Two years ago, when my department discussed our approach to going gradeless, our biggest apprehension was how to tell students they would not be getting marks. We worried there would be pushback from both students and parents, particularly because we were introducing this method to academic students. In the end, this fear proved unfounded. We had a few high achieving students come to us after class to talk about their fears. They commented that grades had always motivated them and they were afraid without them they would not do as well. Perhaps it is with some irony that the majority of these students became our most ardent supporters. And, we had one parent call. One. And not an irate parent, but a parent who was questioning how this was going to work and who went away satisfied that we would still be demanding good quality academic work. Still, despite our success, this is a big change for students, and you will do both yourself and your students a favour by spending some time thinking about how to introduce the topic.
Involving my students in the process was a key component to our approach, so I started the conversation by creating random class groups of four students and gave them each a piece of chart paper and some markers. I showed this slide
and asked students to discuss and make point form notes. When finished, each group took turns explaining their answers to the larger group.
“You can explain the information to others,” “You have learned something,” and “You get a good mark,” were some of the answers brought into the conversation. We then had a larger group discussion about how you know when you’ve learned something, what exactly a “good mark” is, and what kinds of skills you need to be successful.
Then I had them discuss this slide:
I suggested, “What if you were learning to ride a bike?” “How often should you get to attempt the skills needed?” This slide required very little group conversation. Most groups concluded that they should get as many times to attempt the skills as needed. Then I asked, “What if you were writing an essay? How many attempts should you get?” Most groups still agreed that they should get as many attempts as required.
“How often in school do you get the chance to re-attempt a skill?” I asked. This question was met with silence and confused looks. I let the silence sit there. At some point, a student offered that sometimes they get the chance to re-do an assignment, but that mostly, once you’ve handed an assignment in, you’re done.
We then discussed if this agreed with their prior conversation about the number of times you should get to learn a skill. This conversation also lasted a while. Some students argued that in school they only have a short time (in our school a semester) so there has to be an end to attempts. I posed questions like “Yes, that is the way we have always done it, but does that mean it’s the right way?” and “Can you think of a better way?” I asked, “What if you finally figure out what you’re doing after the assignment is done?” “Have you learned the skill, or not?”
Next, I moved the discussion to consider what kind of feedback students had received in the past, what they were looking for in their assignment feedback, and what they could do with the feedback they received.
At this point, I explained that I would not be issuing grades, but giving feedback only. I told them that they may redo assignments and that they will be required to reflect on the feedback they are given. (If this is your first attempt at going gradeless you may wish to discuss with students how many assignment redos you are willing to look at. When students re-submit an assignment, asking them to change the colour of the text and to submit a personal reflection on their changes can be a quick way for you to assess what new changes have been made.)
I spoke to the class about how researchers have studied the increase in learning when students receive just marks, marks with comments, and comments alone. I revealed that in the studies, students who received feedback only made the most improvement.
(I always tell them I have copies of the research for them to look at if they wish, but so far no one has asked to see it. I have a dream that my students will practice critical thinking and will want to see definitive proof of what I say, rather than just taking my word for it. Ahhh, my rose-coloured glasses.)
Be sure to tell your students that this is a change in practice for all of you and that you are on a learning journey together. Point out that you may have been guilty in the past of not giving students enough time to review and comment on their feedback. Let them know that it would be okay to tell you if you fall back into this practice or that the feedback you are giving them is not meeting their needs. You want them to know that you are also learning new skills. This is a huge part of creating a caring and open classroom environment that will encourage both students and you to take a chance.
The biggest question I received at the end of this lesson was, “If I don’t get a mark, how will I know if I’m doing ok?” This is a valid fear for students who have spent years working in the marks-based system. I assured them that we could conference at any time to discuss their progress. The reality is that with feedback, they will know exactly how they are doing. When they come and ask me, and they often do in the first few weeks, I ask them how they think they are doing. Then I ask them to tell me how they know. It takes students a while to build confidence in assessing the feedback they are receiving. We must remember that they have had many years of being told how they are doing. Self-reflection and self-analysis are new concepts for them.
Prior to students leaving class on that first that day, I had them write their thoughts on an exit slip. Some still had reservations about knowing exactly how they were doing, but they were all positive about the increased chances to practice skills and the idea of knowing what to work on from the feedback provided.
A large part of this process is giving students control and confidence over their own learning. In their past, they have experienced the feeling that the teacher just magically arrived at a number. (Whether it’s true or not, at some point in our academic career we have all had the feeling that a given mark was somewhat arbitrary.) With feedback, students know exactly where they stand and what to do to move forward. That is empowering.
I think this semester I may give each group a few examples of feedback from last semester and ask them to assess how the student is doing. I would show them a portion of feedback like this:
Hi Nick! You wrote a three-paragraph opinion piece on the benefits of summer break for students. Your formatting shows that you have a clear understanding of the structure of a paragraph. Your opinion is clear and consistent throughout your work. The next step is to add more details to the supporting examples in your second and third paragraphs.
I would ask the class to comment on what the student is doing well and where he needs to make some changes. Analyzing and fully understanding feedback can be difficult for students. Having the opportunity to look at feedback examples and assess the content without the stress of looking at their own work will help them understand what to look for in their future feedback. This would hopefully lead to a rich conversation about what it means to learn.
What do you think? How would you approach this change in pedagogy with your students?
Karen Locke is a high school English teacher. She is a vocal advocate for grades-free teaching and teaches in a school that provides a grades-free programme in grade nine and ten English. You can find her blog at https://karenlockeblog.com/ and follow her on Twitter @karenelocke.
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