Giving up grading

Giving Up Grading: Student Reactions

In the true spirit of experiment, not all of my classes are going gradeless…yet. My AP seniors will be assessed traditionally, a control group. My sophomore honors will be gradeless, but follow traditional instruction.

Another experiment for me (and the school) is a blended senior year (with the instruction taught online and work completed out of class). Since I will only see these twelve students once a month, grade conferences are already built into the program.

Then I decided to try this with my junior honors, which is a dual credit 100-level class. I taught all of these students in their sophomore year, and even experimented with no-grades for a unit. This junior class will be structured in a similar, independent manner to the blended year: all work for the entire grading period will be posted on Google classroom, and students will work at their own pace.

Students have access to video tutorials, articles, their peers, and my feedback. All of their assignments involve a great deal of choice, and my goal is for them to fulfill their standards quickly so they have time to read voraciously and write intensely, all in areas of their own interests, without limits.

When I pitched the idea of no-grades to them on the first day of school, reactions were mixed.

One girl in the front row exclaimed, “I love this class already!” Others were less enthusiastic, exchanging nervous glances with their peers and rubbing their jaws after they hit the floor. Another teacher down the hall reported students leaving my room and whispering, “But how is she going to teach us?”

I was asking students to give up a lot of the expectations and structures they’d received in school for the last decade. Decade. Let that sink in a minute.

The first week would be crucial in helping them understand this new vision of learning. After some book speed dating and our reading day, I began the process.

First, students wrote for five minutes in their online notebooks about their feelings toward school and grades as our daily quick write.

Then I set the timer and gave kids 10 minutes to look through everything posted on Google classroom. Most kids felt overwhelmed seeing all of the assignments laid out before them, but after ten minutes, heads started nodding. They were clicking on instructions, reading examples, and getting inspired. “If we started this tomorrow,” I asked, “what would you still need from me in order to be successful?”

After those ten minutes, I let everyone voice their questions. I typed each question on the projector, along with my answer as I gave it. This document was then linked on Google classroom right under the syllabus for future reference.

Most questions were clarification on procedures and expectations. Some were about due dates. One was about how fast I would return their assignments with feedback.

None of them asked about the quality of the feedback.

In the first 45 minute period, we didn’t finish all their questions, so we continued the next day (I’ll swallow my jealousy of everyone reading this with 90 minutes blocks). After everyone felt comfortable with the expectations, each student responded to 3 questions on a Google form:

  1. How do you feel about no grades?
  2. What can I do to help you be successful?
  3. Do you have any other comments?

Honest reflection is one of my favorite forms of PD. For better or for worse, here are some of their thoughts:

“It will be tough not getting a grade for me, but I see the value in that.”
“…the no grades make me so less nervous about getting everything perfect.”
“I’m excited because I think this way I’ll get less bored and tired of English. Last year I felt like I was doing assignments just to do them. But with more freedom, I think I’ll take more time and challenge myself more.” (Remember, I taught all these students last year, so this was hard to read, but it makes me even more confident it was time for a change!)
“I’m a little nervous about the no grades and not really knowing what your grade is in the class. I feel like it will be better once I get used to it, though.”
“The no grades part is what is worrying me at the moment. I’m one of those people who want to know how I’m doing at all times. Also I freak out over little things, so I know it will be OK, but right now it scares me.”
“I am nervous about the no grades. I almost feel like I would get a better grade in the class if you graded it.”
“The no grades is definitely a good idea, I just don’t know how I am going to back up what grade I think I deserve. It will be hard to remember all the assignments, where I struggled etc. Maybe I should make a separate document or comments on my projects where I struggled but then later fixed the problem.” (I loved this idea so much, I’m going to suggest it to all my kids!)
“I like the no grades because I usually just do the assignment get the grade and yay i’m done I don’t revise just because I wanted a good grade and that’s all.” (Isn’t it funny how kids prove their words in their writing?)
“I don’t like the no grade thing.”
“I love getting feedback more than anything. Unless it’s a quick change that I need to make, I almost never get rid of any comments that someone makes on my writing. I like that more than whatever grade I get by a long shot (I do like to see that I got a good grade though).”
“I like the idea of no grades and just agreeing on a grade. Otherwise, grades stress me out.”
“No grades could go either way for me. I like the idea, but at the same time I need to see a letter grade so I know how I’m doing. Suggestions are great as well, but what tells me I didn’t do good enough or I need to try harder is the grade, because I’ll try to do the bare minimum without it.” (It’s sad that a single letter tells a student all this instead of several comments. We need to shift the focus!)
“I think I’m so used to getting and grade and and number to tell me how I did that I don’t know how I feel about it yet.”
“I like keeping up with my grades and knowing how well I am doing in a class. Not knowing my grades is going to probably stress me out honestly. I don’t know how I feel about it.”
“I actually appreciate grades because personally I really care about my gpa and grades so I like to know exactly where I stand in each class and what I need to do in order to maintain a comfortable gpa. Also for me it may be a bit of an overload getting all of our assignments at once, and due dates are very much appreciated so I know how much work I need to do on each assignment daily/weekly. I think that no grades and independent learning will be a good experience, but also it is very new and will take some getting used to.”
“There was one time last year where you only gave us feedback and no grades. Which it was nice because all my focus was on how can I improve.”
“I like not having grades because they don’t always reflect the effort and thought you put into it. On the other hand I don’t like not having grades because I think I’m so used to a teacher telling me what category my work is in and that needs improvement.”
“The no grades is also a huge stress reliever for me because instead of thinking about how it can be perfect, I can more creatively write.”

As you can see, these students are all over the spectrum. I have a lot of reassuring to do. And even more feedback to give.

But I’d rather spend my time doing that than justifying a two-digit number in a grade book any day.

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