study of Ungrading
Overall, the experience of meeting with our Learning and Teaching Club was enjoyable and enlightening. We heartily affirm Lang’s recommendation to continue learning about teaching in a community with like-minded peers, and we encourage the formation of similar small communities or “clubs” at the Catholic University of America. It is our conviction that our students, current and future, will reap great benefits from a faculty-wide commitment to further study in the scholarship on teaching and learning.
As for the study of Ungrading, much can be said that would not fit the purpose of this concise report. It is an edited volume with a variety of essays exploring the historical contingency and subjective nature of “traditional” grading schemes, along with the harmful effects that such schemes may have on students’ learning and teachers’ satisfaction. The contributors to the chapters of Ungrading come from and write about a variety of educational contexts. They all emphasize the importance of student engagement and motivation in learning, along with the need to critique “traditional” modes of assessment against the goals of teaching.
Tensions and Consensus
In our first couple of sessions, we worked through concerns and questions about some of the principles that seemed to be underlying the approach. There were various ways of answering the philosophical (and theological!) questions we had about applying this approach to a university degree program in general and to a theology course in particular. Given the variety of contributors to the book Ungrading, we repeatedly wondered what exactly ungrading is and how it differs from other grading models, such as specifications grading (see Nilson, 2015). We never did succeed in nailing down a concise definition for ungrading from the disparate examples offered. At the same time, consensus among us did emerge on some of the more practical approaches and practices suggested in the chapters.
We all were convinced by the general critique of “traditional” grades: they are abstractions that mean different things in different courses and different things to different people. They give the illusion of precision in measuring learning or knowledge, but they are vaguely defined in most syllabuses and inconsistently given across different courses and programs. Worse than course grades is the abstraction of an abstraction called a “GPA,” which ends up being an almost meaningless number disconnected from the amount and quality of students’ actual learning. “Traditional” grades can end up being the worst kind of feedback a student could hope for: imprecise, ill-defined, and often permanent and irreparable.
A key benefit to the Ungrading model, we agree, is reframing learning in a way that shifts the focus away from an undue emphasis on evaluated end-product to an active process which centers student participation in achieving learning goals or benchmarks. This active process requires meaningful feedback on students’ work and an effort to help students form their own learning goal(s) in the course. Both the feedback and student-generated learning goals increase the students’ perception of their work’s value and, in turn, increase their motivation to learn through that work. We recognize, however, that the shift also represents a marked departure from students’ previous experiences and expectations of formal education. An attempt to implement the principles of Ungrading will inevitably need to face down the perception that such a course is “easier” or involves less rigor. The evidence presented by the contributors to Ungrading and at least some initial experiments in implementing Ungrading principles in some of our courses demonstrates that this is not the case.
This friction between the perception of rigor and the potential benefits of Ungrading proved a sticking point in many of our discussions. What type of course is best suited to the principles and practices of Ungrading? How can these principles be applied without seeming to delegitimize the content of a course? Our own answers to these questions are still taking shape.
Some of us also challenged the assumption in some chapters that all forms of extrinsic motivation for students must be bad. Even if one were to admit that intrinsic motivation is “better” than extrinsic motivation for student learning, a case still needs to be made for eliminating the latter altogether.
While each of us came to different conclusions about how, and to what extent, we would implement Ungrading into our classrooms, we each came away with a renewed focus on valuing feedback and process in our teaching, as well as the desire to help students take ownership in their learning. We believe that continued collaborative engagement with the scholarship on teaching and learning will continue to bear fruit for us and for our students.
We hope that this study report can serve as a launchpad for other members of CUA’s teaching staff and faculty to begin similar kinds of self-motivated and -selected professional development. We would also like to thank the Center for Teaching Excellence both for supporting the summer study and for inviting us to reflect on it now for CTE Spotlight.
Blum, S. D. (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press. (CUA Library Permalink)
Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass. (CUA Library Permalink)
Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus. (CUA Library Permalink)
Philip Thomas Mohr, Lucia Tosatto, Matthew Lineberger, Chris O’Brien, and Justin Donovan are fourth- and fifth-year Ph.D. candidates in the School of Theology and Religious Studies. This year, they are also serving as Teaching Fellows for the First-Year Experience course, "Foundations of Theology I: Scripture and Jesus Christ."