“Does that number tell you anything?”: Criminology professor takes innovative approach to grading


Jake Moore

Brittany Martin, an assistant professor at WKU, has opted to remove numerical grading from her CRIM 432 course for students to better connect with the material.

Alexandria Anderson, News Reporter

A criminology course at WKU has begun a new method of assessing student progress and learning.

Brittany Martin, an assistant professor in the sociology and criminology departments, is teaching CRIM 432, Sociology of Criminal Law — but is not using the typical numerical grading system.

Martin’s grading system, which she calls “ungrading,” is focused less on working to receive a high numerical grade and more on students truly engaging with the content they are learning.

“There’s been a lot of research in education and sociology looking at maybe if we focus less on the numerical outcome and more on the learning process that students may be engaging with the material more and may find it more exciting, then take the material with them when they leave the classroom, rather than just learning for a test,” Martin said. 

Martin used a variety of resources and materials about upgrading in order to implement it within her course. She specifically mentioned the book “Ungrading” by Susan Blum, which gives excerpts from other professors across the country that have implemented ungrading within their own courses.

“I have it set up so that it’s a lot of self reflection, peer work and reflection together and professor-to-student discussions — I’m giving a lot of qualitative feedback,” Martin said. “So essentially less focused on the quantitative, ‘You get a 100 for this,’ and more on the qualitative from the beginning to end of class, how much have you taken with you from the material and how you can grow as an individual learning about the criminal legal field. Since a lot of our students want to work in the legal field, really what I want is for them to take with them everything they’ve learned in the class to their future careers.”

Even though the name may suggest a lack of assessment through a course, this is not true. Ungrading includes assignments and work that lacks numerical grades — but they are not without the knowledge that comes alongside it. Martin explained that a system like this builds an educational environment suited to every student’s needs.  

“There’s assessment throughout the entire class. We do discussions in class, we do writing assignments, the self reflection they [the students] actually did for me for one day is an educational autobiography where they discuss their experience in education,” Martin said. “It’s really that starting point for me as the professor to see where we can build from here, with less focus on grades and more focus on inclusivity in the classroom to create an environment that will be beneficial to each student. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to education, and all the students may learn differently. I’m able to gauge that more when students write up what their experiences were and what they hope to get from the course.”

The ungrading system may come as a shock to students who are used to a rigid numerical system, but this alternative way of evaluating learning may prove beneficial in the long term.

“We’ve been on the same track with education for a long time,” Martin said. ”Some of my students, when they first walked in and I talked about this structure were really uncomfortable because they’re used to, ‘A grade of 95 tells me I’m doing well,’ and, ‘Having a professor discuss with me my progress may be different than that numerical grade.’ But really, does that number tell you anything? Are you taking that 95 with you when you go to whatever career or grad school you’re going to?”

Martin compared the system to what she discussed with someone outside academia, when they compared the self reflection to end of the year reviews that many workers hold with their bosses. She then explained the actual ending system for assessment, which is similar to a thesis defense, but it’s a conference about why students decided upon a certain grade.

“We’re doing all the same assessments but from our own angles that may be most beneficial for each student individually, then at the end we come together and discuss, ‘Did you achieve these goals? Are you sitting with the material in a way that will be beneficial for you in the future for your future endeavors?’” Martin said. “We discuss where your grade should be. I essentially let the students decide their grade at the end, but we have a conference to discuss, and I maintain the right to change that grade according to the write up they give me on why they support getting that grade.”

Martin believes that this specific course is a good fit for the ungrading system because it’s heavy on application of knowledge rather than learning specific facts from material.

“The class is less lecture and more, ‘You have learned a lot of these topics in your previous courses, let’s apply it and have a discussion about what the research is showing and what reform could be made in the places you pick,’” Martin said.

Martin explained her ungrading system’s benefits for student mental health, especially during the pandemic, and how it can be a form of encouragement to let go of numerical grade stressors and truly connect with material.

“We have such a fixation on numerical grades in the education system,” Martin said “To really show that learning can be a fun process and not just a make-or-break with one exam, it brings new life to the learning experience and the students get invigorated about the process. My saying is, ‘We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and new things are really beneficial for us.’ My hope is that the students in my class will take it to their future careers, but also realize that maybe the education system and learning can be fun.”

Amya Montgomery, a senior psychology and criminology major, explained that the ungrading system has so far taken the weight of stressing about a grade off her shoulders.

“Since it’s pretty early on in the course, the main thing I’ve noticed is that I’m not stressing about the class,” Montgomery said. “We’ve had a couple of assignments so far, but I’m not sitting here trying to perfect it. I’m doing it for my own [personal] experience and my own learning experience, like it’s for me not for a grade. So it just helps take a lot of stress off my shoulders.”

She also believes that this system could be useful in other classes, especially those that students are particularly interested in.

“I feel like when people get into college it’s a lot different from high school, just overall you’re learning a lot, especially in the categories you’re interested in,” Montgomery said. “A grading system kinda discourages people when they are failing out or not getting the grades they desire. They feel like what they’re studying isn’t meant for them, rather than learning what they wanted to learn. So I feel like it would help a lot of people to actually explore what they want rather than just trying to get good grades.”

Trevor Lile, a junior criminology and psychology major, agreed that the ungraded system of CRIM 432 created a much less stressful learning environment.

“So far it has honestly made this class seem less stressful than other classes,” Lile said. “Every class you deal with there is a certain amount of stress and expectations, but with this class, with it being ‘ungraded,’ it sort of takes away that stress and allows you to focus more on the class itself. So you’re not really worrying about if you’re going to get an A, it’s more of ‘Oh, what am I going to learn today?’”

He explained the benefits he sees from this grading system but believes that for some classes it may not be suitable. Both Lile and Montgomery said learning should be the clear objective for courses being taken for a major or future career path.

“I don’t think every class should be ungraded, because there does need to be a set standard,” Lile said. “But I do think with some classes being more oriented towards learning experience rather than the grade itself, it can benefit. The general ed courses, like math or English, should be grade-based. But when you go into the specifics of your major or further into the studies of whatever you’re learning, those should alternate between ungraded and graded, just depending on what the course is specifically.”

Ungrading is a system that doesn’t just benefit students during the course. It recognizes that student success shouldn’t be numerical, creates a comfortable, curious educational environment and pushes the application of material to a real-world setting.

“At the end of the day, it’s about learning the material, understanding what it means and then applying it to your career later on in life,” Lile said.

News Reporter Alexandria Anderson can be reached at [email protected]