Creating a Gradeless Class in a School That Requires Grades
Students determine their own grades through self-assessment and a conference with the teacher
In the years leading up to the 2017-18 school year, I had spent a good deal of time reading Jo Boaler’s research on the ways students learn math as well as Arthur Chiaravalli’s writings about creating a gradeless classroom. When I returned to the classroom at the beginning of the school year, I decided I was going to change what I had been doing for the past 15 years of teaching and create a classroom without grades. It felt overwhelming but also exciting. My school still requires students to receive a grade at mid-quarter and at the end of the quarter, so I have students determine their grade based on their understanding of the material.
Here is how I made the change:
Step 1 – Students and the Learning Standards
I need to ensure students know which learning standard(s) we are working towards. Everything students do in class is tied directly to learning standards. I refer to them multiple times each day in class and I will ask students while they are working: “Which learning standard does this refer?”
Step 2 – Assessing Students
Jo Boaler gave me the idea to eliminate the words “quizzes” and “tests”. Instead, I challenge students with “Show Me What You Can Do.” Changing the terminology is only a small part of what needs to change. Students in my class know these assessments are low stake and they can have multiple opportunities to show me what they can do on each learning standard. Here is an example of a recent Show Me What You Can Do. You will notice Roman numerals next to each problem which refers back to the learning standards listed at the top of the first page.
We also do a Show Me What You Can Do when working in groups at the whiteboards or at the tables. It doesn’t always have to be on paper or a handout.
Step 3 – Feedback to Students
After students complete a Show Me What You Can Do, I provide comments on things they do well and things that they do not seem to understand. I never place a grade or score at the top of the paper, and I don’t enter anything in my grade book. Here is an example of the same Show Me What You Can Do but after I have marked it up:
If students do a Show Me What You Can Do on a whiteboard, I take a picture of the work, print it out, write comments on the paper, and return it.
Step 4 – Student Self-Assessment
When students get their Show Me What You Can Do back, they self-assess their understanding of the learning standards using the following categories:
I need more time to understand this.
I can do this with the help of an example.
I can do this on my own, but I am still making computational or minor errors.
I can do this on my own and explain my solution path to others.
They receive a student self-assessment sheet like the one shown below. The topic is the title of the Show Me What You Can Do. In the case of the example Show Me What You Can Do above, it is Proportional Relationships and Equations. (Access a copy of the form below)
Step 5 – Saving Student Work
My biggest fear when I decided I wanted to do this was students might lose a Show Me What You Can Do or a self-assessment as they were compiling their portfolios to prepare for their conference. Thanks to a suggestion from Arthur Chiaravalli, I started using Seesaw. If you are not familiar with the service, Seesaw is an online portfolio that can be accessed via a web browser or as an app on a mobile device. We are not a one-to-one school yet, but we do have computer carts available. On the days I return the marked-up Show Me What You Can Do, I check out the computer cart for students to take pictures and upload those images to Seesaw.
Step 6 – Retakes
I allow students to retake problems that give them difficulty to show me they understand the material. The problems are similar but not the same. They do not need to redo all of the problems, only the ones that gave them difficulty. Prior to the retake, I have students verbally explain to me what they did incorrectly on the original Show Me What You Can Do. If they are unable to do this than I spend time working with them on the concept before they do the retake.
Step 7 – Conferencing to Determine a Grade
My school requires grades at least twice each quarter, so I conference with my students mid-quarter and at the end of the quarter. Initially, I was concerned about conferencing because I did not know if students were mature enough to handle this. However, conference days turned out to be some of my most enjoyable of the quarter. I get to talk one-on-one with each student and get a better idea of what they do and do not understand.
The first thing I do on conference day is hand out another self-assessment sheet with all of the learning standards listed which we have worked on in the quarter. Students log into Seesaw and look over all of their work for the quarter, self-assess again, and write a grade they feel they earned based on their understanding. Here is an example of a sheet completed by a student. (Access a copy of the form below)
I call students to meet with me one at a time. They bring their self-assessment sheet and computer which is logged into Seesaw. Together we look at their work and discuss their self-assessment. Here is an example of a conference.
What About Giving a Grade for Homework Completion?
Thanks to suggestions made by Jo Boaler, I made the conscious decision not to grade homework completion. I always thought students would be motivated to do homework if it was tied to a grade. I am here to tell you I was wrong!! I have almost exactly the same percentage of students completing homework this year as I did in years past. I now know grades do not make students complete homework. I do treat homework checking the same way, though. I still walk around at the beginning of class to make sure students have completed their homework and talk to those who did not. I still contact home if a student misses a few homework assignments in a row. When students ask me if their grade will go down if they don’t do their homework, I tell them it could because if they don’t practice, they may not be prepared for the Show Me What They Can Do. Entering homework completion into my online grade book was also time-consuming. Now I can use this time to make my lessons more interesting and engaging.
And, also thanks to Jo Boaler, I no longer call homework “homework.” I call it a Learning Opportunity. Students like to tell me it is still homework, but I push back and tell them it is not “work,” it is an opportunity for them to learn.
Going gradeless has made my students focus on the content as opposed to grades. I no longer field questions like “how can I improve my grade?” or “do you offer extra credit?” Students understand their grade is based entirely on their understanding of the material. It has created a more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom, not only for students but also for me.
Andrew started teaching math in 1997. For the first 15 years, he taught the way he had been taught back in the 80’s. He was the “sage on the stage” and students were passive learners. In 2012 Andrew was offered a job by professor Neil Heffernan at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to help him conduct an educational study. During the 5 year study, Andrew began to look at education through the lens of educational research. When he returned to the classroom in 2017 he became a “guide on the side” implementing not only the Thinking Classroom which involves students being active learners every day as they discuss math but also a gradeless classroom in a school which requires grades.
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