This article was originally posted in March 2018. Since then I have made some changes to make the process work more smoothly. I would suggest that you read my updated article entitled “How to Create a Gradeless Math Classroom in a School That Requires Grades (Updated From Original Post).”
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 past 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 “Show Me What You Can Do.” Changing the terminology is only a small part of what needs to change. The students in my class know that these assessments are low stake and that they can have multiple opportunities to show me what they can do on each learning standard. Here is an example of a recent “Show Me What You Can Do.” You will notice Roman numerals next to each problem that refer back to the learning standards listed at the top of the first page.
We also do Show Me What You Can Do’s when working in groups at the whiteboards or at the tables. It doesn’t always need to be in the form shown above.
Step 3 – Feedback to Students
After the students complete a Show Me What You Can Do, 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 Show Me What You Can Do but after I have marked it up:
If students are working at the whiteboards on a Show Me What You Can Do, I will take a picture of the work, print it out, write comments on the paper, and give it back to the student(s).
Step 4 – Student Self-Assessment
When students get their Show Me What You Can Do back, they self-assess on their understanding of the learning standards using the following categories:
- I need more time to understand this.
- I can do this with the help of an example.
- I can do this on my own, but I am still making computational or minor errors.
- I can do this on my own and explain my solution path to others.
They receive a student self-assessment sheet like the one shown below. The topic is the title of the Show Me What You Can Do. In the case of the example Show Me What You Can Do above, it is Proportional Relationships and Equations. (Access a copy of the form below)
Students fill in the learning standards and their self-assessment.
Step 5 – Saving Student Work
My biggest fear when I decided that I wanted to do this was that students might lose their Show Me What You Can Do’s 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. I sign out the computer cart for the day that I will be returning the marked- up Show Me What You Can Do. 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 to show me that they 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 Show Me What You Can Do. If they are unable to do this, than I spend time working with them on the concept before they do the retake.
Step 7 – Conferencing to Determine a Grade
My school requires that we enter grades, at least twice during the quarter, so I conference with my students at mid-quarter and at the end of the quarter. Initially, I was concerned about conferencing because I did not know if the students were mature enough. However, the conference days have turned out to be some of my most enjoyable days of the quarter. I get to talk one-on-one with each of my students and really get an idea of what they do and do not understand.
The first thing that I do on conference day is hand out another self-assessment sheet with all of the learning standards listed that we have worked on in the quarter. Students log into Seesaw and look over all of their work for the quarter, self-assess again, and write a grade that they feel they deserve based on their understanding. Here is an example of that sheet filled in by a student. (Access a copy of the form below)
I call the students to meet with me one at a time. They bring their self-assessment sheet and their computer which is logged into Seesaw. Together we look at their work and discuss their self-assessment. 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 Show Me What They Can Do. Entering homework completion into my online gradebook was also time consuming. Now I can 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.
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 started to not take advantage of their learning opportunities because this could potentially affect their understanding of the material. I have also been very lucky to have received complete support from the administration in my school.
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.
- The first was with Aaron Blackwelder, the co-creator of of the Teachers Going Gradeless web site, Facebook group and podcast. You can listen to that interview here or subscribe to the Teachers Going Gradeless podcast on your smart decvice.
- The second was with Jethro Jones of the Transformative Principal podcast. You can listen to that here.
Andrew Burnett – 7th Grade Math Teacher, Newton, MA