Getting Around the Gradebook: How (and Why) to Go Gradeless

I spent a good portion of my spring break last week catching up on reading all of my students’ writing, and their thinking was a real treat. It is a blessing to work with preservice teachers, whose idealism and energy remind me of the optimistic fervor with which I tackled any challenge that came my way as a new educator.

As I read their work last week, I left comments, asked questions, and gave feedback. Often, I wrote thank-you notes to kids at the end of their papers–thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thank you for sharing them with me. Thank you for being you.

I did not leave grades.

I have believed for a long time that grades are part of the systematic destruction of our students’ love of learning. We’re killing their creativity, as Ken Robinson discusses in his TED talk that my students and I watched on the first day of class this semester:

We began our year with Ken Robinson’s powerful suggestion that we educate students out of their creativity–and yet, that we must teach students to survive in a future that we can neither predict nor imagine.

We next read Paulo Freire, who suggests in A Pedagogy of Freedom that the purpose of teaching is to create the possibilities for the production and construction of knowledge, that “what is essential is to maintain alive the flame of resistance that sharpens their curiosity and stimulates their capacity for risk.”

Just take a moment and let that sink in. THE FLAME OF RESISTANCE! THE CAPACITY FOR RISK! It’s beautiful, people!!!!!

So, where do grades have a place in this utopian vision for great teaching and learning?

My students’ thinking, which aligns with my own, suggests that they don’t. In fact, they create a dystopia: Jamie writes that students have shifted from being “programmed for learning” to just experiencing “programmed learning.” Kat lamented that “students are taught to anticipate rather than participate.”

It is essential that things change.

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See? He’s totally Colin Firth

After becoming enamored with Ken Robinson’s Colin Firth-esque looks (to my mind, at least), I picked up his book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. He narrates the audio version, and as he speaks to me in his adorable British accent, he advocates for a vision of change to the systems through which children learn.

Ken argues that schools and learning have long been erroneously thought of as mechanized processes, and that as such, efforts to reform them have been framed as simple tweaks, such as one would make to an industrial process in order to streamline it. But Ken presents a clear argument that learning is not an industrialized process, but rather an organic one: a complicated, complex system that cannot be standardized.

When I finish the book, I am sure I will be able to go and fix everything that is wrong with education today, but in the meantime, I’m content to a) recommend it to you, and b) stand firm in my commitment to make changes where I can.

I reflected, and found a place to make a change.

The change I made this semester was in removing grades from my classes. I had to cheat a little to do this, but I like the way it’s worked out. While I’ve always longed to do away with grades, I struggled with how to do so within the confines of a system that makes me put grades into a gradebook.

I found the answer in one of Tom Romano‘s syllabi from my Teaching Writing class with him:

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(Yes, I save syllabi for years. Electronically. I’m a teacher, okay?! That means I hoard.)

That was it, I decided. Eureka! Do the work. Do it well and do it on time. You’ll get an A. No ifs, ands, or buts.

 

Now, as I read student work via Google Docs, I focus on leaving organic comments, questions, reactions. I push and prod, pull and praise. I focus on what’s important, as Amy writes here.

My students receive feedback from their critical friends and me, and engage in a conversation with all of us in the comments. We talk about their work in class, read it together, and pull out highlights and paste them into shared Google Docs, like these from our midterm self-assessments:

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(At the end of the semester, I’ll compile those highlights, some variation of which we do weekly, into a printed anthology I’ll give to each student.)

In my grading spreadsheet, I give full credit to match the point values of each assignment–10 points for one-pagers, 50 points for major papers, 25 points each for self-assessments and notebook turn-ins. No thinking about percentages or worrying about fractions. Just an A for work done well and on time, because it removes the pressure from students to worry about their grades.

Because I teach teachers, I get to be very meta about my processes, and I’ve practiced giving strong and thoughtful feedback alongside my students. We study our students’ (and our own) products, discuss what learning we see being made visible, and work to improve our feedback methods and messages each week:

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If I can’t remove grades, and the stress that comes with them, I’ll give all students a grade that makes them stop worrying about whether they’ll attain that A or not. That is what I have been longing to give them: learning unfettered by the pressure to boil down their thinking to a number or letter.

All thinking, reading, writing is worth so much more than a grade. It’s worth a reader, a respondent, a friendly ear, a coaching eye, a nurturing nudge.

This is my cheat code for how I’ve managed to get away from being a grade-doling disciplinarian, and come to enjoy being a truly engaged teacher of my students’ growth.

How do you get around the gradebook? Please share your strategies in the comments.

Shana Karnes teaches preservice teachers at West Virginia University, works with practicing ELA teachers through the National Writing Project @WVU, and reads approximately 562 books a day with her two daughters, ages 4 months and 23 months. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

 

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14 thoughts on “Getting Around the Gradebook: How (and Why) to Go Gradeless

  1. […] Grading is such a hot topic right now.  Some schools have opted for standards-based grading.  Points for participation, for turning in homework, etc. have no place in this type of grading system.  Did you know? Placerita has actually moved to a standards-based grading system! Want to learn more?  Check out these free webinars.  Grading on growth is another hot topic being discussed.  Students come in at all skill levels and with different academic experiences. Grading based on growth provides more equity in grading.  I like the idea of offering a great deal of (ungraded) feedback before then having a student demonstrate mastery of skill and providing an equivalent grade.   Here is one teacher’s take on going gradeless. […]

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  2. Alan March 23, 2018 at 6:57 pm Reply

    Hi Shana! As you might guess, I think going grade-less is a bad idea. Here are some reasons:

    1. If you argue that grades stifle creativity in writing, then you would expect to see the same concerns in other “creative areas,” such as music and art. But, there are no “ditch grade” movements in those areas. Both art and music teachers typically feel a deep obligation to provide accurate and helpful assessments, including grades, of their students’ abilities and accomplishments. I believe everyone is an artist and a musician in the exact same sense that everyone is a writer.

    2. I recall the grade-less movement was very popular in the 1970’s, when individualized education was a popular movement. The argument was that grades don’t help individuals, but in-depth constructive feedback does. My problem with this movement is that education is very importantly a social endeavor. My first mentor, Joel Spring, wrote a very popular book called “The Sorting Machine,” that explored how schools and grades sort out children into groups that determine their futures – some will be winners, some losers. Some will be professionals, some blue-collar workers. I am sympathetic to this problem, but I prefer to look at the positive side of sorting. Max Weber in the 19th century described how society is made up of bureaucracies, which simply means that (like a bureau) the workplace is made up of separate spaces and there is a gate to each space. Like keys, qualifications are needed to enter the gate to the profession. In the distant past, the key to a profession was to serve for years as an apprentice. Today the keys to a profession is education, grades, and certifications. This is well and good. I don’t want people teaching our children unless they can pass through a formidable gate to the profession. I don’t want to see a physician, an auto mechanic, or a dentist, who hasn’t had to pass through a formidable gate to the profession. My favorite concerts are those with musicians who have had to pass through a formidable gate to their profession. As long as we have gates, we will need grades and tests. And we can always supplement these with portfolios.

    3. While I have seen a lot of students get over-anxious about grades, I never thought that eliminating grades would end the anxiety. I think the source of grade anxiety is most often a fear of failure. I learned over the years to talk with my students about failure, since I had a lot of experience in failing (I dropped out college, failed in relationships, failed in sports, failed in money, and so on). My main point is that I learned a lot from failure. I always raised my expectations for students to the highest level I thought they could achieve. When students reached that level, they were very proud of their accomplishments. When students did not reach that level, I offered as much encouragement and assistance as I could. One of my proudest achievements is that over the years a large number of my students failed one of my courses, then took it a second time and learned a lot in the process. Many of them have become excellent teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 26, 2018 at 5:47 am Reply

      Hi Alan! Thank you as always for getting me thinking. I have pondered your feedback in my free moments all weekend.

      As I reflected on your note, I thought about two shifts that have happened in the 10 years since I took your class that I believe have changed the culture of what grades signify and how students respond to them.

      The first is online gradebooks. In your class and in all my classes before it, the feedback I received from my peers and teachers was far more immediate than the overall “grade” I received–which I often only saw at mid-quarter progress reports or quarterly report cards, and in college, only at midterms and the end of the semester. I developed valuable self-awareness in terms of my proficiency with the material, my progress with standards and skills, and the way I was able to communicate those two things to others through writing and speaking. I knew from your comments on my study guides, your responses to my comments in class, and your margin comments on my blue book exams where I was at in relation to the material–and those comments undoubtedly helped me grow more as a thinker and teacher than the As I received. Additionally, those comments were what convinced me that I had more growing and thinking to do, despite the As I received. (Many of my students who have As sometimes seem to think that they can rest on their laurels as a result; especially my AP and Honors kids.)

      In contrast, my students and their families began having access to instant-update online gradebooks during my second year of teaching. As a result, they were constantly kept up to date with their overall grade in the class, their grade compared to the class’s average grade, and their point-by-point assignment grades. Parents, who before would rely on my feedback in emails, or on their students’ assignments, or through my phone calls, or our conferences, now had instant data at their fingertips that colored all of our communications. The conversation shifted from, “wow, I love what you pointed out about Daniel’s writing strengths,” or “yes, we definitely have to find a solution to Katie’s lack of engagement and tardiness,” to “why did Daniel only get an 8/10 on this assignment?” or “I see you marked Katie tardy today for the 18th time, but she swears she was on time.” The fact that the gradebook was more instantaneous than the thoughtful feedback that it took me time to provide in writing or speaking sometimes completely negated the latter’s effectiveness. I found this to be true in my conversations with students, as well–they were much less likely to adopt a growth mindset when they saw a hard and fast grade in their gradebook; it formed in them a fixed idea of their own aptitude which they seemed unwilling or unable to buck from that point forward (especially in cases where a student muddled through the start of term and may have grown stronger and more confident, but instead felt like it wasn’t worth it to try to catch up because “they already had an F”).

      The second thing that has changed is the rise in smartphone use and social media, especially. Those two things have drastically shifted the speed at which people receive gratification and feedback on their publications: an Instagram post gets 65 likes and 4 comments in an hour, but a three-page paper only gets 6 comments from one person (me) after 3 days. I have done a lot of reading about what this culture of instant gratification in the form of notifications, likes, and comments has done to humans’ brains (Nicholas Carr; Daniel Pink; Ken Robinson come to mind), and I definitely see this happening in the classroom in terms of how valuable my students find my process-oriented feedback. They often will finish a conference with me with a question like, “but what’s my grade?” or interrupt a robust class discussion on a reading by asking, “hey, it’s midterms, what’s my grade?” I want them focused on their growth as readers/writers/thinkers/teachers, but too many kids are just focused on their grades, and they see me as the person who gives them, rather than themselves as the person who earns them through their own growth and learning. (A lot of the implicit thinking in this paragraph comes from my recent re-reading of Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds.)

      I am sure my practice will continue to shift, but I have found that this year, I have had FAR fewer pointless conversations about “what’s my grade,” and FAR more conversations with students about our class readings and topics, related and further readings, connections to other texts and ideas they’re encountering. In addition, kids are less competitive with one another, less individualistic, and more community-oriented, more collaborative, as a class, since they’re not hyper-focused on grades and feeling competitive and cutthroat. This kind of shift is worth it to me to keep exploring this topic. I will keep you posted about my thinking as it continues to grow!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Joy Kirr March 23, 2018 at 5:55 am Reply

    Added your post to the “Feedback In Lieu of Grades” LiveBinder, Shana!
    https://www.livebinders.com/play/play/1693716?tabid=1c3a84fa-ceaa-999a-cb98-af89290c12eb
    Thank you for sharing your story – I’m with you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. erinmcteach March 21, 2018 at 1:31 pm Reply

    I was able to convince my principal to let me give fewer grades this year. Instead of grading every assignment, I hold grading conferences two or three times per quarter. The students bring the work they think best represents their abilities and we use that to figure out together where they fall on the rubric. It’s very time-consuming, but the conversations have been amazing. Students are less focused on grades, though they still get them. Day to day, we focus on how to improve their reading and writing, not getting a certain score.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shana Karnes March 22, 2018 at 1:27 pm Reply

      I LOVE the concept of grading conferences!!! I had “office hour meetings” this semester too, held outside of class, so they weren’t like reading/writing conferences, and it took forever, but it was SO worth it. 20 minutes one-on-one with each kid where they brought work and a topic to discuss. So much learning happened on both ends. Erin, you should write a guest post for us about this topic!!!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wes Weaver (@WesLVHS) March 21, 2018 at 10:09 am Reply

    Great post! (Thanks, Amanda Suttle.) This (high school) administrator doesn’t want grades. In fact, I loathe them.My thoughts on addressing the issues of college, etc.: Start with the transcript, like the Mastery Transcript Consortium is doing. When you enhance the transcript with standards-based information, eventually everyone will see the utter uselessness of the GPA, including colleges. I’m meeting with four college admissions people in the next month to talk to them about that very thing. My thoughts on grading in the English classroom: It’s a great place to start the non-grading movement because it is one place (as you illustrate) that process feedback is already an organic part of teaching and learning. Well done.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shana Karnes March 22, 2018 at 1:28 pm Reply

      Wes, thank you for reading! It’s always so heartening to see administrators advocating for the best interest of students with more varied stakeholders than teachers can often reach. Thank you for your work!

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  6. Kristi C March 21, 2018 at 9:23 am Reply

    I completely agree with the theory of your argument, but it’s in the practice where I get stuck. My school is moving to standards-based grading next year. How that gets turned into a letter grade is a big point of contention. Could you address how you would have approached this in your high school classroom? I can see your approach working well with intrinsically motivated learners (which I think most pre-service teachers would be – in my experience English teachers are people pleasers and want to learn), but how do you address those who struggle and don’t do their work well and on time? The students who we are struggling to motivate to read and write? (And I’m not suggesting that grades motivate.) What grade do those students earn? I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy on grading (including Ken Robinson) which has great ideas, but then there is the reality of colleges who want a GPA, parents who only understand letter grades and points, and students on all ends of the learning spectrum. We have a huge whale to turn with education. I appreciate what you are able to do, but I’m curious if you think it would have worked in your old high school.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 22, 2018 at 1:37 pm Reply

      I’m honestly not sure, Kristi, if this would’ve worked so seamlessly in my high school classroom. Even now, with my largely self-motivated students, I still have a handful of kids who haven’t engaged in the learning and haven’t turned in any assignments. They do have Fs, and despite conferences and emails and meetings with the Dean, I can’t get them to do their stuff. I don’t think there’s a perfect system that works for everyone out there, but I have found that just removing the dark cloud of a threatened grade has helped the vast majority of my kids focus on their learning rather than their grades!

      As far as standards-based grading…whoo, that’s a whole other can of worms, and a tough one, and I think I’d hate it if I had to do it. I did have luck, when I taught 12th grade, presenting kids with a list of the 12th grade academic content standards (just the big umbrella ones–the college and career readiness standards, of which there are about 4-5 for reading fiction, reading nonfiction, writing, speaking and listening, and something else I’m drawing a blank on…) and having a self-assessment conference with each of them for part of their midterm and final exams. I think working through what each standard says, knowing what it does and how it’s practiced, and having each kid assess where they’re at was a great way to actively build kids’ confidence as well as satisfy the fact that we had to comment on standards proficiency on report cards. Time consuming, but we had two hours with each class during exam time, so I was able to smash it all in then.

      I do think a straight A offering would improve conversations with families, colleges, and students about the merits of the child’s learning and abilities rather than keeping the focus on the stupid GPA. I can’t wait to get back into the high school classroom and give this a try…I’m sure there will be huge hiccups, but I do think it’s a larger step in the right direction than what I’ve taken before.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Amy Estersohn March 21, 2018 at 9:12 am Reply

    I want to read 562 books a day!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shana Karnes March 22, 2018 at 1:28 pm Reply

      You’re always welcome at my house! With you, we could definitely break 1000!!!! 🙂

      Like

  8. Marc A March 21, 2018 at 8:56 am Reply

    Excellent post. Thank you. It’s very challenging on the high school level to be as progressive. Administrators and parents want grades. Even colleges/universities want grades- they matter. The system is broken for sure, and after 18 years I am worried the significant changes needed will not happen in my tenure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 22, 2018 at 1:31 pm Reply

      Marc, I am right there with you in your worry. I am even more worried about how much schools will continue to emphasize grades and standardized measures of achievement in the next five years before my children start school. I did find more challenges at the high school level, but I do think this would have been doable when I was in the K-12 classroom–even though one of the schools I was at was quite a traditional school. At all levels, I think it’s a viable (tweakable!!) solution to an online gradebook that has to be updated at least every 2 weeks. I found that my interactions with students’ families were SO much more positive when the grades I put in where good ones rather than bad ones (or zeroes). I can’t wait to get back into the high school classroom and give this a try…unless, of course, miracles happen by then and grades are gone. 🙂 Thank you for reading and commenting!

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