By Evgeny Dengub

Grading practices in education have come under scrutiny in recent years. Researchers have found that traditional grading systems with points and percentages may not accurately measure learning and can have detrimental effects on student motivation and learning (Cain et al., 2022). There is a growing movement towards ungrading – an approach that decenters grades in order to refocus on student learning. This article summarizes my experience implementing ungrading in university foreign language classes, including the rationale, methods, student perspectives, and lessons learned.

The Struggle with Traditional Grading
As a university foreign language professor, I struggled for years with the limitations and even harms of traditional grading practices. I aimed to decrease student stress levels, be fair to diverse learners, encourage struggling students, make learning intrinsically motivating, and discourage cheating. However, points-based grading often worked against these goals. It increased student anxiety, disadvantaged weaker students, demotivated struggling learners, and incentivized cheating shortcuts like Google Translate. I felt traditional grading pitted me as a disciplinarian against students, rather than supporting their learning.

Why Ungrading?
Ungrading aligns well with humanistic, learner-centered teaching philosophy. It focuses on the learning process rather than the product. Ungrading shifts power and control to the student, while the teacher provides support through dialogue, feedback and a flexible environment (Feldman, 2019). Ungrading classrooms operate on trust and honor codes. Importantly, ungrading allows more flexibility to address student diversity. Several colleges have implemented ungrading models across campuses.

Implementing Ungrading
In my university’s foreign language courses, the shift to ungrading involved:

– Replacing individual assignment scores with a pass/fail system.
– Prioritizing quality feedback and maintaining regular communication about student progress.
– Placing a strong emphasis on student self-reflection and self-assessment.
– Treating errors as a natural part of the learning journey, allowing for revisions and corrections.
– Adhering to the university’s guidelines for final evaluations and policies.

Ungrading does not mean abandoning high standards or rigor. I still assign formative assessments and give feedback. Students complete vocabulary quizzes, tests, essays and speaking assessments. However, individual assignments are not directly graded. Final grades are determined holistically based on whether students met minimum expectations, which are clearly communicated.

Rewriting Course Policies
In reimagining the traditional grading system, it’s crucial to shift our focus to what truly matters in the the class. I share with students my educational philosophy and the approach to assessment in the course policies document:

This is a course where everyone has the potential to excel and earn an A. The primary objective isn’t to stress over grades but to genuinely improve your proficiency in Russian. Your presence, active participation, timely submissions, and commitment to expanding your vocabulary are the keys to success here. It’s imperative, of course, to maintain academic integrity—relying on machine translations for extended text, having others write your assignments, or referencing materials during “closed book” tasks compromises your learning.

It’s my responsibility to articulate my expectations clearly. In broad strokes, I anticipate genuine effort and continuous self-improvement. Assignments should be thorough, answering all given prompts and questions, and demonstrating earnest effort.

Your growth in the Russian language won’t be simply quantified by a grade. Instead, it’s gauged by your increased comprehension and expressive abilities, vocabulary expansion, and the precision of your communication. Each week should mark a milestone where you can confidently state that you’ve surpassed the previous week’s linguistic abilities.

I also include my standards for earning an A as a final grade:

1. Be on time and prepared for all classes. May miss up to two classes unexcused.

2. Complete and hand in all homework assignments. May submit 1-2 assignments late.

3. Complete all vocabulary quizzes, 80% of the words should be correct. May retake quizzes with less than 80%.

4. Complete all the tests, 80% should be correct.

5. Submit all the test revisions.

6. Submit all the self-reflections on time.

Student Perspectives
To better understand how ungrading impacted students, I conducted a small anonymous survey of 26 students across 4 different universities where I had taught ungraded foreign language courses. The survey asked open-ended questions about how the ungrading approach affected their learning and motivation, both positively and negatively.

Qualitative analysis of the survey responses using NVivo software revealed several key themes:

  • The most commonly cited benefit was that ungrading allowed students to focus on actually learning the material rather than worrying about points or grades. Many felt less stressed and more intrinsically motivated to learn.
  • Students described the classroom environment as more positive, authentic, and conducive to risk-taking. Around half directly stated they took more risks and made more mistakes, specifically when practicing productive skills like speaking, writing, and composition.
  • Enhanced motivation was another major theme, though a small number did note that some students may be less motivated without grades.
  • Many students emphasized the importance of clear expectations from the instructor and detailed feedback on assignments. This gave them insights on where to improve.
  • Some noted benefits related to equity, feeling previous grading systems disadvantaged weaker students.
  • Several commented that frequent check-ins and communication with the instructor helped alleviate confusion or concerns about ungrading.

While not unanimously positive, the majority of students (over 90%) reported benefits from ungrading in terms of reduced stress, increased motivation, and greater focus on actual learning outcomes. The survey provides insights into student perceptions that can help instructors implement ungrading models effectively.

Ungrading has significant potential as an equity-focused approach to refocus classrooms on actual learning rather than just performance measurement. Implementing ungrading requires instructors to rethink assumptions, adjust policies, and provide stronger scaffolding through transparent expectations and high-quality feedback. It takes deep commitment and thoughtful application. However, research shows traditional points-based grading often demotivates struggling students, creates anxiety, and incentivizes cheating. Ungrading models offer an alternative vision structured around supporting diverse student needs and fostering intrinsic motivation.

Initial studies, including surveys of my own students, reveal ungrading can create lower-stakes, more engaging classrooms where students take risks, learn from mistakes, and grow language abilities. But more empirical research is still needed on the impacts of ungrading on motivation, learning outcomes, and equity in different contexts. Questions remain about how ungrading performs compared to standards-based grading, contract grading, or specifications grading models. As criticism mounts regarding the harms of current grading systems, ungrading stands out as a truly student-centered pathway forward. With care about our students and courage to make a change, language teaching professionals can lead the way in piloting and assessing ungrading’s transformational potential. Our students will greatly benefit from a fundamental rethinking of traditional educational practices – and ungrading offers a bold, humanistic response.


Cain, J., Medina, M., Romanelli, F., & Persky, A. (2022). Deficiencies of traditional grading systems and recommendations for the future. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 86(7), 8850.

Butler, R., & Nisan, M. (1986). Effects of no feedback, task-related comments, and grades on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(3), 210.

Chamberlin, K., Yasué, M., & Chiang, I.-C. A. (2023). The impact of grades on student motivation. Active Learning in Higher Education, 24(2), 109-124.

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin Press.

Pulfrey, C., Buchs, C., & Butera, F. (2011). Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals: The mediating role of autonomous motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(3), 683–700.