In my previous post, A Teacher’s Journey to a No Grades Classroom, I talked about turning my classroom into what I later called a Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE). Using technology helped me rebuild myself as a teacher and reimagine teaching and learning in my classroom, but the journey was not without challenges.
The transition to teaching without grades is no small task, as it requires rejecting an established model that has dominated education since its inception. There are many barriers to this change. Most administrators are bound by long-standing policy and aren’t comfortable with this kind of sweeping change. Students maintain the misperception that grades demonstrate learning. Parents operate under this same delusion, and they struggle to comprehend a class that is driven by iteration and feedback. Of course, college admission is always an issue, as many colleges still require a GPA as part of the admission process.
When I decided to throw out grades—which was the founding principle behind my new student-centered classroom—the college admission process was far less important at that point than helping students grow to value learning for the sake of learning, rather than for a grade. Still it is one of many problems that teachers must face, as they create a no-grades classroom.
Some teachers learn about powerful digital portfolio tools, like FreshGrade, and begin collecting student assets, and their enthusiasm toward de-emphasizing grades immediately explodes. This exuberance can lead to a hasty decision to throw out all traditional grades, so they just do it. While I’m a huge fan of the “all-in” approach when it comes to building a no-grades classroom, it’s easy to fail if you throw out grades with no preparation. If you walk into class tomorrow and tell students there won’t be a grade on the next assignment or project, they’re sure to balk at this unorthodox change.
Plan a unit of instruction, in which you’ll eliminate number and letter grades. Consider the timing. Waiting until the end of a school year, when a large assignment or project can impact report card grades is probably not the best time. If it is near the end of the year, plan to toss your grades for a single assignment that isn’t typically worth a large portion of the final grade.
Whether your plan is built around a single activity or an entire unit, inform students and parents about this dramatic change in assessment. Explain that you want students to focus on the learning, without considering the ramifications of a low or a high grade. Make stakeholders comfortable; assure them that this activity or unit will not negatively impact their report card grades and that you’ll answer all questions along the way. Expect pushback and be ready to answer all questions. Remember, the key to the “experiment” is to emphasize learning and to de-emphasize the grade.
This is more of a myth than a real problem. It may seem that students are motivated to work for grades, but in reality, most are motivated by fear of a bad grade. If they receive a low mark, their parents will punish them, or they won’t be allowed to play in the big basketball game, or they might not be admitted to their favorite Ivy League college.
When students are curious about a new concept or skill, and when they see activities as enjoyable, they’ll always participate. If you say there won’t be a grade on the assignment, and the activity is a fill-in-the-blank worksheet, many students won’t do it, because they see no value in it. Give them value, and they’ll do the work.
When you move away from traditional grades, you will begin to assess learning differently. You’ll observe more and converse with students about their strategies, their successes and their failures. You’ll likely write a ton of meaningful narrative feedback. In fact, in a no-grades classroom, observation and feedback take up the bulk of teachers’ time, and this can be daunting.
When I launched my no-grades classroom many years ago, I quickly became overwhelmed with writing feedback. Equally important, I soon learned that students weren’t reading all of the feedback I provided, which was frustrating and made me feel like my grand experiment was failing. It struck me one day that I had access to some useful technology that could help. I didn’t have a powerful e-portfolio program like FreshGrade, so I improvised and started filming students in action and recording our conversations about learning. Then, I added the videos and audios to students’ websites and blogs. With today’s technology, it’s easy to casually record learning, as you circulate around your classroom. Students can record their own work and collaboration, too, and add it to their individual portfolios. Use these assets to facilitate assessment, and cut back on how much narrative feedback you write. This doesn’t mean you’ll never write feedback, but you’ll save hours weekly if you leverage the technology.
Your school’s grading policy and/or your building principal may mandate that an official grade is assigned weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. Parents will be accustomed to seeing some kind of label, and administrators most likely won’t want you to deviate from the practice.
This may be the most challenging strategy for no-grades teachers to grasp, at first. We’re used to the math doing the work. We assign points to activities, and a computer translates the points to percentages and a letter grade. I used to tell students, “I didn’t give you a grade; it’s all about the math.” How ridiculous that sounds today. When teachers assign grades, it has little to do with the math. It’s a subjective process that falsely labels learners. However, most schools still require a letter grade.
Placing a grade on a report card is not as difficult as it may seem, in a no-grades class. When it’s time to grade, ask students what grade they should receive. Remind them that you don’t believe in grades and your class is driven by conversations about learning. Still, since the principal asks for a grade, who better to provide it than students? After all, in a successful no-grades classroom, they are the best judges of their learning. Instruct students to reflect on what they’ve accomplished during the grading period (this is a fantastic process) and, based on their prior knowledge of how grades work, assign a grade that makes sense. Be sure to emphasize that it must make sense, based on the traditional grading system. I did this for years, and it works beautifully; in fact, you’ll find that kids are typically much tougher critics of their own learning than teachers.
These are a few problems no-grades teachers face and some possible solutions. Are you trying to eliminate grades in your class? What problems do you encounter, and what solutions have you found?
FreshGrade Advisor Mark Barnes is a longtime teacher, author, international speaker, and publisher of the Hack Learning Series, books that provide right-now solutions for educators. Mark is a recognized authority on digital learning and is the creator of Teachers Throwing Out Grades, a global Facebook group with more than 5,000 educators working to improve assessment practices around the world. Follow Mark on Twitter @markbarnes19.