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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Giving Up Grading: The Logistics

Keyboard

As I begin planning for the year and this new endeavor of going gradeless, I’ve been thinking a lot about all that can be gained in my students’ learning:

  • Students focusing on feedback and learning instead of a digit.
  • Students no longer comparing scores with their peers.
  • Students taking risks without fear of failure

These are just a few of a long list of hopes I have for my kids no longer burdened by daily grades. However, I’ve also had to think about what may be lost.

  • How will I communicate to parents and other teachers about student progress?
  • How will I submit grades for report cards?
  • How can I ensure the students understand their own progress?

I’m ready for the trial and error approach (and more errors and more trials, I’m sure), but these are a few of the logistical points I plan to start with.

  1. Reformat online grade book

    When parents, teachers, and my students log on to our online grade book, I don’t want them to see a blank page under “English.” I never want to give the impression that because we don’t have grades we aren’t learning. As a result, I plan to do two things to help communication of expectations and learning.

    First, when I create an assignment on Google classroom for students, I will still make an entry in our grade book. However, rather than entering a score, I will just mark “collected” or “missing.” This will give everyone a clear picture of what we are doing in the class and the students’ level of completion.

    Second, I will have a column titled “Feedback.” Our online grade book allows us to add comments to individual assignments. In the past I have used this to denote if an assignment had been revised or if it was submitted incomplete. Now, I will add a comment and provide a URL to a Google doc with the proper share settings. This Google doc will be a running record of feedback.

  2. Running record of feedback

    While I do want to give feedback on the individual work students submit, I also want to keep one doc for each student that gets updated with feedback specifically addressing the standard objectives. By keeping this information in one doc, students and I will better be able to evaluate the entire grading period as a whole and the progress made.

  3. Conferences
    At the mid-term and 9 week mark, I will take a week to schedule conferences with each student individually. During this time, students will present their work, describe their efforts, and advocate for themselves. We will review the standards marked as objectives for the quarter and look at revisions they have made based on the feedback they received. The mid-term conference will mostly function as a practice and checkpoint, while the final conference will determine their numeric grade that will be entered in the grade book for the quarter.

    I know meeting with an entire class of students for individual conferences will be a challenge. I have some classes as big as thirty. However, independent learning is already built into my curriculum with reading days and writing days.

    During this time, students are given the freedom to read what they want and write what they want for the entire period. The expectations are set that this is individual learning time, and by doubling up a few of these days in the week, combined with students who can meet in our school-wide Student Resource Time, I am hopeful I can get to everyone. Plus, by reading and writing, students are still meeting some umbrella standards and can bring their work from these days to the conferences as further proof of their learning.

    Do you have any other ideas for increasing communication on student progress? Leave them in the comments below.

 

Giving Up Grading: My First Steps

NoGrades

After eight years of traditional(ish) teaching in my English classroom, I am excited to begin another new year. I look forward to new books and fresh faces, building relationships and encouraging learners. I’m ready to greet every student with a smile, put the world of writing at their fingertips, and open their eyes to new titles in the library.

You know what I’m not ready for?

Grading.

As an English teacher, grading is my arch nemesis. The Joker to my Batman. The Lex to my Superman. The Voldemort to my Harry.

I spend hours grading assignments every night, poring over rubrics and guidelines, often agonizing over the final number posted in the grade book. Will this be high enough to make Sally feel validated about her work? Will it be low enough to encourage Billy to revise? Will it be in a satisfactory range to prevent Eddie’s dad from sending me another e-mail? Will it completely demoralize Alli who has poured her heart and soul into this piece only to have it reduced to two digits in a grade book online?

I love giving students feedback to hone their craft and refine their work, but I hate giving it a score, so easily compared and discarded.

And so, I have decided to take the leap that’s been at the edge of my thoughts for years. I am finally going to give up grading. Gulp.

Step 1: Inform Admin and Staff

Fortunately, my principal is very excited for me to experiment with this new idea, but I know I will need to keep communication open for the logistics. I also want to let other staff members know my plans. Our school has a student mentoring program, and each teacher is responsible for checking a select group of students’ grades regularly. If those teachers see no numbers in the grade book, they won’t know what I’m doing in my classroom or how to help.

Plus, starting the conversation early can only foster collaboration and inspire more big ideas.

Step 2: Inform Parents

Every year  I send home a letter to parents with an overview of my pedagogy and expectations for the year (at the end of this letter, I add a small paragraph personalized for each student about why I am looking forward to having him/her this year). This year, a big chunk of my letter will be used to explain WHY I am giving up grading and HOW I plan to keep them informed on their student’s learning.

I will also provide parents with articles about this practice, like this one and this one.

Step 3: Inform Students

While I have experimented with no grades on a few isolated assignments with positive results, I know it will be a major shift for my students. I will need to work extra hard to ensure they know where they are with their learning and what steps they will need to take moving forward.

In the first week of school, I want to read articles with my kids about grades, the stress of school, and the importance of learning. We’ll read, journal, discuss, and repeat.

As a students myself, I remember being driven crazy in college when a professor would mark “B+/A-” on top of my paper. All I could think was, “Wait, so is it a B+ or is it an A-? My GPA depends on this!” I can’t imagine how I would have handled no grade at all!

I can empathize with my students who have been trained to focus on the score, not their work, and I’ll have to remember my own anxiety to help them work through theirs.

Step 4: Practice 

Before I give my first major assignment, a narrative piece, I want to give the kids a scaffold, both for the writing and the grading. Students will write a short excerpt (a snapshot, a dialogue section, etc), and I will give them feedback on it. No grade.

My feedback will need to highlight a skill they are using well and should continue, and point out a place where they need to push themselves, plus the resources for how to get there.

I admit, I will still be working long hours every night to accomplish this, but the difference is my time will be spent with their work, not their grades.

Step 5: Reflect

I love reflection. It drives my classroom, but it’s not enough for me to be the only one reflecting. After this first scaffold, I need to give each student the chance to reflect either in writing or in a conference to tell me what they got out of the feedback. Is what I wrote what they read? Or did they totally miss the encouragement and focus only on the critique? Did they understand my comments? What needs to be more clear? What could I do differently next time to be even more helpful?

My students’ answers to these questions will shape the feedback I give as we begin our first major writing piece. With this information, I can learn to give better feedback for the formative assessments, and they can refine their own learning process with what helps them best.

This is all new and scary, for me and the students. After the first 9 week grading period, we will take time to reflect in a big way and decide together if this is how we want to continue or if we need a change.

Check back to find out how the first weeks go!