Remember when you made cookies for the first time? Did they come out burned or resemble a hockey puck more than a chocolate chip cookie?
Chances are you didn’t need someone to stand over your shoulder and tell you that you failed? The evidence was enough. Some may get discouraged by this, quit, and never make cookies again. In most cases, people tend to reflect, analyze, and consider what went wrong so they can make them better the second, or third, time around.
This is the example I use with students and parents to explain WHY I chose to go gradeless. Success through failure, that’s what a gradeless classroom lends itself to be. A classroom driven by failures which lead to success through self-reflection, feedback and personal analysis. These are beneficial to student growth.
Reason 1: Going Gradeless Redirects the Focus
“The grading process is great because it allows me to focus on learning rather than just keeping my grade up.” – AnneMarie, 8th grader
It has been said that the first thing a student looks at when graded work is returned is the grade. The second thing they look at is their neighbor’s grade.
In Ruth Butler’s 1988 study, she found that grades and even grades with feedback produced the least amount of growth, the greatest gains was feedback alone.
School isn’t about grades, it’s about learning. Somewhere along the line, this idea has been lost. Going gradeless is a definite shift in mindset with students and parents alike. In a gradeless classroom, students are expected to be creative, take risks, fail, and learn from their mistakes in the name of improving themselves and gaining knowledge. In my classroom, students assess their own work and one another’s. They receive feedback from me and their peers and they use this feedback to promote self-reflection and analysis of their work. These are skills successful people use in the real world.
Reason 2: Going Gradeless Reduces Student Stress
“The grading process is amazing. I didn’t have to stress. All I had to do was try my hardest and learn/participate. It didn’t stress me out and gave me room to learn and grow.” – Izzy, 8th grade
Melissa Cohen defines stress as the body’s reaction to a challenge. In her article, Surviving Stress and Anxiety in College and Beyond, 80% of college students feel stressed sometimes or often. She states academics may be the most common long-term cause of stress for college students. Due to factors such as not getting the grade you thought you deserved or pressures to get certain grades, undue pressure from self, parents or others not only causes undue stress, but creates student’s who play the game of school and are compliant. Some simply give up. The stress is too great, they’d rather take the punishment at home than give into the stress of grades. When I eliminated grades it not only reduced stress, but students shared over and over how liberated they felt in a gradeless classroom.
Instead of giving grades, student work was recorded in the gradebook as either U for Unsatisfactory, S for Satisfactory or Missing. My grade book was referred to as the databook, a glorified spreadsheet. Thus, students knew how they were doing every step of the way. And if they were Missing or Unsatisfactory in any area they had the chance to redeem themselves. At the end of every quarter, students choose their grades providing evidence to support it in a student-teacher conference.
Reason 3: Going Gradeless Promotes Reflection and Self-Assessment
“I like the grading process in this class because Mrs. Kettner wants to hear us talk about our opinions about our learning and not just hers.” – Noel, 8th grade
There is so much unintended learning that takes place in a classroom. Students take away different things from the same experiences. How does a quiz/test measure all that was learned? It doesn’t, therefore allowing students to talk about their learning not only empowers students, it allows for me as the teacher to understand what each student has learned. In the article, Metacognition: The Gift that Keeps Giving, Donna Wilson states “A student who is excited about being in the driver’s seat and steering toward learning success may well be destined to become an independent thinker on the way to charting a responsible course for school, career, and life. Being metacognitive can be likened to being more conscious, reflective, and aware of one’s progress along the learning path.”
As mentioned earlier, students self-assess and reflect upon individual pieces of work and at midterm and quarter. Students are given guidance on how to reflect and self-assess because it is a new concept for them to choose their grades. No one had ever asked them what they learned and to put a value to it. In years past, when I assessed students, my assessments weren’t that strong and only measured the learning about which topics I assessed on rather than all the learning that was taking place in the classroom. Now students are telling me what they have learned, they are in control of placing a value on their learning, they have become more reflective and aware of their learning.
Reason 4: Going Gradeless Gives Students Ownership of Learning
“Choosing my grade makes me feel like I have a choice in what I do and what I can do.” – Maile’, 8th grade
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink says, “A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout and greater levels of psychological well-being.” Giving students ownership of their learning allows them to focus on their strengths, to find successes in their learning, large or small, which promotes growth.
I decided to give more control of learning to students as the year progressed. I found myself more of a facilitator of students learning, allowing more and more student choice. Not only could students choose what work they wanted to use as evidence to support their learning, they could also choose what they wanted to learn about and do so without penalty–to take risks and become more autonomous learners.
Grades promote a fear of failure which kills creativity and risk-taking. With grades, some students get good at “playing the game of school.” In the past, students asked, “What does it take to get an A.” This does not show a desire to learn rather a desire to check some boxes to get to the A. Now, students impress me with their creativity and their desire to improve on their failures.
In Ted Dintersmith’s What School Could Be, he states “When people are ordered to do something they don’t believe in, they go through the motions. When they take ownership of their goal, they blow you away.” I saw that every day in my gradeless classroom. Being blown away more and more every single day. Never thinking that it could be topped, but even up until the last day of school, students blew me away. All because they had ownership of their learning and their grades. Students had control, a voice, autonomy.
Reason 5: Going Gradeless Allows Mistakes to Become Learning Opportunities
“I like the grading process because even if you fail at something, you can still prove yourself.”– Caleb, 8th grade
Student ownership of learning along with a growth mindset are what AJ Juliani speaks about in his article “The Epic Guide to Student Ownership.” In the article, Juliani states, “There were many groups who ‘failed’ to reach some lofty goals during this project. But each one of these groups presented to the class about their journey and spoke of how much they had learned even if they did not reach a specific goal. It was the first time I had heard students talk about “failure” in a positive light. Because they realized creating big goals meant you had the opportunity to fail forward.”
A growth mindset views mistakes as an opportunity to learn and improve. During a student-led conference, the quietest of all my students sat with me and bravely offered up the following “I like how you do grades, I feel that other teachers don’t even look at my work at times, I don’t even know what I did well on. Never looking at the work ever again. With my project, after feedback, I knew exactly what I did well and had guidance on how to improve.” This particular student took feedback from me on the same final project four times. Two times more than most of her peers–always pressing to improve based on feedback, looking to prove herself, a true growth mindset. A growth mindset, it’s a process, it’s what challenges us, it’s what makes us better.
With a gradeless approach, students “burned their cookies,” they failed, they took the chance, tried again, possibly failed multiple times, sometimes they succeeded, but they were in charge of measuring what success looks like. With their experiences and lessons learned in a gradeless classroom, it gave students the confidence to try new things, a new recipe for success.
Rachael Kettner-Thompson is a middle school Science and Technology teacher with experience in grades 6-8. She quit grading in 2017, and won’t be returning. You can follow her on Twitter @GoSunDevils.
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