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So You Wanna Go Gradeless…

Ashley McCarl Palmer, WRDSB Teacher
ashley_mccarlpalmer@wrdsb.ca or @physicswithmcp

As we move forward in the pandemic, education is finally taking a huge leap as many educators abandon their old ways of teaching and trying something new. For some, they have heard about this wave of people going “gradeless” and they are curious about what it is about. For others, they look at their old methods of assessing and recognize that tests may not cut it anymore… and if you get rid of tests (or things that were traditionally numerically marked) then what goes into a student’s grade? Or perhaps more importantly, why even grade them at all?

For me, the moment to ditch traditional marking came a few years ago when I was having a conversation with a student after handing a test back. The student was arguing that they deserved another ½ mark on a question and I realized the more they talked, the more they showed they had no clue what they were talking about! It has long been known to teachers that students memorize as often as they can, because when compared to actually learning the material, memorizing is far easier. But in subjects that build on itself or require understanding of the base level, like physics, memorizing leads to a lot of issues and little gain out of the course in the end. I was venting to my colleague after school and she mentioned that the following year she was going to throw out grades (#ttog aka “teachers throw out grades”) and asked if I wanted to join her. Was I brave enough to make the leap? It required a radical shift in how I approached my class, how I assessed, how I functioned each day. My goal in teaching has always been to have students learn as much as possible in my course, and if this was going to increase learning then I had to try it.

While it was intimidating at first, and led to wide-eyed terrified student faces on the first day of school, going gradeless has been one of the most freeing and enjoyable experiences of my life. I actually enjoy marking tests now because I can teach them something through my feedback and the students will take the time to read it. Studies have shown that the majority of the time student work has been returned with marks and comments, students will look only at the number and ignore the comments. All that time you took to write little comments in the margin was wasted. If you do not give them a number, the only way to know how they did is to read what is written in the margin and think about what it means. Students have to think “is the teacher telling me to continue what I’m doing?”, “tweak my thinking?” or “completely overhaul and re-do because I somehow missed the key message”. This dialogue between the teacher and the student opens up the possibility for huge improvements over the course. This is key, the messaging is no longer: you cannot do it, but: this is how we can be even better. You no longer penalize for making a mistake so students are more willing to take risks or make an educated guess. Learning from your mistakes is one of the richest learning opportunities you can provide the students so this has been my absolute favourite part. I also love that my “top” students no longer can coast, because they too can improve, and no matter how good they get I always keep pushing them to strive for more.

So what does a gradeless classroom look like? You still give feedback, just non-numerical feedback! This can be capitalizing on those teachable moments when you overhear a conversation between students and jump in. It can be in words written on a test or a comment on their online assignment. It can be during a lab when something isn’t working and you ask them a question that will point them in the right direction. It can be a colour code or a symbol system to indicate a common issue (such as expand on your thinking, watch your formatting, check your numbers/calculator inputs, etc.). It can be a video or voice recording of what you think about their work. It can be a peer editing another’s work before it's handed in. It can be self-assessing after a test: did they study the right material, feel prepared going in compared to coming out, what will they do differently next time? It can be showing them what a “good” or “developing” solution looks like and having them compare their response to it. It can be via goal setting and coming back to those goals to see if strategies need to be changed. There are many ways to give students feedback (and some are more impactful than others). As a starting point, I recommend checking out John Hattie’s book Visible Learning: Feedback. It's about facilitating opportunities for growth and capitalizing on them (many probably exist already in your classroom).

One of my favourite parts about going gradeless has been the parent response. Their initial response might be one of shock or confusion, as by taking away grades you have really changed the game. But once parents see that this will give their child a risk-free environment to learn and grow with multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they know, you’ll have the parents on board. You will get some that argue that you are not preparing them for the real world (aka university). I would challenge back that this system better prepares them because the students get a chance to learn how to learn. Learning is not easy, it is messy, it involves one step forward and two steps back. Giving the students a chance to figure out how they learn, what works for them and what doesn’t are great lessons to have heading into university. The gradeless system also relies heavily on 21st century skills. Gradeless involves collaboration between students and their peers, effective communication, critical thinking, and creativity.

Another surprising benefit of gradeless is that it helps females in STEM! The wage gap has been linked to many things including the tendency for females to undervalue their work. The same has been seen in my classes where females are hesitant to ask for that high mark because they feel they should not ask or do not deserve it, when they really do! The skill of determining a midterm or final mark is similar to a performance appraisal in the job world so this is a great practice step for students to organize all they have to offer to an “employer” and ask for that raise!

The first question I’m asked is how to get started and to be honest I think that deserves another article on its own. For now, you can start shifting your mindset. For tomorrow, instead of that quiz, why not try asking students to record themselves explaining how they went about solving a problem from today. Or, instead of a math question exit ticket, ask them what they learned today that surprised them and why. Have them use materials they find in their home to demonstrate a concept they learned that day. Use these to start a dialogue between you and the student so you can provide growth opportunities and richer learning experiences. These answers really help you see who your students are, which means that tailoring your lessons to their needs and interests is really easy to do.

I was able to give a talk on gradeless teaching via the OAPT virtual Physics Hour recently and some materials (such as self-reflection tools, portfolio outlines, daily guides, parent letters) have been organized which I’m happy to share with you here.

If you have any questions, I’m just an email or a tweet away!
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