Initial Observations on a Grading Experiment

As I have been trying to play a little catch-up with PLENK2010, I have been reading over some material on assessment from last week. This also corresponds with a major professional development initiative at the school in which I work. While the professional development work is progressing somewhat slowly, the material for PLENK2010 has been interesting. However, all of it has simply served to make me reflect more closely on an experiment that I implemented at the beginning of this year, which involves not providing grades for most assignments in my class.

I should clarify that just because I am not putting a mark on the work doesn’t mean that I am not providing just as much or more feedback than I would if there were a grade. It is something that I had been considering for a year or so, particularly after having a few truly trying sections in the last couple of years that seemed obsessively focused on grades. At some point, I got rather tired of arguing with the students about their programmed fixation on any assignment’s grade. So this move was incubating for a while.

While it is still a little early to completely determine whether the results are successful or not, it has provided some interesting developments. The students seem to be making some more progress faster, in the area of writing, than they have in the past. Of course, this could completely be a correlation or even a coincidence and not causal. Yet, there does seem to be the faintest glimmer of light bulbs appearing for many students. There also seems to be a little less reluctance to make mistakes when trying to express their understanding. I keep encouraging them to make mistakes and learn from them. Without the pressure of seeing a mark on a paper or other assignment, there seems to be a greater willingness to do this, although it is a very difficult thing to measure.

Most fascinating to me is the lack of revolt that I got when I presented the plan to the students. I explained that for the first half of the semester particularly they would receive no grades on most assignments. We have the occasional quiz or smaller assignment that is scored, but generally they get back papers with a lot of comments and questions in the margins to help guide their revisions. In exchange, everyone is granted a “B” on monthly progress reports unless I speak with them to the contrary. If they are not meeting a high enough standard of work, I assured them I would speak with them.

Only one student expressed their initial dissatisfaction. When I offered to make an exception for him and provide him with grades with the understanding that might mean he would receive something less than a “B” on a given report, he acquiesced. In fact, after his performance on the first quiz, in which he struggled, he even expressed his gratitude and was more pleased with his decision than ever.

Once I have a greater body of work from them to truly assess a grade, I anticipate sometime towards the end of the semester, I will begin to grade some work in an effort to eliminate confusion and suggest what they might expect for a term grade. Still, that will not be every assignment, but more likely a few select benchmark assignments. Of course, they continue to receive credit for completing the assignments.

I even presented this plan to all the parents that attended our Back-to-School-Night, which is always remarkably well attended. Even they did not protest. Additionally, I gladly welcomed them to make an appointment with me if they wanted to discuss it in greater detail and there has not been a single request. Honestly, I was expecting a heated battle from either or both camps.

What I have learned so far from this experience is how much better I enjoy the classes. I provide feedback that they actually read now. Their writing is generally improving in depth, detail, and overall development. I think they feel less judged. There feels like there is less pressure in the room, as a rule. There certainly is far less outright competition and comparing of marks. I even feel it is improving the teacher-student relationship to a certain degree.

I plan on giving them a survey in the near future to get a sense of what they think about the experience and how they feel about it. There is the definite possibility that their responses will alter my approach more or less while maintaining the plan on the whole. However, I have a hunch that my observations are reasonably accurate. I suppose the students might be inclined to tell me what I want to hear, but I will try to take aim at preventing that. Also, I plan to give another one at the end of the semester, when the experiment is finished. At that point, I think I will have a much sounder sense of what is working and what is not.

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2 thoughts on “Initial Observations on a Grading Experiment

  1. Ken

    “Only one student expressed their initial dissatisfaction. When I offered to make an exception for him and provide him with grades with the understanding that might mean he would receive something less than a “B” on a given report, he acquiesced.”

    Good one – frequently when we introduce something new, some students will be reluctant (stands to reason). But pointing out the risks of adopting the ‘safe’ route allows them to make an informed choice of their own. (Even if he had chosen to stay, and no matter the result (although none of us like giving bad grades), it still would have been ok as a learning experience for him to see that life is filled with situations in which you have to take responsibility).

    Reply
    1. akh003 Post author

      Ken:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Part of the impetus for presenting things as I did was an effort to avoid some of the significant distortion that grade reports in our system can have in the early going. So when I gave him the option, there was a very real possibility that the grade on this early report might not be a “B.” In fact, often one misstep in the early going can seemingly have a tremendous impact, in lieu of any other grades to counterbalance it.

      Reply

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