A student gets a B grade

Over the Summer of 2023, a group of Ph.D. Candidates from the Theology and Religious Studies Program formed a Summer Reading Club to pursue professional development with the assistance of the Center for Teaching Excellence. The club met on five separate occasions using a hybrid model to discuss the ideas and methods for implementing the pedagogical findings of our first book of study: Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (Blum, 2020). “Ungrading” as a movement began during the second decade of the twenty-first century and sought to identify the shortcomings of a traditional grade system and offer alternatives for every classroom, regardless of the level of study or subject area (Blum, 2020). Grades rarely motivate students toward curiosity, which leads to genuine learning, and frequently reduce student’s desire to seek challenges out of fear (Blum, 2020). Despite their intended goal of standardizing and showcasing a student’s learning, grades communicate next to no information regarding a student’s learning journey or mastery of class material. Further, a lack of uniformity across schools renders the supposed ‘ranking’ purpose of grades void of meaning (Blum, 2020).

My Takeaways and Implementation

There were two pedagogical shifts that Ungrading provided that have altered my classroom:

  1. A shift to ‘ungrading’ begins with a decision to trust our students (Blum, 2020). This is a trust that the students want to learn and that they can and will reflect adequately on their own work when asked to do so. Stommel has conversations with his students about their work, then asks them at the end of the year what grade the students would give themselves, and then gives them that grade (Blum, 2020). While he reserves the right to change grades if inappropriate reflection occurs, he notes that he much more frequently has to raise the student’s appraisals rather than lower them.
  2. The second takeaway originated from my experience in Dr. David Bosworth’s TRS 550C course, aimed at preparing Ph.D. students to teach independently, and from reflections similar to those in Marcus Schultz-Bergin’s chapter on Ungrading. Once we trust our students, our goal should be to provide them with agency in the classroom, i.e. to allow them to use that trust in a meaningful manner. Both Dr. Bosworth’s TRS 550C and Schultz-Bergin’s 300-level Philosophy Law course operated by giving the students a plethora of learning opportunities for them to choose from (Blum, 2020). This allows their students to prioritize their work around their strengths and interests, and the agency can naturally lead to a higher quality of work as their buy-in to the assignment increases.

I teach TRS 201 “Foundations of Theology I: Scripture and Jesus,” a course that every student is required to take during their first year at CUA. I have, perhaps, only half-waded into the pool of Ungrading by incorporating both of these ideas into my course. In my syllabus and at the start of class, I explain to the students that their final grade will be a combination of two types of assignments. First, there are ‘required assignments,’ consisting of reading quizzes, two tests, and other assignments to be done by a specified due date by all students who desire credit for the assignments. Second, there are ‘optional assignments’ from which I have provided a list of various learning opportunities for students to choose what they want to do. These range from reflection-type to research-oriented work, with the point values reflecting the difficulty/length of the assignment. In both categories, there are assignments aimed at self-reflection on their learning and engagement in the course. For most of the assignments in both categories (excluding tests), I look for competency and completeness of the assignment and the right process, rather than only nitpicking right/wrong answers. My students still receive a grade for their work throughout the course, but my hope is that they have ownership of their learning in the process.


Blum, S. D. (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press. (CUA Library Permalink)


Justin Donovan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Historical and Systematic Theology who works on Medieval Theology in the twelfth century. At present, Justin teaches “TRS 201 - Foundations of Theology I: Scripture and Jesus,” a required First-Year Experience course for all incoming freshmen.