The Fall of Grades

“Grades during this time should be used as feedback instead of instruments of compliance.”

The Illinois Governor, J. B. Pritzker, made this statement when announcing that schools across the state would be closed until April 30th. Upon hearing it, I was proud that our state would be prioritizing learning and growth over grading. As I reflected on it further, the same thought kept returning to me.

Shouldn’t this be our approach all the time?

Those fully invested in the gradeless (or evidence-based reporting or standards-based reporting) movement use ‘grades’ in this way all the time. Many see in students a renewed passion for learning, a willingness to take risks, and an increased investment in progress. It’s a big shift in mindset, but one found to be so very worth it.

But it’s hard to see that unless you yourself are doing it. I know, because at one point, I was a big resistor.

The pushback I hear most often is that, if we remove grades, students will lack the motivation to do anything. They will not see the point because they won’t earn points. And, on top of that, there is a fear that students will not be held accountable for their work.

Despite my former resistance, I have not seen that to be true.

The gradeless movement still holds students accountable for completing assignments. It absolutely does not lessen their personal responsibility. It just doesn’t use points to do it. 

Instead, in the gradeless class, students are taught accountability like any other skill. Expectations are discussed and agreed on, scaffolds are provided to support students as they grow. Lessons are taught to help students practice and develop the skill. There are measures in place (and consequences) that hold students responsible for their work.

For example, in my class, I keep a ‘late log’ that tracks whether students have turned assignments in on time (or at all). The difference is, the late work does not impact their grade. Rather, it acts as a behavior tracker, allowing me to see when a student is struggling. It gives me a starting point for a conversation with the student about their behavior, providing me valuable information to implement an intervention or additional support. Additionally, there are consequences used in tandem with the late log, such as phone calls home or lunch detentions, which help curb the behavior.

Many also point to student motivation. Why will students bother to complete assignments if they won’t get points? This comes down to an issue of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation, or as some like to call it, the carrots and sticks approach. When assigning work for students, it’s vital to explain the purpose behind it. They should absolutely understand how that assignment applies to their learning and why doing it matters. This can be as simple as communicating the objective or learning goal; tell them what they will accomplish by doing this work. 

In addition to putting learning targets on every assignment, I also explain to my students that each task is an opportunity to get feedback from me. Feedback that will help them understand where they are in their mastery of a skill and what they need to do to achieve that goal.

The inclusion of the learning target gives me a starting point for the feedback, allowing me to target my comments and suggestions. I frequently include comments like, “You haven’t quite reached mastery of the skill yet. To get there, you need to…” This gives students an understanding of where they currently are, as well as actionable steps to take in the future. Many students use this information to retake summative assessments, or if it’s on a formative, they will use it when the summative takes place.

Students also know that if they don’t meet a goal right away or if they struggle on an assignment, it will not hurt them. This is an important component of the gradeless classroom, because it is where learning really takes off. Where risk-taking occurs. Where a positive culture around failure is developed. Students are not overly stressed about the negative impact of a task; they know they can try and fail, so they are infinitely more willing to give it a shot.

COVID19 has caused us all to make shifts. Big ones. Teaching online is something that few of us are prepared for. Recording videos of ourselves is awkward. Being away from our classrooms is not what any of us would choose. And being forcefully pushed into the gradeless movement is not how I hoped the field of education would make this change. 

But we are here now.

There is value in targeted feedback that is focused on growth. It is worthwhile to explain to our students the purpose behind the work we are asking them to do. It is beneficial to hold students accountable not through points, but through lessons in responsibility.

Removing the additional stress of an assignment negatively impacting student growth is not just a notion for right now. It’s one that can, and should, apply all the time.

It’s time to shift our approach in education. Not just for right now; for good.

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