I stopped putting grades on student work just one year ago. I often tell people that I ‘jumped in head first,’ but the truth is that a great deal of time and reflection happened before I was ready to to undertake this transformation. If you’re thinking about going gradeless, my best advice is to take things slowly. A thoughtful, methodical approach is likely to yield a more sustainable change. This post is an organized version of the messy process I engaged in many months ago as I prepared to give up grading in my secondary Science classroom. If you are looking to de-emphasize grades and focus on feedback and growth, I invite you to consider the importance of the following points as you prepare to ‘take the plunge.’
Figure out your ‘why’
It is important to be able to articulate – to yourself and to others – your reasons for making the choice to go gradeless. I made that choice because I felt strongly that it would help me accomplish three main goals I had for my classroom: to help students focus on feedback and improvement, to develop students’ ability to self-assess and own their learning process, and to more accurately understand student strengths and needs through standards-based assessment. Knowing my ‘why’ has helped me remain focused on my goal of removing grades, and also allows me to effectively communicate with students and parents.
Research and connect
Know the research that supports a feedback-focused classroom. Connect with other educators who have gone gradeless; social media is a great place to start, but make sure you dig deeper. Read blog posts. Read books. Engage in meaningful conversations. If you read or hear about real examples of this work in action, you will better understand the change in mindset and workflow required to make a successful transition.
Know your local assessment policy and acknowledge systemic barriers
It is extremely important to have a firm understanding of your local assessment policy so that you can identify what your legal responsibilities are. In my case, there is a provincial assessment policy as well as a local policy generated at the board (district) level that dictate the things I ‘must,’ ‘can,’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do. In my county, these policies dictate that I must provide midterm and final percentage grades for my students, but neither policy requires the use of numeric grades at any other point during the year. I am fortunate that these policies also acknowledge and emphasize the importance of timely, relevant, actionable feedback.
Speak frankly with your administrator
Even though you are anxious to get started planning, do not skip this step. You do not want to find out that your principal does not support you after the school year begins. Set up a meeting. Share your research. Outline your intentions. Emphasize the benefits for students. Don’t be afraid to address potential problems. If appropriate or necessary, discuss ways you might push the boundaries of the local policy with administrative support. I feel lucky that my principal was very supportive of my choices last year.
Re-examine your curriculum
This is where things get fun. Ideally, you would be examining the curriculum alongside your students. In the meantime (or if you’re not ready to take this step) you can take a close look at the standards/goals you are meant to cover in your class(es). Some curriculum documents help us identify ‘big ideas’ or ‘essential skills’ or ‘crosscutting concepts’ that are important to student learning in the disciplines we teach. If you can step back and look at the big picture, this can help you consider the most meaningful connections between the curriculum and your assessment practices. I find that our Science curriculum is extremely dense with content, and although the content is important it can distract from the fact that the skills are even more important. I did two things to help make it clear to my students what is being assessed:
- the content-based learning expectations for each unit were simplified into 5 or 6 learning goals that are as open as possible, and written in student-friendly language (again, students could/should be involved in this process, and were involved in one of my courses last year)
- overall course learning goals were identified (eg. formulating scientific questions, making logical predictions, planning experiments, analysing data)
Explicitly showing students the relationship between content and skills can help them understand that just because content changes, they can still be demonstrating growth in the skills inherent to the discipline.
Here is an example of how curriculum might be ‘distilled’ into something more manageable. This is an excerpt from a curriculum document for a Chemistry courses I teach. There are far too many expectations to track individually, but in this case I rewrote these as six goals that are clear and easy to track. (Again, think about how powerful it would be for students to read, cluster, and rewrite the curriculum in their own words!)
Decide how you will track student learning
If you will not be grading student work, there needs to be a different system in place to collect evidence of learning and growth. Ideally, students will be major participants in the collection of evidence, but they are likely unaccustomed to doing so and will require a significant support from you. In my classroom, I shared the responsibility of collecting evidence of learning with my students.
- Some student work was submitted to me for assessment and feedback. I assessed mastery of the learning goals and recorded (for my eyes only) a level in terms of achievement of those goals (1-limited demonstration, 2-approaches, 3-meets, 4-exceeds). The purpose of these ‘levels’ was to help me determine what everyone’s strengths and needs were, to monitor growth over time, and in some cases to ensure I had evidence of student progress for students who struggled to collect their own evidence. Here is a snapshot of my ‘gradebook:’
- Other student work was not submitted to me, but rather self- or peer-assessed with some guidance. Students were encouraged to document their learning in a variety of ways; in some classes they kept a paper portfolio (that may have included things I had assessed) and annotated their progress on a tracking sheet (blog post about my first attempt with this). In other cases, students used Google Keep to collect and organize their evidence, and used this evidence to create digital portfolios (some details in this blog post).
Here are some excerpts from my students’ digital portfolios. (This is a screenshot of a slide I created to share with my colleagues in order to demonstrate students’ ability to evaluate and reflect on their learning process.) You can hear about my rather emotional first experience assessing these portfolios here.
What is most important here is that none of the ‘levels’ in my gradebook are permanent. My students have an invitation to show evidence of their improvement right up until the end of the semester. Our assessment policy dictates that our evaluations should emphasize the ‘most recent, most consistent’ evidence, which fits nicely with this approach. Since I must assign a numeric grade at midterm and at the end of a course (about every 10 weeks) I decided we should try to use the evidence to come up with a grade at the end of each learning cycle (unit). At the end of each unit, students used the evidence they have collected to determine a grade range they thought was appropriate. If the student’s suggested grade was significantly different from what I might assign based on my assessments, then we took a closer look at the evidence together. My experience is that most students assigned themselves the same grades that I would have, and those who did not (whether lower or higher) usually reconsidered their self-assigned grade after a frank discussion.
Choose tools that will help your students give and receive effective feedback
According to my provincial assessment policy, teachers are expected to provide “ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support improved learning and achievement.” This seems straightforward, but providing feedback to 30 (or 90, or 120) students on an ongoing basis can quickly become overwhelming. The method(s) you select for giving students feedback will depend on a variety of things including the subject matter, the age of your students, your personal preferences, and comfort with technology. Here are some tools that I have found useful this year:
- Single point rubrics: These are simply a list of success criteria (ideally co-created with students) for a given task. The reason I like these is that they can be used by students and by teachers, and they do not ‘over-prescribe’ what is required to achieve at a certain level. Traditional rubrics left me annoyed with high achievers (“but I did all of the things in the level 4 column!”) and discouraged when some students aimed to achieve the bare minimum. A single point rubric allows whomever is assessing the work to indicate whether the criteria have been met, and also to choose 2 or 3 areas to provide specific feedback. I have included a sample rubric here.
- Video comments: I never, ever thought I would do something like this, but while assessing student portfolios I found that this was a great way to share my feedback clearly. It didn’t take any more time than written feedback would have, and certainly goes much further in terms of ensuring that the message is received in the correct context and tone. There are several screencasting tools out there that work with Google Docs (Loom, Talk and Comment, Screencastify, etc.) and this will require at least a minimum amount of comfort with technology.
- Student-generated feedback: Students need lots of support to learn how to give effective feedback. One of the first steps is identifying an area of improvement in a piece of work. I recommend having students practice on low-risk tasks. One easy activity is to provide work samples from a previous year and have students practice giving feedback related to the success criteria. Allowing students to work in groups and have conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of a work sample is a very important way to support the skills they need to assess their own work. Another exercise I enjoy is to hand back a quick written assessment without giving feedback, but group students together who have similar ‘mistakes.’ I then challenge each group to figure out what common piece of feedback they would need to help them improve.
When you’re ready, communicate openly with parents and students
Students and parents are more likely to be supportive if they understand your motives. Be honest about the reasons behind what you are doing. Be honest about the fact that it is new to you. Share the research that supports the strategies you are using. Remain open to feedback from parents and students throughout the year. Understand that transitioning away from grades is something that can cause major concern. Some of my best insights came from digesting feedback from students who were feeling uncomfortable.
Share your learning with your colleagues – please!
Depending on your school environment, this could be something you right from the start of your gradeless journey. At my school, I knew that at best my actions would be called unorthodox and at worst they would be deemed foolhardy. I waited as long as I could before I started sharing about what I was doing. During the school year, I shared more openly as my confidence grew. I also had the opportunity to present to teachers from other schools on professional development days.
Giving up grades can be a bigger leap of faith for some people than for others. If you are a ‘lone wolf’ at your school, you may require more support from an online community than someone who is going gradeless as part of a team. Change, especially change that breaks with long-standing institutional tradition, requires courage and determination. Whatever your situation, know that there is a growing community of teachers who will share ideas, give advice, and even lend emotional support when it is required. I never would have come this far had others not generously shared with me, so I also want to encourage you to share your journey with others.