How to Create a Gradeless Math Classroom in a School That Requires Grades (Updated From Original Post)

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I originally posted “How to Create a Gradeless Classroom in a School That Requires Grades” in March 2018.  Since that time I have made some changes to make the process work more smoothly.  In the following post you will find how I currently run my gradeless classroom.

In the years leading up to the 2017-18 school year, I had spent a good deal of time reading Jo Boaler’s research on the ways that students learn math as well as Arthur Chiaravalli’s writings about creating a gradeless classroom. When I returned to the classroom at the beginning of the school year, I decided I was going to change what I had been doing for the first 15 years of teaching and create a classroom without grades.  It felt overwhelming but also exciting.  My school still requires that students receive a grade at mid-quarter and at the end of the quarter, so I have the students determine what their grade should be based on their understanding of the material.

Here is how I made the change.

Step 1 – Students and the Learning Standards

To make this work I needed to make sure that the students always knew which learning standard(s) we were learning and working on during class.  Everything that the students do in the class is tied directly to the learning standards.  I refer to them multiple times each day in class and I will often ask students when they are working on something, “Which learning standard does this refer to?”

Step 2 – Assessing Students

Jo Boaler gave me the idea of eliminating quizzes and tests, so now I make anything that I want to assess a “Check In.”  Changing the terminology is only a small part of what needs to change.  The students in my class know that these assessments are low stakes and that they can have multiple opportunities to show me what they can do on each learning standard.  I give Check Ins approximately every week-and-a-half.  Below is an example of a Check In and you will notice the learning standards listed above each problem.

Step 3 – Feedback to Students

After the students complete a Check In, I make comments about things they did well and things that they did not understand. I don’t write a grade at the top of the paper and I don’t enter anything in my gradebook.  Here is an example of the same Check In from above after I have marked it up:

When I started my gradeless classroom, I only gave students written feedback but I soon found that when I returned an assessment there were always some students that did not understand what I had written no matter how careful I was to make it clear. That is why I decided to record myself giving that feedback.  With the video feedback students can see and hear me explaining the problem to them.  It has made a HUGE difference with students’ ability to understand their mistakes.  Below you will see an example of the video feedback to a student from the Check In shown above.

 

I wrote a blog post back in November 2018 called Improve Understanding With Video Feedback that shows how I record myself giving video feedback to students.

Step 4 – Student Self-Assessment

When students get their Check Ins back, they self-assess their understanding of the learning standards using the following categories:

  1. I need more time to understand this or I can do this with the help of an example.
  2. I can do this on my own but I am missing an explanation and/or I am making computational errors.
  3. I can do this on my own and explain or show how I solved.
  4. I can do this on my own, explain or show how I solved, and explain what my solution means in terms of the situation in the problem.

Starting in the fall of 2019 I will be updating the self-assessment categories to those that you see above.  Since I have not yet implemented these new categories, the example that is shown below reflects a self-assessment from the categories that I used during the past school year.  

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Step 5 – Saving Student Work

My biggest fear when I decided that I wanted to do this was that students might lose their Check Ins and their self-assessments when it came time to conference.  Thanks to a suggestion by Arthur Chiaravalli, I started using Seesaw.  If you are not familiar with the service, Seesaw is an online portfolio that is not only web based but also an app for iOS.  On the day that I will be returning the marked-up Check In, I sign out the school’s computer cart and my students take pictures and upload those images to Seesaw.  All of the student work and self-assessments from above are from Seesaw.

Step 6 – Retakes

I allow students to retake the problems that gave them difficulty in order to show me that they now understand the material.  The problems are similar but not the same.  They do not need to redo all of the problems, only the ones that gave them difficulty.  Prior to taking the retake, I will have the students verbally explain to me what they did incorrectly on the original Check In.  If they are unable to do this, than I spend time working with them on the concept before they do the retake.

Step 7 – Students Reflect on Their Work to Determine Their Grade

My school requires that we enter grades at least twice during the quarter so halfway through the quarter and then again about a week before the end of the quarter, I sign out the computer cart at my school and I share a Google Presentation Template with the students.  An example of a couple of the slides from the Google Presentation is shown below and you can click on the link in the previous sentence to see the entire template.

Each student makes a copy of my template, renames the presentation with their name, and then shares the new copy with me.

Next the students use the screenshot feature (directions for taking screenshots on Chromebook and Macbook) to take a picture of the problem they would like to use to represent their understanding of a specific learning standard.  They then need to self-assess and give a reason if it is less than a “4.”  On the last page of the presentation students upload an image of their self-assessment summary and show the grade they believe they deserve.  Below you will see an example of a couple of the pages or you can see what a completed presentation looks like.

After students complete this work I look over each student’s presentation.  I have found that 90% to 95% of my students are correct in their self-assessments and self grade.  If a student does not accurately self-assess, has not clearly verbalized their reason for their self-assessment, or the grade they believe they deserve is not reasonable, then I will conference with that student either during class, a study period, before school, or after school.  Here is an example of a conference.

What About Giving a Grade for Homework Completion?

Thanks to suggestions made by Jo Boaler, I made the conscious decision not to grade homework completion.  I always thought that students would be motivated to do homework if it was tied to a grade.  I am here to tell you that I was wrong!!  I have almost exactly the same percentage of students completing homework this year as I did in years past.  I now know grades do not make students complete homework.  I do treat homework checking the same way, though.  I still walk around at the beginning of class to make sure that students have completed their homework and talk to those that didn’t complete their homework.  I still contact home if a student misses a few homework assignments in a row.  When students ask me if their grade will go down if they don’t do their homework, I tell them that it could because if they don’t practice they may not be prepared for the Check In.  Entering homework completion into my online gradebook was also time consuming.  Now I use that time to make my lessons more interesting and engaging.

And, also thanks to Jo Boaler, I no longer call homework “homework.”  I call it a “Learning Opportunity.”  Students like to tell me that it is still homework, but I push back and tell them that it is not work, it is an opportunity for them to learn.

I wrote a blog post about some of the other ways that I have made homework more effective called “4-Steps to Making Homework a Learning Opportunity.”

Parents/Administration

In regards to parents, I was expecting to have some pushback but I surprisingly did not receive any.  At the beginning of the school year I sent a letter home to parents and I reinforced the message in the letter on back-to-school night in September.  I also told parents that I would contact them if their child was not taking advantage of their learning opportunities because this could potentially affect their understanding of the material.

The administration at my school has been very supportive from the start and I believe one reason is because I came to them with a well thought out plan of how I would conduct a gradelesss classroom in a school that still requires grades.  If you are considering making the change in your classroom, I would highly recommend that you don’t casually ask or comment to your administrator that you would like to make this change.  Have a clear plan that you can bring to your administrator with your steps for implementation along with your plan for dealing with certain situations that might be specific to your school.

Conclusion

Going gradeless has made my students focus on the content as opposed to grades.  I no longer field questions like “How can I improve my grade?” or “Do you offer extra credit?” Students understand that their grade is based entirely on their understanding of the material.  It has created a more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom for not only the students but also for me.

After this post originally published, I was contacted to do two interviews.

Andrew Burnett – 7th Grade Math Teacher, Newton, MA

I can be reached by email at burnetta@newton.k12.ma.us or on Twitter at @andburnett123

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