Going Gradeless This Year? Just Thinking About It? Start Here.

Theresa Walter
August 5, 2021
Try these 3 strategies to get gradeless assessment practices going in your classes.

I decided to go completely Gradeless last year, as I do most things, just jumping in and hoping for the best. Over the last few years, I had immersed myself in the gradeless movement: I had read Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades”, watched his lecture on the topic: Performance vs. Learning — The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement, and had used Jessica Lahey’s “When Success Leads To Failure” in the first weeks of my class to get conversation going around what success actually looks like and what we sacrifice when we focus on traditional measures of success.

I was ready.

I wrote a letter to my parents explaining my curriculum and my grading philosophy. I was open and honest — I expressed my growing discomfort with assigning points for work knowing that students focused so much more on the numbers than on the feedback I was providing. I wrote about my belief that students should be given multiple opportunities to try at a task because isn’t real life like this — we make mistakes, and we adjust and try again. I told my parents that I wanted our work together to be meaningful and that a gradeless philosophy suited these goals. I sat back and waited for concerned phone calls.

And, they never came.

The only feedback I got from my letter were encouraging notes of gratitude for creating a space for their children to grow. This was in September of 2020, when we were all treading water, worried for our safety, the improbable return to in-person learning. Tensions were high. Yet, even in this climate, I only received positive feedback. I proceeded with cautious excitement.

If you are thinking of dipping your toe in the water of gradeless assessment, but you are not completely ready, or allowed by district mandates, to simply drop all the points — let’s start with something you might be able to manage.

Find places to integrate this practice in small spaces.

You may want to try:

Assessing classwork only with feedback. I’m an English teacher, so the bulk of my classwork is discussion, on-demand writing to think on the page, writing down the results of book club, or partner conversations. Ask students to take screenshots of photos of notebooks to submit as an assignment. You can provide feedback right in your Google Classroom, or if you are collecting notebooks or paper, write right on the student paper. Students may ask, “Does this count?”. You can confidently respond, “I’d just like to take a look at what you’re thinking about.” Students will get used to this system fairly quickly, and I believe you’ll be able to see a shift in their metacognitive practices almost immediately. I tend to focus on what the student is doing right at the beginning of the year, then I encourage that student with feedback about what they can try next time. Feedback on a classwork quickwrite may look like this:

“This is a great start. I like how you’ve noticed how the character is changing a bit as she meets challenges. As you keep noticing, try to pay attention to the kinds of moments that reveal a big shift. Is there anything common in those moments?Great work!”

I may be tempted to immediately correct a student who is not looking past the surface of a text, but, acknowledging what a student is doing well and gently nudging them with a specific skill they can apply the next time they respond to characterization can yield greater results. I found, honestly, that students would write back to me and say: “Ok. Thanks! I’ll try that.” I certainly didn’t expect this type of engagement with the feedback — but since my students knew their progress, not their perfection, mattered to me, they were feeling safe enough to try.

…but since my students knew their progress, not their perfection, mattered to me, they were feeling safe enough to try.

Assess homework with feedback. Everyone’s homework practices look different, and I’m imagining if you’re like me, your homework has changed significantly throughout the last few years. I also tend to give all sorts of homework, depending on what type of work we get started in class or what needs finishing. Yet, the bulk of what I “collect” that is done at home remains relatively consistent.

As an English teacher, my students are reading at home and tracking their thinking through the text using skill-focused thought categories. One such category is “Symbolism”. Throughout the year, we study ways and reasons an author may choose to use a symbol to communicate bigger ideas in a text. One student was reading the dystopian text Divergent by Veronica Roth. This student, for homework, was reading and jotting down his thinking about the lack of railings in a deep pit where a specific faction completes daily operations. He submitted this annotation:

8th grade student’s symbolism annotation from Divergent.

This student has written about a fairly small detail that in his mind represents an element of the “Dauntless” faction (Roth’s word for community). My gut is to tell this student that he is including too many details for a theory about symbolism, and that he needs to use the correct capitalization for the factions. I also notice that some sentences have some lazy syntax, especially “Them not having”. I want to correct all of this — I’m an English teacher, aren’t I?

Yet, I resist. Looking more closely at the ideas this student presents, I can see the start of some very complex thinking. I see that this student has visualized the railings, and has noticed that railings are a sort of boundary. He then takes another step and uses the word restricted and then the phrase live freely. This student is noticing the deeper ideas that a symbol can suggest. He may be a little off in his analysis, but I need to validate his attempt at original thinking. He did this at home, all by himself, and it is an honest effort. If I jump in and correct the grammar and syntax, he may tell himself that he isn’t very good at this task. Or, that his idea was all wrong. So I provide feedback on this homework, thinking about how I’d like him to push and stretch next time:

Wow! You are really on to something here! I love the idea of the railings as boundaries and limits. It seems you’re thinking the author might be asking us to think more deeply about how rules and obstacles can impede our ability to live freely. Well done! In your next annotation you don’t have to describe as much background as you do here — your theory is the most important part of this work — let it shine.

As homework, I want to encourage my students to keep doing it and to build confidence as they work out some of the ideas we are learning in class. In the past I may have given points out of 10, but now I just have feedback. I found my students actually read my ideas and some truly did try to grow their homework. Homework is a perfect place to start some gradeless routines.

Allow second attempts: Instead of giving a grade on work that you know has room to grow, allow students to rewrite, retest, resubmit any assignment or activity you deem important enough for your students to master or to show the growth you’re confident they’ve achieved.

Content area teachers assign written work in order to assess understanding of content and to assess clarity in expression. We often assign prompts to which we ask our students to respond to using text evidence to build arguments. Using rewrites, we can pinpoint specific places for our students to apply skills. If you are able to confer with students about the work, you can focus on places the students can rewrite, provide feedback in order for the students to reach the goal, and then set a due date together. At times, I’ve just had students rewrite certain sections where improvement is necessary. This saves me time when I’m re-reading, yet it also demonstrates to students that we don’t always need to re-do entire pieces. We can just dig into one area and give it our all. That’s a pretty great life lesson — review, revise, and grow.

An ungrading practice can improve your relationships with students. It can minimize your time spent correcting student errors. The practice feels as if you’ve engaged in a year-long conversation with your students about growth and agency. And, an ungrading practice can be tailored to fit exactly your needs and those of your students. If you’re not ready to dive fully in — start here.

The practice can grow right alongside you.

Theresa Walter
Theresa is a progressive English teacher and department chairperson who looks to make human connections with all her students and teachers.
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