Books that Move Us: Pointless: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading by Sarah Zerwin

If you’ve read any of my posts this year, you might notice a theme: I feel like I am constantly referencing Sarah Zerwin’s Pointless, which I read over the summer.  I ordered it immediately upon reading the title, thinking, This is great!  Maybe it will give me ideas for reducing the time I spend assessing student writing.  And while the book did do that for me, I quickly found that it is so much more than a new way to look at grading; she offers an entirely new lens through which to view the entire evaluation process.

Because the book has given me so many gifts as a writing teacher that have wiggled their way into my instruction and my reflection of my instruction this year, I thought it was only fair that I take a moment to step back and discuss this text explicitly.

Image via Amazon

60-Second Book Review

The book begins by challenging the way we’ve always looked at grading and examines how teachers tend to use points for compliance (even though we don’t consciously realize we’re doing this).  When we want students to take something seriously, we hold points over their heads, reminding them that if they don’t do what we ask, their grades will suffer.  When what they turn in lacks a quality or qualities we have laid out to them, we take points off so their grades broadcast their shortcomings.

What this system doesn’t do, however, is value growth and learning.  If I give a student a B on an essay, for example, what usually happens is the student accepts the grade and moves on.  Some of us (my past self included) will encourage students who do not like their grades to approach us about re-writing, and we are willing to work with students on the writing until it reaches our standard of an A.  However, rarely do we get a student who is actually willing to do this, especially when it sometimes takes us weeks after a writing assignment is turned in to give them their grades.  And also— the student is often more fixated on the points rather than learning.  When they come to us because they don’t like a grade, they do so more with a “Tell me what I need to do to get an A” mindset than a naturally curious one that is concerned solely with becoming a better writer.

Zerwin’s book seeks to challenge this system by eliminating the point system.  Instead, she sets up her gradebook so each assignment receives written feedback from the teacher rather than a numerical value.  The idea is that students learn more and grow more from our words rather than trying to understand how what they have completed is being measured numerically.  As the semester progresses, students are regularly asked to reflect on their growth as learners and the feedback they have received from the teacher.  At the end of the semester, students examine all of these reflections and look at their entire learning journey over the course of the semester.  They write a letter to the teacher in which they explain what their numerical grade should be, using evidence collected throughout the semester from teacher feedback and their own reflections to make their case.

At this point, you probably have a ton of questions.  How does this work with the gradebook?  What do I do when I am required to submit numerical grades throughout the semester?  What if my administrator(s) are not on board?  My 60 second run down only scratches the surface of what Zerwin covers in her book.  I promise, she will answer all of your questions and more!

My Big Writing Take-a-ways

As I read Zerwin’s rationale for her pointless grading system, I couldn’t help but constantly think about something I read in grad school: Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere.  Originally published in 1968, Friere’s text seeks to take the teacher off the stage as the all-knowing entity and give students more autonomy in building their knowledge and education.  As a result, I think a lot of us have made great strides since 1968 in making learning more student-centered; we stand by our students’ sides as they form their own interpretations of a text and guide them toward using mentor texts to make their own decisions about their writing.

However, what good does any of this do when our grades still support the “teacher as the gatekeeper of the knowledge” system?  We strive to encourage students to think freely, yet we dock points when they don’t meet our expectations.  Furthermore, what are students learning when we do this?  They’re left to figure out why they had five points taken off from an assignment rather than to engage in an active thinking process on how to improve.  We let them build knowledge themselves, but we are ultimately still the gatekeepers.

What I love most about Pointless is that Zerwin uses continuous, meaningful reflection to achieve a system that places students’ learning journeys at the heart of their grades.  When students are asked to reflect over their performance over the course of a week, a unit, and/or a semester, it centers their individual progress as a learner, not the teacher’s “one-size-fits-all” expectation.  It’s tough to give up the power of choosing a student’s grade, especially since this is the only system we’ve ever known.  When we surrender this control, however, we make the ultimate move from an authoritative presence in our students’ education to one of guiding and mentoring as they forge their own paths.

Reflection has done so much for me as an educator, and I’ve always wanted to build this skill in my students.  However, as I said in this post earlier in the year, it’s something that can easily be pushed to the side and visited as an afterthought at the tail end of a unit or semester.  Zerwin’s system opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities for placing reflection at the front and center of my instruction.  When students’ grades are completely reliant on critically examining their performance and how to meet the goals they have set for themselves, it is so much easier to find opportunities to create and execute reflective activities.

How I Used It

While Zerwin’s students determine just about 100% of their grade, I wasn’t ready to take quite that big of a swing on my first attempt with the system.  I settled on a 25%/75% split; a quarter of the grade would be completion grades for turning work in, with lots of comments from me along the way.  The majority of the grade, however, would still be determined by the student at the end of the semester.

About two weeks into the semester, it became evident to me why Zerwin goes all in with this system.  Even when just a small portion of students’ grades were determined by point values, they still became more fixated on the grade than I would have liked.  I still got a lot of emails from students who wanted to earn more points or make them up for a higher grade.  Even when I explained that the two points they missed were ultimately miniscule at the end of the semester, they remained adamant about maintaining their desired average.

Even though point collection was still very much a thing with the way I tried the system, some really great and valuable things happened along the way.  Students still knew the majority of their grades would be determined by reflection, and they put a lot of stock into looking at their individual progress throughout the semester.  This would not have been made possible without the frequent teacher comments that Zerwin pushes for in her book.  When we ask students to engage in reflection without presenting them with data, they may come to conclusions that we don’t understand.  However, students who are presented with cold hard facts from their learning journeys (through submitted work and teacher commentary) have an easier time making inferences about their progress that are logical.  I found myself agreeing with most of what my students had to say about their learning, and if not— I simply had to point to the evidence.

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I was more than a little scared to hand over the reins to my students and allow them autonomy in choosing their grades.  What if a student who failed to turn in a good portion of assignments were to give himself a perfect score?  What if I don’t agree with a student’s grade and they become argumentative?  But I tried it anyway, and I’m so glad I did!  I’ll echo what I said in the last paragraph: when students are provided with data that shows their progress, they’re a lot more likely to be honest.  And this was overwhelmingly reflected in their grades.  I agreed with a majority of my students’ choices and found that a lot of them ended up being a lot harder on themselves than I would have been.  I had very few conversations with students who were on a completely different page than I was, and those conversations all went so well.  I simply pointed to the evidence that made me disagree, and we came to an agreement together. 

On the last day of the semester, I asked students to be open with me about the grading system.  They admitted that they were very intimidated by it at first.  Once they understood it though, they began to embrace it.  A few students commented on how they enjoyed the “individualization” of the learning process that was made possible through this system.  Instead of everyone trying to reach the same bar and grades reflecting how close each student got to achieving the teacher’s standard, their scores reflected their individual abilities to make progress in each goal of the class.  There’s proof that students don’t just need differentiation in their instruction; they crave it.

I still don’t think the exact way Zerwin determines her grades are going to work for me.  I found out at the end of the semester that the way my school’s gradebook is set up does not allow for a major portion of the grade to be determined at the end.  However, that doesn’t mean I can’t continue finding a way to apply her ideals in a different way.  It might just mean asking students to reflect on their grades more often and have several smaller grades rather than one large grade at the end.  I plan to have conversations with members of the tech team and administration at school to figure out the best way to make it possible to make the ideas behind the method work within the parameters of my school’s rules and gradebook.  Luckily, I have colleagues that are supportive and willing to work with me to make this happen.

Should You Buy The Book

This is the most powerful piece of professional development I have uncovered in a long time.  So, yes!  Absolutely!  If you are skeptical about the idea of having students self-select grades, I hear you.  I was too.  But at least hear the argument.  The rationale of having students be actively involved in their own learning process will make you seriously consider the way you approach evaluation in your classroom.  Even if you find that the way Zerwin approaches grading won’t work for you or your school (which was the case with me), you’ll more than likely find yourself looking for a side door or a backdoor into making sure your gradebook aligns with the philosophy of student-centered pedagogy.

Afterall, the best ideas certainly never came from playing it safe by following the crowd in through the front door.


Have you read Sarah Zerwin’s Pointless?  What are your thoughts?  Let’s talk on Twitter @TimmermanPaige.

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  1. Paige–your post is so thoughtful here and I’m so glad you laid out your ideas and are sticking with this system for a 2nd year! I’m focusing on a few technical aspects of this, wondering if I can make this system work. I’m noticing your comment– “I found out at the end of the semester that the way my school’s gradebook is set up does not allow for a major portion of the grade to be determined at the end. ” It would be great to hear more about this–how you are tweaking things for your own context. Thanks in advance for any ideas and I hope your year is off to a great start!

    1. Hi Chris! So, our gradebook is set up to be 40% Quarter 1, 40% Quarter 2, and 20% for exam. School rule, I can’t change it. So what I found out the first year was that I can’t have students reflect on the majority of their grade at the end of the semester because by that point, Quarter 1 is already closed (along with 40% of the gradebook). So instead of a big end-of-semester reflection, we now do 2 end-of-quarter reflections. My admin likes this much better, too, as it cuts down on major changes in the gradebook at the very end of the semester.

      I hope this made sense. Best of luck to you. I really love this approach to grading…it’s been a game changer for me!

  2. Thanks for reading! I agree that the B vs. C conversations can seem daunting. What has helped me most with navigating these conversations is giving a lot of feedback that I can call back onto as evidence. This is only the second year I have used this system, but so far students have been really understanding if I didn’t agree with the grade they chose for themselves once I point to their performance and my commentary on specific assignments.

    I’m in the same boat with dual credit wanting letter grades but the high school needing numerical grades. I just give students a chart that says what numerical value I will put into the gradebook for each letter grade. When they write a letter to me explaining the letter grade they deserve, I put in the numerical “equivalent” that is listed on the chart.

    I hope this answers your questions!

  3. Good afternoon,

    I’m not sure if you’ll see this comment, since this is an older post, but hopefully you do! I’m very interested in approaching my admin about this system, but I’m concerned about the end. The A vs. F seems pretty obvious and easy to support, but I would like to know how the B vs. C discussion would go down. I can already picture these conversations being a struggle, especially if the students doesn’t understand how their work doesn’t meet the criteria in the end. The other concern I have is about the final grade in the gradebook. I can do letter grades for the Dual Credit portion of my class, but the partner college sends the numerical grades to the district to be entered into our system. How do you determine the equivalent final numerical grade based on this system? I need to look into this more heavily, but I was curious about your thoughts on those 2 situations.

    Great thoughts here! Thanks for sharing.

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