In the winter of 2012 I was approached by a professor from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to leave my math teaching job of 15 years and come to work with him on a grant he had just received to run an educational study. Little did I know that this offer would set into motion an evolution of my approach to teaching that included transitioning to a gradeless classroom.
The educational study at WPI, set up as a randomized controlled trial and funded through the US Department of Education, was developed to determine if students receive immediate feedback on their math homework do they learn more throughout the course of the school year. Teachers used a free, online program called ASSISTments to deliver their homework to their students. The results of the study showed that students learn significantly more when receiving immediate feedback. I learned many things from working on this study but nothing more significant than the importance of looking at education through the lens of research and feedback.
As I was planning my return to the classroom in the winter and spring of 2017, I found myself doing as much reading as I could to learn the different ways to teach students more effectively. While doing this research I came across Arthur Chiaravalli’s article “Teachers Going Gradeless” on Medium. The first couple paragraphs cited two research studies which primed me to look more closely at the ideas in the post. By the time I reached the end of the article I was convinced to go gradeless when I returned to the classroom.
I was, however, having difficulty figuring out how to make it work for me and my future students. I read as much as I could about the subject, asked questions of those that were already gradeless, and watched videos of teachers conferencing with their students. But it was Jo Boaler’s book “Mathematical Mindsets” that helped me put all of the pieces together.
Jo Boaler suggests in her book that teachers should rename assessments from tests and quizzes to “Show Me What You Can Do’s,” give constructive feedback to students on these assessments, and allow students multiple opportunities to show understanding of a topic. She also stressed that homework shouldn’t be considered “work” but rather should be presented as a “Learning Opportunity” and that grading learning opportunities (homework), for completion or correctness, is not a fair way to show student understanding of the material. In many cases it instead it shows a students ability to complete an assignment. The ideas in the book clearly showed how I could frame my classroom completely around student understanding of the material presented. Understanding became the organizing factor for all that I had learned over the previous months of reading and research. I finally felt ready to go gradeless in my classroom.
I started the gradeless “experiment” with my students in the fall of 2017. I found that I was nervous about giving up my gradebook. I was nervous about student motivation without grades. I was nervous that I was trying to go gradeless in a school that still requires grades. I was nervous that going gradeless just wouldn’t work and I would have a revolt from the students and parents. None of these things became issues. In fact, in all of my years of teaching, I don’t think that I have enjoyed myself more than this past year. There is no longer the stress of entering every assignment in a gradebook and students no longer ask me how much an assignment is worth or if I offer extra credit.
Throughout the school year I constantly told my students “The goal is for every student is to understand the material in this class. When it comes time for you to receive a grade we will come to an agreement together on a grade based on what you have shown that you understand.” As teachers we should all strive for our students to leave the classroom at the end of the school year with a strong understanding of the material presented and I believe that this approach is an effective way to achieve that goal.
If you are interested in trying to do this in your classroom, take a look at my blog post or listen my interview on the Transformative Principal podcast to learn about the specific steps that I took to go gradeless.
Andrew Burnett is a 7th grade math teacher in Newton, MA and is always looking for new ways to improve teaching and learning in his classroom. His Twitter handle is @andburnett123 his school email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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