Grades — good or bad — tend to make us do unproductive things.
Each September, when I assess my students’ first piece of writing, processed and polished, leave feedback, and return it to them, one of two things happens: students who did well give a great sigh of relief and check English class off of their Things to Worry About List; the students who did not do well become utterly defeated right from the get-go.
And neither of these mindsets is valuable to our students’ growth and learning.
The students who feel secure in their performance continue to perform, filling in the formula they have so often practiced to get the only things they care about — the grade. They already know it all — their thinking and creativity is stunted, they take no risks, as they repeat the steps that they know work.
The students who feel defeated throw in the towel — after all, even when they improve, even when they learn the skills they needed to learn, that low score will forever be in the gradebook, weighing their grade down. They are stressed — their thinking and creativity is stunted, they take no risks, as they try to figure out how to keep their head above water.
I teach both unleveled 9th grade Reading Writing Workshops and 12th grade IB English. My seniors are high achievers, and to them grades matter more than anything. And those grades tend to lure them into unproductive habits of practice and habits of mind.
As I was planning for our course this summer, I kept returning to one big goal — to make LEARNING the self-directed focus of the course rather than jumping through hoops to earn grades and get scores. How to do that? Get rid of the grades.
Now, my students do require quarterly grades — these grades need to factor into their semester grades and final grades. They need an English grade for their transcripts which will be sent to colleges.
Knowing that, at the very least, we need to arrive at a final grade for each quarter, here is what I have done:
- Collaboratively created a class rubric to establish norms for reading, writing, and classroom life
I knew that if grades couldn’t chart the course of the class, something else needed to. The IB diploma program is guided by a learner profile that lists the characteristics the program is intended to grow in each student. Over the course of two class periods, students took these characteristics and outlined what these mean and look like in a student’s reading life, writing life, and classroom life. Here’s our rubric:
While you might not be teaching an IB course, take a look at the learner profile. Growing students who are risk-takers, who are knowledgeable, who are principled, who are caring — aren’t these the qualities we want all of our students to embody? Perhaps your school lists character traits that you seek to develop in students — could these be used to also determine progress in your class?
- Eliminated grades on individual assignments
I quit grading individual assignments — classwork, participation, annotated Poems of the Week, even papers. I make notes in the gradebook and leave copious feedback on each assignment. But, I don’t assign a grade value to their work. Students are encouraged to use the feedback to revise any work they would like to revise — it’s about getting it right, getting it better, not about getting a higher grade.
- Kept a lot of notes
I have a running notebook for my IB students in which I jot down notes when I see them demonstrating (or not demonstrating) the characteristics on our rubric. In the first six weeks, I have pages and pages of notes. I take most of these notes during the class period — as I confer with students about their writing, as I listen to their discussion seminars. Rather than spending time trying to assign a point value to students’ conversations or homework, I spend my time observing.
- Scheduled quarterly grade conferences with each student
Starting this week, students and I will sit down for the first time to look at our class rubric, look at their work, and chat together about a grade for quarter 1. Both students and I will be bringing artifacts and evidence to this chat as we look at how they have shown themselves to be caring, thinkers, open-minded, principles, knowledgeable, reflective, etc.
This will be a challenge for many students, as these conversations will force them to be reflective and honest about their work and their participation. It will be a challenge for me, since I really just want to give everyone an A. I will let you know how these go. After we’ve practiced them a couple of times, I plan to film some of these conversations so that you can have a model.
Here’s what I know so far:
This experiment is new, and there is lots that I don’t know. In fact, at back to school night, one parents asked, “So, how will you know if this experiment works … or doesn’t?”
The truth is — I’m not quite sure yet. But I bet we’re all going to find out together.
In a sea of “I don’t knows”, here’s what I do know so far:
- Nothing has fallen apart.
There have been no mutinies. The students still come to class. They still do work, and they still turn it in. I still teach. They still learn. So far, nothing has fallen to pieces.
- I am giving far more feedback than ever before.
These days, my time is far better spent — I am writing to students, leaving loads of feedback, instead of spending minutes and minutes huddled over a rubric trying to discern if a student’s work is a “3” or a “4”. My assessment time now gives students more copious and more useful information that they can then use to grow as thinkers, readers, and writers.
- I am having more conversations with students & they are more genuine
I have had more students than ever stop by for conferences about their work, schedule a meeting to just talk about how they are doing in class, and how they can improve. Not one student has asked, “How can I get an A?” or “What would make this an A paper?”. Our conversations are now more frequent and more focused on real, lasting improvement.
- The kids love it.
I was heartened that my students’ initial reaction to this experiment was, “Uh oh” instead of “Party time!” They have taken it seriously, and they see that this method actually requires much more of them than the old way of racking up points.
After a couple of weeks of school, one student wisely noted, “Mrs. O’Dell, you’re actually tricking us into being good people in your class.”
Yeah, I am.
I asked them for some feedback so far. Here’s what some of my students have to say:
I love the no-grade system. (Yes, of course the name is appealing! But there is much more to it.)
When you first explained what “no-grade” truly meant, I felt a huge sigh of anxiety and relief lift off of my shoulders. English 11 IB was the toughest class I have taken in high school. Many loved the class; however, as someone who does not have high confidence in reading comprehension, I constantly felt inferior to my classmates, with no hopes of improving. My focus was ALWAYS about the grades. In your classroom, I can breathe. I have developed an appreciation for learning and reading, which could help me far beyond any quiz or test could. There is no fighting against the teacher and student. We are a team and I know that you want my classmates and I to grow as writers and thinkers. — AVERY
Personally, I love the system. It helps me to focus less on number grades and more on my work. Often times in the past, especially in writing, I’ve been blinded by trying to write solely for a grade. With this system, I can focus on the process and actual quality of my work, and can also have the option to revise and conference with you as I please, which I feel is a huge leg up. I definitely prefer this system over traditional grades. I feel more relaxed this way, and can really check my work to see if it’s at its best level possible. — OLIVER
I think that the no grade system works well with the students that are self-motivated, however, I think that many students today are incredibly motivated by grades. This can hurt some students, but in time I believe that students can get used to not paying attention to number grades. Using this tactic, in my opinion, helps students for real life situations and creates an environment in which the student works on doing their best for them and not just for their grades. — CHARLOTTE
I really like the no grades system. I honestly think it makes me a lot braver in class. I am not afraid to try something simply because I am worried I will get it wrong. And if it is wrong, then I am a risk taker because I tried it. Sometimes it bothers me not being able to know how I am doing in the class, but at the same time I think our entire grade is way too grade focused and this is good for us all.
There are so many things that are “checkmarks” in high school; you must take his class, get this grade, do this worksheet, etc. The no grades system takes this class off the checklist. There is no set way to do something, so, you have to be creative. You must really focus on what you are trying to get out of each assignment. I think this process is teaching me a lot– particularly about self reflection. — EMMA N.
So, this is where we are so far. Nearly at the end of the first quarter, this feels like a success. The sense of connection and community in my classroom is deeper and richer and more authentic.
This is just a part one — I’ll let you know what happens as we try this for an entire school year. I’ll let you know how it’s working for my highest and my lowest achievers. I’ll try to let you eavesdrop on some of our conversations. I’ll imagine how this might work in other contexts — both mine and yours.
What grand experiments are you undertaking this year? How do you navigate the world of alternative grading? What questions do you have about my system?