Six Steps to Going Gradeless
Last summer I made the plunge to finally go gradeless. I was ready for my classroom to be centered around learning, not grades. I had visions of motivated students, a continuous flow of feedback, and energy for reviewing student work.
But then August came, and I had to figure out how to make these dreams a reality. These six steps started me on my gradeless journey:
1. Inform admin and staff
I first approached my principal about my idea of going gradeless in person. Fortunately, she was very supportive of my mission. However, I still came prepared with all my other steps laid out so she could understand the logistics, help me troubleshoot, be well-informed in case of any parent concerns, and be able to hold me accountable to my plans. I also sent out an email to the rest of my staff giving them an overview of my plans. While no one jumped on board with me, several checked in at various points in the year for updates on my experiment. This was a big endeavor, and I needed the support of those around me, even if they weren’t on my same journey.
2. Inform parents
At the start of every school year, I send home a letter to parents with an overview of my pedagogy and expectations for the year. Since going gradeless, a big chunk of my letter is used to explain why I am giving up grading and how I plan to keep them informed on their child’s progress.
I will also provide parents with resources about this practice, like this one and this one and this one.
While many students had questions, parents were all receptive to the idea of focusing on learning rather than grades. My principal later told me a few parents approached her with questions on back-to-school night, but they were all inquisitive, not critical. Because of my clear communication with admin, my principal was able to answer all their questions.
3. Set up the Gradebook
Parents, students, and staff are all programmed to look at grades for communication on student learning. My online gradebook is designed to enter a numerical score for every assignment, not narrative feedback. However, there is a comment feature. While I could add comments for every individual assignment, I also wanted to see all the feedback in one place to better identify strengths, weaknesses, and trends.
Using Google Classroom, I created a doc (like this one) for every student where I could record the assignment, the date I received it, and an overview of the comments I left on the assignment. This document became a “report card” of each students’ learning, and it was available to students, parents, and other staff members (like special education teachers).
For every grading period, the only assignment listed in my gradebook was “Feedback Form.” and in that one assignment, I used the comment feature to paste the document’s URL, giving everyone quick and easy access to this document.
Storing all feedback in one place made conferences with students and parents run much more smoothly. While the set-up is time consuming, the payoff is worth it. I will never teach again without putting all my data on a single feedback form.
4. Inform the Students
On the first day of school, those eager cherubs entered my room, plopped down in a desk, and prepared themselves to hear how this year was going to be exactly like last year and the year before and the year before. And then I told them in my class, there are no grades. Seeing their jaws go slack, watching their eyes bug out, and hearing their whoops for joy was a highlight of my year. Several of the cheers quieted when I assured them a lack of grades did not mean a lack of work, but everyone listened intently, curious to hear about this new system.
I give students some of the same articles I give parents about the value of learning over grades. I had them write about their own experiences and stresses with grades, and I gave them plenty of opportunities for practice before any summative assignments.
These practices were essentially the formative assessments I traditionally use in my classroom, but in my students’ eyes, they were new. I used each one as an opportunity to build up trust that they’d receive useful feedback on everything they submitted and they would have the chance to revise and prove their learning.
This was a huge mental shift for many of my students. It took them weeks, some even months, to adjust. I had to build trust with them and prove they’d always have a chance to demonstrate their learning through corrections. Once they realized I wasn’t maniacally waiting to slap a C on their report cards, many relaxed and put the focus where it belonged: on learning.
In the first few weeks, everything began running smoothly. Some students were still leery, but most realized the work was the same. Their feedback was familiar. The only difference was not seeing a digit. But then end of the grading period approached and administration still required a number in the gradebook to go on report cards. Around mid-terms and near the end of every grading period, I used a flipped-classroom model and several independent learning days so I could conduct 5-10 minute conferences with every single one of my students. They came prepared with a reflection of their work (like this one), all the pieces they’d completed, and a justification for the grade they felt they earned.
For every conference, students must also fill in a hyperdoc. I list the learning objectives for the grading period, and they insert hyperlinks to their work that demonstrates those skills.
I, in turn, review their feedback form, discuss patterns I see, and either agree with the grade they choose, or offer a rebuttal. By the end of the conference, we both have a grade attached to their performance thus far and a clear understanding of how to maintain or improve their learning process moving forward.
This reflection may be the most important step—for me and my students. My students need plenty of chances to express how gradeless is working for them. They do this in person, on paper, with their name, and anonymously.
Here are some sample screenshots of Google forms I used for student reflections. I used their answers to gauge student reactions, pinpoint areas of miscommunication, and guide adjustments in my instruction.
And I reflect with the kids. I let them see my thought process and the changes I make as a result of reflecting with them. I want them to know their voices initiate change in my classroom.
The Changes I Experienced
One year later, I am committing to going gradeless again, and honestly, I can never see myself going back. Here’s why:
The Points Game Is Over
In the past, I have seen students calculate how little they can work to pass with a D-. On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen students calculate how little work they must work to receive an A. Students who earn a grade they’re satisfied with are unlikely to revise, to continue learning. It’s sad, but true. And now it’s no longer a problem.
Before going gradeless, as much as I explained the value of practice, I could still see their shoulders shrink a little if I announced there was no grade attached. In my mind, practice was valuable for the final product. In their mind, practice without a grade was busy work.
While some may argue this attitude can be changed by shifting the environment in my classroom, I contend that going gradeless is a distinct way to shift that environment. Without grades, everything we do is valuable because of the learning, not the point value. There is no weighing one aspect of the class more than the other, whether intentionally or not. It all matters because it is all learning.
I never put points on reading assignments before, and some treated reading as less important than work that earned them points. Now I put no points on anything, but they discuss their reading habits in conference, giving it equal weight to their written work.
My Relationships with Students Have Improved
I looped with my students last year, so I went gradeless after already knowing them from the previous year. In my first year with this group, I made it a point to come around and talk to them every week on writing day and during workshop time, and STILL there were two monosyllabic students who avoided eye contact and insisted everything was great and fine with no questions. I never pushed them, because their written work was met expectations.
In the first conference of the year, those two boys said more to me in that conference than they had the previous year. They told me about their writing process, what they liked in their pieces, what they wanted to improve on, and their goals for the next month. As I listened, I marveled at how articulate they had suddenly become.
This thinking could have taken place in a written reflection, but I felt a greater connection with these two by hearing it with their voices, and grading conferences gave me the place to do it. In addition to me learning more about them, going gradeless gave me the chance to respond as a person to their work, not just as a teacher. Last year I had a student write about a stillborn sibling she never got to meet and the conversation she hopes to have with him in heaven. Another student wrote about the last time he held his grandmother’s hand before she died. One girl wrote about her father walking out of both her house and her heart. Again. Still another, for the first time, wrote about dealing with the tragedy of her sister being shot and killed in her home.
How could I possibly put a score on that?
That was beautiful and heart-wrenching and brave and honest, but shucks, the rubric has a section for mechanics and there were a few too many run-ons. 98/100
No! Students no longer see a grade; they see my personal reaction to their human experiences followed by my articulation of the writing techniques I saw that made it successful. Then I can end by mentioning there are some areas I’d like to help them polish and encourage them to submit it for publication, present it to a loved one, or print it out and treasure it forever.
But it’s such a relief to no longer attempt to capture the value of those pieces with a two digit score.
Going gradeless does not mean getting rid of evaluating student work, but it does mean getting the focus of assignments back to learning.
Megan Davidhizar is a high school English teacher with experience in grades 8-12. She quit grading in 2017, and won’t be returning. You can follow her on Twitter at @MDEnglishTeach or subscribe to her blog at https://readwritelovelearn.wordpress.com/
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