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Ungrading: Social Work Education Honoring the Whole Student

Updated: Apr 29

Cassandra Da Valle-Chervellera, University of the Pacific

Julia VanderMolen, Grand Valley State University

Ungrading and Social Work Code of Ethics

As a social worker, the philosophy and style of “ungrading” teaching is particularly intriguing. In the National Association of Social Work’s Code of Ethics (2021) the six core values include service, the importance of human relationships, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, integrity, and competence. As more research emerges around ungrading, it seems increasingly clear that this transformative cultural shift, specifically in social work education, can genuinely honor the code of ethics and set the future generation of social work students up for success.

Image courtesy of Cytonn Photography, Unsplash.

Traditional Grading

Anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, fear of failing are a few statements that are often heard among many college students throughout America. Many times, these feelings are associated with how well a student is doing in school and what their grade is going to be at the end of the semester. In American history, the earliest formal grades began at Yale University in 1785, only as a ranking system for seniors preparing for graduation. This evolved to the 100-point rubric grading in 1837 created by Harvard University (Terada, 2023). Harvard’s bell curve design transformed over the decades into an A–F grading method most American teachers in kindergarten through higher education still use today.

Traditional grading can also be subjective, based on subconscious bias. Traditional grading focuses on earning or losing points for late work, participation in class, attendance, and curving test scores. Individuals who are having difficulty with their basic needs such as food, shelter, or sense of security or have difficult life circumstances may not be able to abide by those expectations, which can result in a failing grade. According to Shelton and Razi (2021) “every white centered dominant culture defined school and workspace is grooming students for reward through compliance, conformity and submission” (para. 7). When teachers implement a “no late work” policy, and a student receives a zero for a late assignment, the learning experience has transitioned to a lesson of compliance rather than the assignment’s intended learning outcome. This example is contradictory to the social work code of ethics.


What would an American education system without grades look like? Blum (2020) argues in Ungrading that "grades, despite their apparent solidarity, have been inconsistent from the start" (p. 11). Through these arguments, the concept of “ungrading” has been developed (Blum, 2020). Ungrading is “a practice which eliminates or greatly minimizes the use of assigned points or letter grades in a course, focusing instead on providing frequent and detailed feedback to students on their work, to the course learning goals” (Kenyon, 2022, para. 2).

The Social Work Code of Ethics and Ungrading in the Classroom

How can the social work code of ethics and ungrading support each other? Communication between teacher and student and the teacher’s guidance role is key for student’s development (Zhang, 2022). The ungrading method creates an opportunity for an organic relationship between student and teacher to develop. Removing grades also drastically diminishes the power differential, allowing an authentic professional relationship between teacher and student to flourish (Importance of Human Relationships). This trusting bond allows the teacher to give authentic feedback where the student can fully absorb the feedback and professionally grow significantly. In addition, Zhang (2022) asserts that pressure college students experience (e.g., that imposed by traditional grading as measures of success) can impact one’s emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physiological function. The ungrading modality could diminish one pressure in a student’s life and empower the student to embrace learning (Service).

An individual’s right to self-determination is the groundwork to empower students to shape their educational journey (Social Justice; Dignity and Worth of the Person). As social workers, this concept is taught at the beginning of their social work training to support social justice and the idea that individuals are inherently worthy. Ungrading respects and encourages individuality. The teacher’s role is to develop the student’s capability, alongside the student who is designing their own educational goals. Students pursuing higher education present with many unique strengths, barriers, and other factors that make up the whole. Functioning and focusing on a traditional grade does not consider these equity issues. Transforming the culture to ungrading can embrace creativity and modes of learning beyond traditional testing and assessing, also allowing students take more risks with their coursework, which can be a powerful and impactful practice (Social Justice).

Perhaps social work educators in higher education can be advocates and fight for policy change, beginning in their own classes, so that this practice is honored at all universities nationwide (Competence; Integrity). Dr. Steiner, Social Work professor at California State University, Chico, implemented ungrading in Fall 2021 (Mowreader, 2023) and reported great success based on student feedback via surveys. “Survey feedback also indicated students felt less worried or stressed about their coursework, took more risks in their assignments, felt more creative in their writing, and shared more personal opinions rather than looking to meet a professor’s expectations” (Mowreader, 2023, para. 21). Furthermore, those teachers who use the strategy of ungrading tend to structure their classes around activities for students to look into themselves. Self-reflection, via the feedback loop technique (Ole & Gallos, 2023) improves positive mindset and confidence while teaching, as well as provides practical feedback to improve student learning (Integrity).


Recommendations for Social

Work Teachers (and Beyond)

Kwak (2023) recommends taking small steps by shifting one assignment at a time to an ungraded framework. This could be a weekly quiz and transitioning it into a Kahoot! or Jeopardy-style activity and providing full credit to everyone who participates in good faith, regardless of accuracy. Kwak (2023) also states that critically reviewing course goals, transparency, rethinking feedback, and giving students a choice in participating in ungrading is key to transitioning a classroom environment that uses an ungrading philosophy.

Blum (2020) suggests ending each semester with portfolio conferences and scheduling a time for students to review all their work through the semester, then reflecting one-on-one with the professor on their learning growth. Another idea is practicing self-assessments at the beginning, middle, and end of each semester, with open questions such as:

  • What has been successful through this course?

  • What could I have done differently?

  • What outside stressors affected my presence in this class?

Language is a powerful tool to begin the cultural shift. Starr Sackstein states, “Language matters. It’s that simple” (Blum, 2020, p. 74). Changing language through reframing is a powerful method that helps create psychological safety to increase creativity and resilience in students. Sackstein suggests changing the vocabulary to assessing instead of grading and reframing problems into challenges or opportunities. Similarly, when a student is having difficulty grasping a concept, try saying, "Let’s try another way” instead of “This is wrong,” and shift the goal from “get good grades” to “achieve proficiency.”

The preceding recommendations are just a few examples of a wide array of strategies to create an ungrading environment in the social work classroom and beyond.



Susan Blum (2020) titled the last chapter of her edited book, Ungrading, “Not Simple but Essential.” Social workers advocate, create policy, and provide assistance to underserved and oppressed populations. What better way to start this practice than by having social work educators execute a progressive classroom culture of ungrading (Competence)? Ungrading is a style of grading that honors autonomy while students learn within the learning objectives of the classroom. Because ungrading in Social Work education is a newer concept, more longitudinal studies will have to be completed to see how competence in the classroom transitions into the professional social work field.

The concept of ungrading is an essential, solid approach that can be taken to honor Social Work core values of service, the importance of human relationships, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, integrity, and competence starting in social work education and continuing on into practice.



Discussion Questions

  1.  How does your current teaching strategy contribute to the Social Work Code of Ethics? How can you integrate some of these principles into your discipline?

  2. How could you revise one assignment in your class to follow the ungrading framework?

  3. Create an elevator pitch of how you could explain the ungrading modality to students to support them in the transition.


Blum, Susan Debra (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading : Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

Kenyon, A. (2022, September 21). What is ungrading? Duke Learning Innovation.

Kwak, J. (2023, October 30). Getting started with ungrading: Practical tips for college instructors. Every Learner Everywhere. Accessed 2 Dec. 2023.

Mowreader, A. (2023, April 3). Ungrading as a form of access, equality in the classroom. Inside Higher Ed.

National Association of Social Workers. (2021). Code of ethics. National Association of Social Workers; NASW.

Ole, F. C. B., & Gallos, M. R. (2023). Effects of feedback loop model on teachers’ attitudes, self-efficacy and classroom practices towards formative assessment. International Journal of Research in Education and Science, 9(1), 55–75.

Shelton, K. & Razi, N.  (2021, May 1). Grading is capitalist, racist, and exploitative. Medium.

Terada, Y. (2023, March 17). Why the 100-Point grading scale is a stacked deck. Edutopia.

Zhang, X. (2022). Problems and countermeasures of college students’ mental health education. Journal of Healthcare Engineering, 2022, 1–6.

About the Authors

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