For me, the purpose of feedback is about growth. Just as a coach provides feedback on improving a baseball swing or long jump form, I provide feedback on the use of historical evidence, thesis construction, and other discipline related skills.
One of the courses I teach is the mandatory first-trimester skills class for ninth graders where, through the vehicle of a term-long project, my colleagues and I introduce and help hone a number of skills related to writing, thinking, and research. We created the course about seven years ago to address the different level of skills our ninth graders had as they entered our high school coming from not only our middle school, but also other schools in our area, other parts of the country, and other countries as well because between fifteen and twenty percent of each ninth grade class is made of new students. The trick has been to get the students to read, reflect, and improve based on the feedback I provide. I have worked to find ways to deliver meaningful feedback students actually read and think about, rather than simply looking at the grade and then either moving on or obsessing over the number/letter.
A few years ago, my school began having discussions about the ramifications of Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets and Angela Duckworth’s work on grit. How does one create a mindset which promotes growth and perseverance through challenging work? According to a study done by Ruth Butler in 1987, it’s not through grades but rather through comprehensive feedback. Grades actually seem to inhibit growth because the focus is on the grade, rather than the learning. Even when paired with feedback in another form, students who also received a grade did not demonstrate as much growth as those who received only comments. My gut told me something was wrong with the idea that grades were needed to provide motivation and thus meaningful learning. Turns out there was actually research to support this idea.
My school is a 1:1 school where all the students have Lenovo Yoga tablet PCs. I use OneNote’s Class Notebook and Teams together as my LMS (prior to this year I used Haiku as my LMS to do functionally the same as what I am about to describe). Students submit work through OneNote and I ink my feedback on it using the stylus on my computer. I also put a rubric into their OneNote showing how I scored each standard for that assignment. A couple of years ago, though, I forgot to post the grades and put the rubrics in their notebooks. Something interesting happened. The kids really read the comments! They asked me questions about the comments. This happened occasionally before, but not to this extent.
I spent some time thinking about what had happened. My summers are occupied teaching at the North Carolina Governor’s School, a “no grades” zone, which is an anomaly in North Carolina public education. A former colleague used to tell students at Governor’s School, “There are no tests here, but you will be tested.” It’s fairly common for bright students who are used to defining themselves by their grades struggle to find an identity among a group of high flyers. Over the six week session, most students move beyond the idea of learning for a grade and begin to rediscover a joy for pursuing learning unfettered by expectations. It’s pretty cool. I had put some energy into trying to figure out how to create this same transition in my regular school. There’s no doubt in my mind that my time at Governor’s School helped me develop the gut instinct that the conventional wisdom regarding grades was wrong. Until my happy accident, I had been stymied by the need to still ultimately put grades in the book.
Since then, I deliberately do not post grades and rubrics for a few days. Students get detailed comments inked on their work along with knowing whether they met the expectations for the various standards. If they choose to reassess/rewrite, they do so based on their reflection. The grades are not posted until all reassessments are done. Of course, this means I need to provide comprehensive written feedback, highlighting strengths and weaknesses of work so students can discern whether they want to reassess/rewrite. Students can also conference with me. I have toyed with making conferences mandatory, or perhaps mandatory below a certain proficiency level. Thus far it has not been necessary. My students are generally motivated. I do seek out the students who might be willing to let a poor effort slide, along with notifying their advisor. There is no doubt that this sort of grading is more teacher labor intensive than handing out an objective test and running it through the scantron machine.
Written comments are not the only feedback I provide. I also conference with my students to discuss their work as a regular part of my classes. In the skills class, I meet with every student to discuss their outlines. They have to read over my comments and the rubric and come to me with specific questions about what they need to do and/or how to transition from the outline to the long form writing that is their next step in the project. In other classes, I meet to discuss project proposals, storyboards, essays that will be re-written, and other items. During class, students get feedback from me and their peers regarding their thoughts on a particular topic during the ebb and flow of class discussion.
Collaboration is one of the four pillars of my school’s mission statement. Peer review is such a large part of the school’s culture that I have to be very clear about the times I do not want the students consulting one another on assignments. Sometimes in the skills class, we make the review process more formal and structured. In one situation, we pair students up so that one reads the description part of their artifact project, while the other student attempts to draw the artifact solely from what was read. We have the students write first drafts of their conclusions, they have a partner read them and answer specific questions on the same page in OneNote where the conclusion was written. They then discuss the questions and answers. A third way is to line the students up in two lines facing one another. They each have a set amount of time to give their “elevator speech” in preparation for the gallery walk later in the week. After each has a chance to give their spiel and received feedback, we shift one line so everyone has a new partner and then repeat the process kind of like speed dating. We do this three or four times so the students receive feedback from several classmates in addition to having multiple chances to practice their speech.
In a gradeless class, students are still evaluated and receive feedback to grow and improve, just as they do in any other classroom. In many cases, the depth of the feedback is greater than in a classroom reliant on grades because there is no universally accepted number or letter to fall back on. In shifting to that mode of assessment, one of the toughest for teachers might be working to ensure that learners receive sufficient feedback to enable them to understand where they are in learning, developing, and honing the skills and objectives of the course.
When I talk with folks about the idea of going gradeless, I am often asked something like “But how will the students know how they are doing?” For many – parents, teachers, administrators, and students – learning equals grades. That has always struck me as odd because all through our lives we have learned through receiving this kind of feedback. My parents did not give me a grade on a report card regarding not burning my hands on a hot stove or cutting food when learning how to cook. My coaches did not give me a grade when I was playing baseball or hockey. Theatre directors did not give me a grade about my performance in rehearsal or a show. My department chair does not give me a grade when she visits my classroom. We get feedback throughout our lives for sure. Sometimes the feedback is verbal, sometimes it is written. Sometimes it is formal, sometimes it is informal. Sometimes, in my case, it is “What were you thinking?!?” Sometimes I am the one saying it. Regardless of the source, the feedback is to help us improve in whatever skill or task we are attempting. It is to help us grow. So too it is with our students.