While the benefits of a gradeless classroom are attractive, with feedback and discussion replacing numbers and ‘fire and forget’ assignments and introspection and intrinsic motivation supplanting whinging and grade grubbing, we all know that cultural norms and expectations (of students, parents, administrators, and teachers) can cause anxiety and distract from effective implementation. Some of that initial fear and hesitation can be eschewed and considerable useful time can be, in my experience, reclaimed from those all-important first few weeks of class time, while the focus on learning and improvement inherent to the gradeless approach can be maintained.
After navigating these waters a few times, I made a simple but effective change to my explanation of the system: I started referring to these courses as averageless instead of gradeless. Classes that I conduct in this manner are still receiving copious formative feedback, still evaluating their own progress relative to explicit expectations and standards, and still have demonstrable student understanding as the sole factor in determination of final marks. What they don’t have is a several weeks’ period of confusion among students, as much initial ‘miscalibration’ of the necessary amount of student effort (“Hey, gradeless? Easy A!”), or as many parents initially concerned about the apparent hippie commune that I have going on in the lab.
Case Study: Introduction to Electrical Engineering
In this elective high-school course, students apply their understanding of basic electronics (from the prerequisite course) to the creation of more complex systems that involve the Arduino microcontroller. The principles that they learned in Electronics are used to help them design and assemble the hardware, but the meat of the course is learning to program to Arduino to respond to sensor input with appropriate servo, LCD, LED, and other output. The course usually has a theme – “How robots overcome obstacles” and “Engaging games” have been recent themes.
At the beginning of the term, we discuss the theme, theorize about the necessary skills they may need to meet the challenge, and I outline the course standards. There will generally be 10-12 standards, relating to different types of hardware (servos, LCDs, sensors, etc.) or to software (loops, arrays, debugging, comments and indentation, etc.). Over the course of the term, I will combine group mini-lessons, short formative challenges (ex: “write a loop that will display all of the odd numbers from 1-100 and their sum”), and individual coaching as they pursue understanding that will help them towards their goal. When a recent student wanted to build a robot that could detect a fall and inflate an airbag to cushion its fall, the student designed mini tasks that included creating an LCD display of accelerometer readings, mastering the control of a relay to turn on a valve, and a general exploration of continuous-rotation servos. After these mini goals were met, the student had the skills and confidence to tackle the larger project. Along the way, all of the goals for understanding were met, the student gained experience in chunking a large task (and other metacognitive skills, including backwards design), got feedback and coaching from me, and displayed the agency and perseverance indicative of real commitment to a goal that was personal and real. In fact, during that iteration of the course, I did zero direct instruction on coding, but all of the students were able to build those skills up and achieve their goals.
Along the way, I give students grades along with feedback on the smaller tasks (more than one in a given standard, if applicable), so the class isn’t technically gradeless – on most activities, they receive a grade of 1-11 for each applicable standard, with 11 representing ‘A+’ work and each lower number indicating a their of a letter grade reduction. I do this to help them calibrate their achievement and to leverage a system with which they are familiar. I also make it clear, however, that their final grade is in no way an average of their individual grades. That is, the course is averageless. Their final grade comes as the result of a conversation with me, where they present evidence of their understanding of the standards and propose a letter grade, in consultation with a rubric describing ‘A’ work, ‘B’ work, and so on.
The descriptions and my explanation of the goals of my averageless courses take into account the fact that, while a broad understanding is valuable (and ‘A’ work will have shown some competence in each area), evidence of the capacity for deep understanding is also very important. A student who has learned how to understand something deeply will be able to and have the confidence to replicate that effort and those strategies in other topics in the future. Additionally, two students may be drawn by their interests and goals into totally different areas of concentration, and this system provides them the opportunity and incentive to do that, while not pre-judging which skills are the most important or to what degree each will be explored by every student. I want the course to look different for each student, while having a common set of core understandings and valuing the ‘deep dive.’ By actively encouraging and supporting their unique interests, I instantly become a resource, mentor, and partner in the learning process – a way for students to meet goals – rather than a gatekeeper or automatic adversary.
Even though averageless courses benefit from the use of some of the grade-based vernacular that students are familiar with, there is still the opportunity for them to misjudge the effort/time needed to gain the necessary depth and/or breadth to succeed in the course. While some in any given course students will struggle, due to preparation, interest and investment, outside factors, or for reasons unknown to us, surprises at the end of any term are most unwelcome. For this reason, and to provide yet another layer of feedback, I will set up conferences relatively early in the term to do a ‘trial run’ of our individual end-of-course meetings. Students can then be sure of the quality and quantity of evidence needed and get an idea of the appropriateness of their pacing up to that point. This formal feedback – a type of ‘midterm grade,’ if you will – is helpful for them, keeps parents in the loop, and answers any remaining questions about the process. As with other grades, this one is not averaged in any way; it is a snapshot of current achievement, and students have ample time to adjust to expectations if adjustments are needed.
By the end of these courses, we almost always agree on the student’s final grade. If anything, students tend to rate themselves more harshly than I do, given their previous experience with graded courses, which lead them to expect perfection as synonymous with success.
Some results of this approach have been greater and more consistent student involvement, a differentiated learning environment, a varied and creative set of final projects, and a higher average level of student understanding, with a minimum of fretful students, parents, and administrators. The tactic of approaching the course as “averageless” removes a number of potential obstacles and makes buy-in less of a leap of faith, paving the way for student success.
Supplement (rubric provided to students):
Letter grades describe student achievement towards mastering the course’s learning objectives, with the following rough descriptions:
|The student has mastered the course skills and content; he or she can apply the skills in context and make connections between them; work is documented completely and communicatively in the portfolio; all work is complete.|
|The student has broad command of the course material and has some smaller gaps in understanding or achievement or one larger area in need of work; work is documented in the portfolio, with varying levels of depth and clarity of communication; all work is complete|
|The student has not met several standards, with larger gaps and little ability to apply the ideas in context to design solutions and analyze situations; there may be incomplete projects or portfolio documentation|
|The student has done little to demonstrate mastery of course material, with only superficial understanding; several projects or a large one are incomplete|
|Next to no progress, documentation, or completed products. Student has not participated in the course in a significant way|
* Intermediate grade levels (A-, B+, etc.) can be used to describe work relative to these broader categories.”
Josh Gates is the Director of Innovation, physics and engineering teacher, and advocate for active learning at The Tatnall School in Wilmington DE. See selected work at joshuagatesdesign.com
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