Going Gradeless: A Liberation From Anxiety
For several years in the middle of my career, I taught a class designed for students on IEPs, in the EL program, and on behavior plans. The concept was terrible, but I loved the students and came out of those years with cherished memories. At that same time I taught some AP English classes as well. I’ll never forget 2010, the year that seven of my students were hospitalized for self harm or threats of self harm. All seven were from AP classes.
According to the National Institutes of Health, almost one third of children ages 13 to 18 deal with an anxiety disorder. The Washington Post reported last year that in 1985 18% of college freshmen “felt overwhelmed,” while in 2016 that number was at 41%. People usually blame social media for the increase, but can we also bring competitive academic culture and grading practices into the conversation?
I stepped into the gradeless classroom waters because of my own stress and anxiety. I was spending too much time at home on schoolwork when I should have been bonding with my family and friends or caring for myself. I created too many assignments because standardized exams were looming in our future, exams that not only meant a lot for my students’ futures but also created a picture of how people saw me as a teacher. I was essentially drowning in the waters of competitive academic culture.
Although I entered the gradeless waters for my own wellbeing, in just weeks I saw that gradeless was even better for my students. In a world of online gradebooks, students are acutely aware of every point they’ve lost or gained and how many--or how few--points they must gather in order to hit the percentage they and others expect of them. Grades create a culture that emphasizes doing the work and collecting the points over actual learning. Have you ever heard a teacher say, “He passed the final assessment, but I had to fail him because he didn’t do the work”? When students pass summative assessments but not the class--and vice versa--the rules of the game must be reviewed.
When we make education a grading game and teachers the scorekeepers, we end up with winners and losers, but mostly losers because students are performing to please others and earn extrinsic rewards, rather than experiencing intrinsic joy in their education. In a gradeless classroom, students must produce evidence of the skills they have attained. It’s not about getting all of the work done. It’s not about passing tests and quizzes. It’s about practicing the skills and then proving in multiple ways or multiple times that a standard has been met for that grade level. For instance, students might create evidence of their learning through essays, projects, and other artifacts. Then, at the end of a grading/reporting period, the teacher and student conference about how the student is progressing toward meeting the standards for that class or reporting period. The student provides his/her opinion along with evidence, while the teacher listens and asks questions. Between the start of the reporting period and the conference, teachers create lessons and provide practice while also giving clear and specific feedback in person, in writing, or through an online gradebook.
I like to say that my classroom is not a grading game but a learning lab. If my principal evaluated me as often as my students get evaluated by their teachers and the larger system, I’d be forever on edge, nervous, and cautious. I went into teaching to be a mentor and a guide, not a judge or an accountant, so I make my classroom that learning lab where hypotheses are made, experiments are done, failures are learned from, collaboration and creativity are honored, and positive results are eventually realized. The most important part of that process, though, is the freedom to fail while learning. In a gradeless classroom, failure isn’t etched into a gradebook and figured into the student’s average, and that reduces everyone’s anxiety.
When I gave my students a chance to give me feedback about my teaching at the end of this school year, some of them chose to address my use of gradeless classroom philosophy. Only 1 of my AP English students expressed dissatisfaction with my methods, while 58 were thankful. Hope, one of the 58, wrote, “It allowed me to focus on certain aspects of each piece of writing I was doing instead of focusing on the effect it would have on my grade. It allows me to take feedback in a more constructive way because I knew I could improve the next week. Gradeless also reduced my overall anxiety about the class. No one week would define my grade; it was about who I was at the end instead of who I was on a bad Tuesday in February.” And, Sierra said in her research paper she chose to write about gradeless classrooms, “Everyone makes mistakes. Gradeless classrooms provide second chances so students are able to learn from their mistakes. School should be a place where all students feel safe, and a gradeless classroom is where I feel the safest.”
While swimming in the gradeless waters, I’ve learned that the beauty of gradeless classrooms is how they support the foundational levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the famous pyramid of needs that must be met in order for learning and self-actualization to occur. Physiological needs are at the base, then safety, then love/belonging, then esteem, and finally self-actualization or transcendence. My students tell me again and again that gradeless methods make them feel that sense of safety and belonging that sets the stage for learning. Over a year ago, my student Alia compared gradeless learning to rock climbing. School can be a difficult climb, but gradeless creates a safe environment that turns the teacher and entire classroom structure into the harness and the tools needed to make that climb.
What’s even more beautiful is that gradeless classrooms also support Maslow’s higher levels of esteem and self-actualization. When we exchange letters and numbers for verbal or written feedback, when we meet with students individually to discuss what is going well and what needs more practice, when we encourage reflection and goal making over tests and quizzes, when we give students choice in how they will demonstrate mastery of the standards, students feel valued and autonomous. They see school as a place to grow, not a place to be ranked and sorted. This is good for them emotionally.
Grace, a student I had in both AP English and Teacher Pathway (a course for students who want to explore a career in education), told me, “Everyday I walked into this classroom with little to no pressure. Fewer grades makes me feel more like a student and less like a number.” Going gradeless transforms students like Grace from polite and compliant students who quietly do the work and take the tests to engaged and curious people who find joy, sometimes loud and messy joy, in those higher levels of Maslow’s. When practice isn’t graded, my students report that they are eager and confident to take on greater challenges and risks with their learning, not anxious.
Ally, another student who addressed my grading practices when giving me feedback wrote, “Your gradeless method really relieved a lot of stress for me. Between working until 11 three nights a school week and having band rehearsal the other two nights, it was hard to find time to focus on my school work and multiple AP classes. AP English probably caused me the least amount of stress primarily because of this method. I also believe that the gradeless method expanded my love for writing because writing for a grade isn't as fun as writing to explore different styles. I knew that I could experiment, and if it didn't work out as I'd hoped, it wouldn't result in failing the class. It would only result in knowing to try something different next time.”
My students also personalize their work more in the gradeless environment. Grace added, “I see writing in a whole new way. We didn’t write everything for a grade. A lot of the time it was just for self-improvement. I write more maturely than I did at the beginning of the year. Words have so much meaning behind them, and I finally know how to get my point across.”
Not surprisingly, I had worries about the gradeless movement, which is why I started by wading into the pool rather than diving in. Mostly, I worried that my students wouldn’t do the practice I provided to the best of their ability, or even at all, without a grade, but that hasn’t been the case at all. I found that all students want to learn and will learn for intrinsic reasons if the experience is relevant and engaging, and if I provide them time to learn and practice. When I shifted my focus from assignments and grades to learning and feedback, the time once spent on grading turned into time for creating relevant and engaging classroom experiences because a gradeless classroom only works well when the teacher is committed to relevance and engagement. What’s more, when I shifted my focus from homework to in-class practice, I could individualize instruction and find gaps in learning before they become canyons, which changes the entire classroom atmosphere from ranking and sorting to collaboration and growth.
I’m going gradeless for Grace, Hope, Ally, and Sierra; for my students in 2010 and every other year who are drowning in our competitive academic culture; and for me. Classrooms should be transformational, not transactional. They should be life giving, not life draining. For me and my students, gradeless has been the antidote we needed to let go of some anxiety and fall in love with learning all over again.
Gina Benz teaches AP students, EL students, and future teachers at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls, SD, where she began her career as an English teacher 19 years ago. To learn more about this topic and her other passions as a teacher, go to GinaBenz.org or follow her on Twitter where she is Lit Teacher @GinaBenz605.