So, I Quit Grading — Part II Update

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 11.01.21 PMThis year, I quit grading almost entirely. While I still give quarterly grades (because my students have to have them!), I do not grade individual assignments. I’ve given up traditional grading for many reasons that I explain in my first post on this topic, but the biggest of the reasons is this: I don’t think traditional grading is in the best interest of my students. 

I promised you that I would keep you updated, so, now that I have lived in this experiment for a whole semester, I will share with you what I am finding out. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

More honest feedback for all

Because I am not spending so much time perseverating over numbers on a rubric, and because I know that I can’t fall back on grades to “communicate” progress, each of my students is receiving far more feedback — not just on how they are currently performing, but also ideas for how to grow, what to do next, and techniques to try next time.

Even better than a greater volume of feedback, though, I find myself free to give more honest feedback. Sometimes, it’s downright blunt. But because my students are convinced that I am on their side, I find I can tell them the truth.

For example, here is some quarterly grade feedback I recently left for two students, one who is working very hard and growing by leaps and bound, and another who tends to eek by doing the bare minimum:

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In both cases, our history of open conversations made it possible for me to nudge harder than I would have felt comfortable before.

In both Q1 and Q2, grades were VASTLY “right on”.

In both quarter one and quarter two grade conferences, I ended with the question, “What grade have you earned this quarter?”

With two exceptions, in every case, the student nailed the grade, reporting exactly the same final grade that I had in mind. This certainly made our conversations easier, but it also made me feel like the rubric we developed together clearly laid out the expectations of the course. Students could easily refer to those expectations and accurately weigh their performance against it.

Grade conferences also taught me about my own instruction (seminar challenges, etc.)

An unexpected but wonderful development in grade conferences was that it also served as a reflection on my instruction. The truthful reflection flowed both ways, as students told me plainly what was working in class and what was not going well.

In quarter one conferences, many students shared that whole-class Socratic seminars weren’t working as well as I had hoped — they were having trouble sharing their ideas, were intimidated and distracted, and needed smaller conversations before launching into the larger ones. I did, in fact, use more small group conversations to proceed large group Socratic seminars in the second quarter, which I might not have done had I not talked to every student after quarter one.

The Bad

Live grade conferences are amazing … but take SO long

In quarter one, I made appointments with every student (during study halls, lunch, and our in-common activity period), to sit down and chat for 10-15 minutes. These conversations were wonderful. They did more for building relationships with my students than almost anything else I’ve ever tried. However, they took around 600 minutes, spread out over two weeks. And I only have 40 seniors! This would be almost completely untenable if I had more students!

So, for quarter two, I decided to try digital grade conferences — I asked students a series of questions, they responded, and then I wrote back to their answers. This was much more manageable time-wise.

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One student’s Q2 Digital Grade Conference (page 1)

 

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One student’s Q2 digital grade conference (page 2)

Moving forward, I will try to strike some balance of the two modes of reflection. If I had a larger group of students with whom I was trying this, I would probably rotate them — have a live conference with some and a written conference with others. As it is now, I will do another round of live conferences in quarter three (and I will tape some of them to share with you!)

Administrative Challenges

Admittedly, I approached this experiment largely from a place of  ask-forgiveness-not-permission. My administrator had some idea of what I was trying to do, but I didn’t ask if I could just quit giving traditional grades. I just did it.

So, it wasn’t altogether surprising when, at the end of the first quarter, she wanted more information about this undertaking. While she was supportive of my philosophy, she said that I had to put grades in the gradebook (I had been putting “Complete” or “Missing” in the place of grades) so that administrators, parents, and advisors had a clear picture of each students’ progress.  

I compromised by informing my students (and their parents) that henceforth, an A would mean “Complete” and an “F” would mean “Missing”. I did not start grading individual assignments, but I did assign traditional grades to that information. It serves as a code. While I prefer my original method, this did have the positive effect of shocking my students into turning in missing or late assignments. Although we all knew that that “F” wasn’t real, it was motivating.

I also used the comment feature on the online gradebook to link the student’s grade report with a Google doc containing running narrative feedback, so that administrators, parents, advisors, and students can see the more meaningful feedback I leave for my students.

The Ugly

English is by far everyone’s favorite class … and last priority

Everyone loves English above all of their other classes. They tell me this all the time. Let’s be honest, this is a great feeling. They feel supported, and free, and creative in their work. They are risk takers in the best sense.

But it is also their last priority. Even the best of them. Even the most motivated. Even the future English majors. When they have a Calculus test looming over them on which they will get an A, or a C, or an F, those English revisions don’t seem so important.

In good news, their work is not suffering. I do not see any difference between their work and the work of my IB seniors of yesteryear. However, I think we can all openly acknowledge that grades are the currency of school, and if I’m not giving a grade on a specific assignment, it will fall to the bottom of each student’s pile.

Getting Lazy

This was my biggest fear when jumping into this venture — that I, too, would get lazy after a while and let the rigor of the reflection fall by the wayside.

And, truly, it is hard. At first, we were all gung ho, but as the weeks have worn on, I also find it more difficult to motivate myself to add daily comments to their running feedback. It’s difficult to motivate myself to motivate them. We all tend to slide as we move into the depths of the school year.

To be clear, grading without grades is more work. It is definitely more work. And I constantly battle against the tendency toward laziness.

As we move into the second semester, I’ll be thinking about keeping students motivated through the spring (eek!) and what I will change as I approach this with a new group of students next fall.

Have you tried a no-grading experiment? What questions are cropping up as you think about trying this experiment in your own classroom? Let’s have a little Q&A! Leave a comment below, or find me on Twitter (@rebekahodell1) or Facebook!

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7 thoughts on “So, I Quit Grading — Part II Update

  1. Rebekah,

    I know this post is from months ago, but I just discovered it as your post has been making the rounds on social media today. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of alternate grading for a while, and your post has fired me up today.

    I would like to talk about, and perhaps get an update on, your comment about students treating English as the last priority. I teach very achievement-oriented AP Lang juniors and this has always been my struggle as well: they prioritize the courses where time-put-in = good-grade-outcome, such as those which focus primarily on memorization. It’s difficult for students to see the direct correlation between the cognitive practice activities and a grade in English, so that article reading assignment is often given a very cursory nod, whereas they’ll spend hours reviewing for a psych or anatomy quiz. This has always been a point of concern for me: how to get them to see the value in practicing a skill?

    So I’m wondering, by the end of the year, how did this factor play out? You mentioned that you didn’t see a difference in their ultimate abilities compared to previous classes, but I wonder how this progressed throughout the year. Was it different without grades, or about the same as it’s always been? Did you feel like students were more cavalier about it than before, with an outward change in their attitude (such as flat out saying things like “Well, this doesn’t have a grade attached so sorry I’m not doing it when I’ve got a million other things on my plate”)?

    Thanks for your very detailed story of your experience. Last year I had some really great candid conversations with my AP students about grades, academic pressure, and cheating, and I am always searching for ways to combat this and make my classroom more learning focused than a numbers game.

    • Hi, Sandy, Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comments & questions!

      Overall, I don’t think it was actually different than any other year — they just felt like they could be honest about it in a way that they could not previously. I think that English may always (tragically) fall to the bottom of their priority list because they just don’t feel the panic in the same way. And, you’re right — they don’t see the same kind of relationship between input and output. However, in the past I think English was their last priority but not necessarily their favorite class. Regardless of my relationship with them, some students saw me (consciously or not) as an adversary because of the judgment and power I had over them in terms of grading. This year, my class was the one place where they universally felt safe, known, and valued … whether or not the work was their top priority.

      Truly, I only had two students who abused this freedom in an egregious way that I have never seen before. And, ultimately, their grades did reflect this when we conferred.

  2. Rebekah, great post. I have been intrigued by your experiment all year. I was also curious how things worked out with parents and admin. I am interested in doing something like this with my HL seniors this year and a modified version with my 9s. Let me know when you and Allison are working on that this summer.

  3. Rebekah, I feel as if I could have written this article. I did a research project for the Madison Writing Project last summer about assessment, and I decided to stop putting grades on writing assignments this year. I have seen so many positive benefits on my students– most coming in terms of students remarks, such as one girl who said, ” I have loved the grading system this semester as it allowed me to focus on making each essay as strong as it could be rather than focus on what grade I would earn.”

    I also noticed that after a semester of this assessment, that my connections with students were even stronger than in past years. Students were more vulnerable when they did not have their defenses up about grades.

    It is still a work in progress, but it is one that I am greatly enjoying. Thanks for sharing your journey. I look forward to hearing more about it!

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