At the beginning of the 2015/2016 school year, two colleagues and I decided to try to de-emphasize grades and focus on learning and understanding through feedback and reflection which I wrote about last August. Our approach was somewhat rooted in standards-based grading (we called them Learning Targets) with lots of teacher and student feedback and required student reflections on their learning for each curriculum unit. But also with opportunities to meet with the teacher for what we called meaningful corrections where students showed new understanding of the Learning Targets they missed on their unit exams.
At the beginning of the course the students received a guide (below) that detailed where their grade would come from. We decided that there were four core course standards that all students should be able to show progress and ultimately proficiency in during the semester: Summative Content, Formative Content, Scientific Practices, and Student Practices.
In the online gradebook students received progress scores for their efforts on the Major Assignments (80% of their gradebook-reported progress: Unit Exams, Papers, and Unit Reflections) and the Minor Assignments (20% of their gradebook-reported progress: mostly Reading Quizzes and the Lab Notebook). Students were to understand that a “Complete” (100%) in the gradebook for an assignment meant that the student may not have been perfect on the assignment, but that the effort was good enough to move on. A “Partial” (80%) meant that the student had an opportunity to improve through written reflections and meaningful corrections. A “Rework” (50%) meant that the student must redo the work and/or meet with the teacher to show enough understanding to reach at least the level of Partial. A “Missing” came through as 0% (Bob Marzano would not support the 0%). Students (constantly) and parents (not nearly enough) were reminded that, given our gradebook system, the grade the online gradebook automatically calculates is not a real grade, but a progress grade. We put raw exam and quiz scores in the comment boxes for each gradebook item, along with teacher comments about the scores. If a student did meaningful corrections or reworked an assignment, this information also appeared in the comment box. The real grade would be determined at the end of the semester by the student through an evidence-based grade claim letter and by the teacher by looking at the same evidence.
So was the course gradeless?
It wasn’t gradeless. Not even close. The fact that we had to arrive at a grade for each student by the end of the semester was always looming. Students still could be seen calculating their percent scores after exams and announcing to friends, “I got a B,” or “I got an A!” It also became clear that both some students and their parents had trouble looking at the progress score and not seeing it as a course grade. This phenomenon is going to be a hard one to overcome. More on the grade claim later.
Reading the student reflections for each unit was sometimes fascinating and enjoyable, sometimes frustrating, but always interesting and revealing. Some students were taking the reflecting seriously and some were not. Some students were really interacting with their knowledge and understanding and some were not. Perhaps some were just better at metacognition.
However, it became clear early on that keeping up with reading and commenting on the students reflections for each unit was unsustainable. We used shared Google Docs for nearly all student writing (except exams), which simplified things a bit, but there was still too much to read. I had two sections (62 students) of this first-year biology course to keep up with plus two sections (63 students) of seniors where I was also using a version of this approach. One of my colleagues was juggling three sections of first-year students (90) but the other colleague was buried under five sections (150+ students). When I shared this burden with another colleague at my school, a Language Arts teacher and one of The Paper Graders, he had no sympathy (he is a Language Arts teacher!) and explained to me that student reflections do not need tons of teacher feedback, just an acknowledgement to the student that the reflection has been read. The most important thing for the student is that doing any kind of reflecting is better than nothing.
Learning Target Tables. Out of this emphasis on reflections came two critical tools developed by my colleague, Kristy. One was a tool called the Learning Target Table. At the beginning of each unit students were provided a the list of the unit’s learning targets in tabular form with a space for students to show evidence to themselves before the exam that they understood the learning target. After the exam students had the opportunity to reflect on whether they were successful or if they struggled, and why. This was a student tool; we did not traditionally assign or collect these, but they could be used by students as grade claim evidence.
Summative Review of Learning Targets. The other reflection tool, called Summative Review of Learning Targets, students received right after getting their exam results. Here we showed the students how each exam question aligned with each learning target. We asked the students to again reflect on how they did. This is the document students were instructed to bring when they sat with us for meaningful corrections. And like the Learning Target Tables, students could use these as part of their grade claim evidence at the end of each semester.
This tool was an extension of a backward design tool (channeling a bit of Understanding by Design from McTighe and Wiggins) we used as a teacher team to write the exams.
Many students used work from these tools in their written reflections for each unit.
Feedback for students came in a few forms. As any teacher (I hope) would do, I constantly moved around the room during activities and chatted with individual students and groups of students. I looked at their lab notebooks and gave them kudos for great work and suggestions for improvement. I gave them bits of encouragement and cheers on their reflections (after realizing that I just couldn’t keep up with making long comments). I made comments on progress in the online grading program that both students and parents could see. But perhaps the most important feedback I gave was when students sat for meaningful corrections after unit exams. It was here that students, as mentioned above, brought their Summative Review of Learning Targets packets and initiated a conversation with the teacher on what they struggled with on the exam, why they struggled, and what they had learned in the process of working back through the learning targets. Many students arrived fully prepared and confident and came away empowered. However, some students showed up still shaky on some of the concepts. Both types of moments were opportunities for us to get to know each student’s abilities and help students with their progress.
But not surprisingly, this most important type of teacher feedback, one-to-one teacher-student conversations, took the most amount of time. A year earlier, our school had put in place a block of time called Collaboration and Access Time (CAT). In the middle of our Block Days (Wed: Periods 1,3,5,7; Thurs: Periods 2,4,6,8) there is a 45-minute mini block where half of the teachers are available to students (Wed for Science) and half are meeting with colleagues to collaborate (Thurs for Science). On many days, usually the week after exams, I had a line of students wanting to sit for meaningful corrections and I would often work into the lunch period with them. Others would schedule to meet me during my planning periods. Students were also trying to meet with their other teachers. Even with CAT there was just not enough time to do some of the most meaningful work with students. This year we plan to try to find more class time to have these personal conversations with students.
Grade Claim Letter
Regardless of how much we tried to de-emphasize grades during the year, we still had to post a letter grade (A,B,C,D,F; our District doesn’t use + or -) for each student. In an attempt to give students even more control over their final grades, at the end of each semester students had the opportunity to write a letter to the teacher where they claimed what course grade they thought they had earned. In their letters, students provided evidence for their claims from each of the core course standards. We provided students with the guide shown below for what it might look like in each of the standards categories to claim a particular grade.
It isn’t clear whether or not such a detailed and structured guide for determining a final grade was necessary. Knowing the core course standards, would students have been able to make a reasonable claim without so much guidance?
In my two sections of seniors for my IB/AP Biology course, I provided a much less detailed guide:
In your letter, please claim the level of excellence (A, B, C, D, F) at which you can justify you achieved during the Semester. Your evidence should include 1) How you did on the summative content (exams), 2) How you did on the science practices (lab work, writing, presenting, using peer feedback), and 3) How you did on your student practices (class participation, group work, sitting with me for corrections). You should also include as an appendix any Unit Reflections you wrote.
Of course, seniors may be more sophisticated and mature than freshmen and sophomores and they may not need as much scaffolding on such an ominous assignment as making a grade claim. Indeed, even with little guidance most were able to write perfectly acceptable and reasonable letters for claiming their grades.
Student Course Feedback
At the end of 2nd Semester, all students were encouraged to fill out an anonymous survey to provide us with feedback on our approach to the course. Here are some of their more interesting responses (n = 200; N = 306). For the Lickert Scale statements, 1 = “completely disagree”; 5 = “completely agree”.
Overall, it seems that the 65% (200/306) of students in the course who took the survey, the feedback was more positive than negative for most of the items on which we asked for feedback. In general, students felt less stressed than in other courses, they felt in control of their own success, and genuinely wanted to learn the material over getting the grade. Students also understood how to achieve the grade they desired and agreed that the grade they earned reflected their learning. Of the 200 students that took the survey, 157 sat for meaningful corrections. An overwhelming majority agreed that the experience improved their understanding of the material. However, an equally important and interesting result is that less than 25% of the students agreed that having to reflect on each curriculum unit helped them grow as successful students.
So what do we do as we move forward?
- We continue to move in the direction of de-emphasizing grades.
- We continue to experiment with ways for students to feel more in control of their fates in the course.
- We leverage more time to interact one-to-one with students during class time.
- We make Unit Reflections optional but important evidence for claiming a final grade.
- We try to streamline the process of getting to the grade.
- We communicate more effectively and more often with students and parents about the difference between course progress and a final course grade.
But perhaps the most critical thing we can do (I can do) is to carefully read your comments and suggestions about what we have attempted to do in this high school science course. So, if you have read this far, please take a moment to leave a meaningful and helpful comment. We cannot do this alone.