Gradeless: Toward Greater Learning and Understanding in Biology

On June 1st of this year, just as second semester closed, I posted a blog entry about an email exchange I had with a student regarding his grade in my biology course. The subject line of his original email and the title of the post is “My final grade for this semester is an 89.41%.” The combination of this email exchange, my reflections as I composed the blog post, and my Language Arts teacher wife’s gradeless model in her classroom over the last three years have finally prompted me to change my approach to learning, understanding, and grades in my biology courses.

My wife, Sarah Zerwin, blogs as one of The Paper Graders and has been challenging me to deemphasize grades for two years now after the success she has had in her Senior Literature, Composition, and Communication course. Sarah’s approach is grounded in Alphie Kohn’s The Case Against Grades. However, I was skeptical. I claimed that in such a content-driven course as biology, there was no way that her feedback and reflections model would work, but I decided to try it last year in a unique course I teach called Science Research Seminar (SRS).

The objective of SRS is for students to learn about the human endeavor of scientific research, to learn how statistics fit into scientific research, and to experience planning, performing, and reporting real, original research. The course is not content-driven but there are several benchmarks for students in the course, including a statistics curriculum, two writing assignments about communicating science, a written, graduate level research proposal, a Power Point talk summarizing the research, and a manuscript-quality scientific paper. Last year, instead of giving students points and therefore grades on these assignments as I had done for years, I just gave them feedback with questions and comments and encouragement and notes like, “I’d love to see this again with some improvements! Here are some resources to help you.” I often reminded them what my coauthor, Matt Young, used to tell me when we were working on our book, Why Evolution Works: “You’re never done writing,” Matt would say kindly as he and our editor waited to review my chapters, “but there are deadlines.”

The year in SRS was a huge success and my students worked harder than ever on their writing, their science practices, and their science communication skills. Indeed, they were honored beyond my course for their hard work with many receiving top recognitions at our Regional Science Fair and the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair, with five students moving on to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. However, at the end of each semester, my school district requires teachers—as do nearly all public school districts—to put their students into bins labeled A, B, C, D, and F. These bins are designed to communicate to the students, their parents, future teachers, college admissions offices, and potential employers what the students know and understand about a content area.

In December, and then again in May, I had a conversation with each SRS student about where they thought they belonged given all the feedback and their responses to it. In the end, all students felt successful and worked beyond what they had thought was possible. With their presentations, posters, papers, and participation in our class community, we had the evidence to support their final grades. Indeed, each student left with a portfolio of his or her accomplishments and success.

But of course, SRS is a unique student experience where the content is mostly individualized and driven in large part by individual students. I still had to figure out how this approach would look in biology.

The Design Process

I presented the idea to my two colleagues that I team with in designing and facilitating our ten sections of a first-year biology course called Pre-IB (International Baccalaureate) Biology. We struggled for a couple of hours during a late summer teacher work day in August. We could not figure out how to fit the square peg of Sarah’s gradeless language arts model into the round hole of a science course.

So we asked for Sarah’s help.

After no more than 20 minutes of asking us questions, Sarah created a simple framework on our white board upon which we could build our own gradeless approach.

2015-08-13 12.58.43
Sarah’s first sketch.

My Colleague, Kristy, and I then worked further on the idea that afternoon and our own model began to fall into place.

2015-08-14 14.55.13
The very piece of paper Kristy and I presented to our Administration.

We described the model to our administration team and received a green light.

The Reveal

When the school year began, we presented the idea to our first-year biology students—I also am using this model with seniors in my two sections of International Baccalaureate/Advanced Placement Biology.

The three of us approached our ‘reveal’ to our students differently, but here is how the discussion went in my classes:

I asked my students to discuss for a few minutes with their table groups topics like what grades meant to them and how it felt to earn particular grades on assignments, assessments, and in courses. Several groups independently came to similar conclusions, including that grades didn’t really reflect what they had learned in a course but they were important for getting into other courses and for college. They also shared that grades could make them feel everything from great to awful to successful to frustrated and to helpless. I then steered the conversation to that final number that traditionally determines the grade. I asked my students the question, “What does an 89.41% mean about what you know and understand from a science course in general and a biology course in particular?” I followed this with, “How is that single number generated? How much uncertainty is there in each of the dozens of numbers that are used to calculate that final number that is supposed to accurately define your biology knowledge and experience?”

Next I asked, “What does it mean to get 7 out of 10 questions correct on an assessment?” Several responses ensued:

“A 70%,” said one student.

“A ‘C’,” said another

“It means you’re average,” said a third.

“It means you suck!” said a senior in each of my IB/AP Biology sections.

Yet I challenged them to think differently about a 7 out of 10.

“Why can’t it mean, ‘I nailed seven of the ten targets in this unit and I only have three to go before I have mastered the content!’?” I asked.

Of course, this is classic standards-based grading philosophy, and there are certainly components of standards-based grading in our model, but we are trying to move as far away as possible from the grade bins and toward learning and understanding the science of biology through feedback and self-reflection. Many, and perhaps even most students in our classes will earn the same letter grade they would have in a traditional points and percents approach, but our goal is that they will learn and understand and be able to do more. They will know what they know, we will know what they know, they will be able to do science and we will have evidence beyond just numbers to back it up.

The Model

My colleagues and I have agreed—with Sarah’s original insights—that the final grade each semester that we are required to provide the District will come from four core course standards: summative content, formative content, scientific practices, and student practices. The content in my courses is prescribed. The first year biology course content comes from the Colorado State standards for life science and our School District essential learning objectives. We have turned these objectives into statements called Learning Targets. The second year course content comes from the International Baccalaureate Organization’s Biology Guide’s statements called Understandings and the College Board’s Advanced Placement Biology Course and Exam Description’s statements called Learning Objectives.

Of course, being a science class, showing evidence of content knowledge is indeed important. But we asked the students to help us come up with the evidence that should be required of students in order to show that they were also ‘rockstars’ in the scientific and student practices. All classes generated similar lists that we the teachers compiled and honed. From here, we created a document that summarizes how, through shared self-reflections after each unit and teacher feedback, students can demonstrate their success in each of the four course standards.

The document provided to the students looks like this:


Self Reflection and Feedback Based Learning and Understanding of Biology

Overview of The Plan

There are four overarching course standards in this Biology course:

  1. Summative Content
  2. Formative Content
  3. Scientific Practices
  4. Student Practices
  • You will receive written feedback from your teacher in various ways: Comments on IC (Infinite Campus – our online grading program), schoology ( – how we deliver the course), and Google Docs.
  • You will receive verbal feedback from the teacher in one-to-one conversations.
  • You will receive rubrics and check lists for certain assignments.
  • You will do and maintain self-assessments and peer-assessments on your writing.
  • You will receive scores (for example, 4/5 on quiz or 25/30 on an exam) in the comment boxes on IC.

There will be three grade categories in Infinite Campus. The categories are Major Assignments, Minor Assignments, and a Semester Final Grade.  The Major and Minor Assignment categories will be used so that you, the students, your parents, and the school have a record of what each you have completed and what needs some work. This “Progress Report” is not your course grade, but literally your progress in the course. At the end of each semester, these categories will be given a weight of 0% and the Semester Final Grade category will be given a weight of 100%. Of course, the Minor and Major Assignment categories will still be visible and relevant to show your semester progress.

Your final Semester Grade will be negotiated at the end of semester, based on how you have met the four course standards.  You, the student, will make a claim for the grade you have earned in a letter you prepare for your teacher. In the letter, you will defend your grade claim, using multiple lines of evidence (examples of evidence are listed below) and careful, logical reasoning. Below are examples of the evidence you can provide for each course standard.

Summative Content Evidence:

  1. Critically examine your scores on major assessments and reflect on your understanding of the each Unit’s Learning Targets (10-15 for each unit).
  2. How did you do on the multiple choice questions, which require a proficient understanding of the learning targets, but not generally an advanced understanding?
  3. How did you do on the free response questions, which require an advanced understanding of the learning targets?
  4. Make meaningful corrections on learning targets that need work. This work will be accomplished on a scheduled teacher access day.

Formative Content Evidence:

  1. Critically examine your scores on minor assessments, including quizzes, with meaningful corrections where necessary.
  2. Keep up with your Learning Target Reflection Tables (Pre-IB Biology only).
  3. Provide a self-reflection for each Unit.
  4. Provide reflections on other formative assignments as they arise.

Scientific Practices Evidence:

  1. Keep a lab notebook and use it regularly. Your lab notebook must be organized, clear, and labeled with no notes from other classes, and your handwriting should be easy to read.
  2. Show evidence of designing and conducting controlled experiments.
  3. Show evidence of growth in your scientific reading and writing.
  4. Show evidence that you are capable of interpreting the results of investigations. For example, provide examples of using statistics and statistical language appropriately.

Student Practices Evidence:

  1. Describe and show evidence of effective collaboration with other students, including feedback from peers.
  2. Be punctual with formal lab writing. Of course, “you are never done writing, but there are deadlines.”
  3. Submit all quizzes and assignments on schoology on time.
  4. Participate in class activities and discussions.
  5. Treat “minor” assignments as important opportunities to test your learning and understanding.
  6. Follow all safety rules and class expectations.


The Launch

During the first weekend of school, each student began their evidence gathering by creating a folder in Google Drive that is shared with their teacher. Students then created a document in that folder (that by default is also shared with their teacher) called (Student Name) Semester 1 Course Reflections. After reading through the course expectations document that is provided to students every year, the students wrote a letter to their teacher in their shared documents where they made comments and asked questions about the expectations and shared anything unique about themselves that they wanted the teacher to know (e.g. I’m a dancer, I play soccer, I hate science, I love biology, etc.).

At the end of each content unit (or any time during a unit) each student will write a reflection on each of the four course standards and also provide evidence of their work toward each of the standards.

An On-Going Experiment

Of course, this self-reflection and feedback-based approach to learning and understanding biology will be an ongoing experiment. As we progress through the year, we will tweak the system, check in with students, and consult with colleagues. But I do know that two weeks into the semester, students seem relaxed, motivated, and cheerful, and more hands are raised in a class period than over an entire week of school.

Capture 2
An IB/AP Biology student’s first reflection after our very short Unit 1.


  1. I’d love to hear updates on this. I have struggled in this same area and read your post the night before my classes began this year. Like many of the great ideas that have come into my world as a teacher, this one has me turned upside down right now as I shape it in ways that I feel can best serve my students learning. I am coming to realize that feeling ‘disrupted’ may just be a mark of a modern teacher. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi old friend! The timing of this blog entry is amazing. Your approach aligns perfectly with a book I just read called “Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures through the Science of Total Motivation” by Neel Doshi & Lindsay McGregor (ISBN: 978-0-06-237398-4). If you are strapped for time, you can get great insight just by reading Chapters 1 and 3.

    Liked by 1 person

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