My Classes are Pointless

Really, they are. But the purpose of this post is not to tell my colleagues what to do or argue that what I do is better—I have no empirical evidence to support it nor am I interested in doing a controlled study. The purpose of this post is to reflect on my own understanding of and arguments for what I am attempting to accomplish for my students, communicate the ideas to my peers, students, parents, and administrators, and engage in the conversation about best practices for teaching and learning.

My teaching is far from perfect, and I make mistakes weekly, if not daily. Indeed, even on the fifth day of school this year already I told a class full of students the wrong way to interpret the results of one of the most common inferential statistical tests—and I coauthored a statistics guide for teachers on the very subject!

What I do

Two years ago I decided to join the stop grading movement and attempt to reduce the emphasis on grades in my Biology courses. This move was inspired by a de-emphasis on grades that was already occurring in the classes of a few of the Language Arts teachers at my school. The stop grading movement is an evidence-based attempt to reduce student stress as well as put the student’s focus on confidence, skills, and learning and understanding of concepts and away from merely accumulating as many points as possible in a course as a means toward a grade. Ideally then, students begin to focus on what really matters in their education and growth instead of a running point total and a constantly and automatically calculated and updated grade.

Unfortunately, most of us are stuck in various ways with a grade book system that requires some kind of quantification of learning. Even so, I argue here that there are ways we can fulfill the grade book requirements while filling the grade book with meaningful data that really matter to students, teachers, and in K-12 education, parents.

For four continuous semesters now I haven’t put a single point on an exam, paper, worksheet, quiz, you name it. Indeed, for years I had become more and more uncomfortable trying to assign arbitrary point values for questions, combined with figuring out how and where students could earn points and partial points on their answers. The image below shows how crazy things had gotten. I wanted to eliminate unnecessary complexity that comes with point-giving and the power struggle that comes with points-as-currency. Indeed, we have all had students ask questions like, “Why didn’t I get any points for this?” and “Can I at least get half credit?” and “Can I get some points back if I turn this in again? (as if they had points to begin with and I took them away) and “Is there any extra credit I can do that’s worth points?

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Example of an attempt at a scoring guide on an exam in Biology.

The point-less approach may not be for every classroom teacher, given the strict grading rules in place at schools and in Districts, but a point-less curriculum is working well for me and my students. But admittedly, I am fortunate to work with an Administration that is supportive of and interested in innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

In my biology classes, students do end up with a grade at the end of the semester, they have to. Indeed, my school and District require it. However, how we get to that final semester grade does not have to include points.

The approach I take has several components

Biology Journal. Students keep a digital Biology Journal. The Journal is a Google Document that is shared with me and on which I can make comments. In the Journal students record any (and sometimes all) evidence of their learning success and struggles through the semester.

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Image from a student’s Biology Journal.

This isn’t a new idea—it is similar to the Interactive Student Notebook my colleague Lee Ferguson uses, or in general, a student portfolio (an idea that has been around for a while) or a Learning RecordIn the Biology Journal students reflect on what they have enjoyed learning and doing in class and what they haven’t, what they have found difficult aswell as easy, what mistakes they have made and how they corrected them. Students also post photos of the work they are proud of, from images of their lab notebook pages to pictures of themselves with a freshly built glucose molecule, to a diagram on a unit exam they thought was well done. Students even pose questions to me and provide feedback on the activities we do in class.

Exam Workshopping. Students take their Unit Assessments twice and the assessments are mostly free response. The first attempt is a solo effort. I read through the papers, check-mark the answers I think are done well and circle the ones that need more work. I provide some feedback, mostly in the form of questions about their answers. I then give each student a level of progress on their solo efforts: Complete (100%), Partial (80%) or Rework (50%) (see Assignment Mark Detail below). Students understand that achieving a Complete does not mean perfect, it simply means that the student has shown a remarkable degree of progress toward the Unit goals. I enter the progress level for the solo effort in our online grade book and include comments for both students and parents to see about some of the major items on which the students need to focus (see Unit 5 Exam Solo below). Students then workshop their assessments together in class to improve their answers—including students at the Complete level—and turn their papers back in for me to have another look. During these workshopping sessions, I take the opportunity to move around and confer with individuals or groups of students. Note: I also gives students learning targets and practice tests so that the expectations for each Unit and assessment are clear.

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Image from Infinite Campus of the Assignment Marks I use for all student work. The school and District require that something quantitative be present in the online grade book, especially for athletic and other extracurricular eligibility.
IC
Image from Infinite Campus of a Solo Effort item entry for a Unit Assessment. The next column to the right shows that all of these students eventually go to the Complete level of progress on the assessment. The little red triangles in the upper right of each box indicates that there is an additional comment with more feedback. Both students and parents can see these data.

Mentor Texts, not Rubrics. Student writing assignments are also assessed progressively using the same levels of completion as exams. I provide students with mentor texts to help them with their scientific writing. The mentor texts include good examples of previous student writing and actual scientific papers from which students model their own writing.

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Mentor texts are posted for students to use to guide their own writing.

But I don’t use writing rubrics, I just provide constant feedback. For example, with a rubric, if a student receives a 4/4 for their introduction because all the components are there, but they still could improve their research question or hypothesis, what motivation does the student have to improve? In my courses, if a student receives a Partial (80%) I think of this as akin to what an author trying to publish in a peer-reviewed scientific journal would receive: Accept with Minor Revisions. Indeed, from this perspective, all of the papers I have published began at essentially the Rework (50%) level: Accept with Major Revisions. The drafts of each manuscript were covered with feedback; no scores, just lots and lots of challenging but helpful and encouraging feedback.

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Example of feedback on a section of a professional manuscript that was Accepted with Major Revisions and ultimately published in Studies in Avian Biology.
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Example section from a student paper that received a level of achievement of Partial: “Accepted with Minor Revisions.”

So, shouldn’t we be authentic to our subject (science) and one of its major crafts (scientific writing) and model this feedback approach for our students? My guess is that most of you do provide tons of written feedback on your students’ writing. While it’s difficult to divorce ourselves from scoring student writing with rubrics and points, it’s not impossible and the change can be freeing for both student and teacher.

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From The Paper Graders: A moment of clarity that helped my AP Lit students see exactly why I don’t put grades on their writing

 

The End of Semester Grade Claim

So how do my students end up with the fair and accurate grade I am required to give? Students write a letter to me at the end of each Semester where they pull the best of the best evidence from their Biology Journals, make a grade level claim, and back their claims up with logic and reason. Below is the grade guide that I provide to my students (and their parents) at the beginning of the year.


In Biology with Dr. Strode you will not receive points on any work. Instead, all turned in work will be given feedback, a level of completion/progress, and entered in Infinite Campus as follows:


    • Complete (100%) – work is really well done with great effort, yet it still may have areas that need improvement. The expectation is that you do the improvement work and show continued progress toward learning, understanding, and skill development.

 

  • Partial (80%) – effort and understanding is mostly evident, but there is still room for a good amount of growth toward learning, understanding, and skill development.

 

 

  • Rework (50%) – work is far from the level of expectation in the class and requires a major overhaul to reach the desired level of learning, understanding, and skill development.

 

 

  • Missing (0%) – work is missing.

 

 

The “grade” and percentage you will see in the Infinite Campus Grade Book throughout the semester is NOT YOUR GRADE. The grade and percentage is your PROGRESS toward an ultimate level of achievement (your grade) that you claim with evidence and reasoning at the end of each semester. Indeed, it is possible to be progressing at 90-100% throughout the semester but not be able to claim excellence (an A) because, for example, you have not attempted to improve work that is at the Complete level but still has room for growth, you have several late assignments, or you have some missing work.


Below are the goals for having a Fabulous and Excellent Semester. This list of 10 items will guide you throughout the semester and as you construct your grade claim argument:

  1. You have truly done your best work and put in the effort required toward the purpose of learning and understanding this semester’s biological concepts and science practices.
  2. You have worked authentically, with integrity, and carefully in all areas of the course–this includes on your solo efforts on assessments, the workshopping of assessments, your scientific writing, and your Lab Notebook.
  3. All of your work that can be moved to Complete in IC is now at the Complete level and is no longer at the Partial or Rework levels (excepting solo Exam efforts, these remain at your first attempt levels).
  4. You have evidence of improvement throughout the semester.
  5. You have no Missing work.
  6. You have no more than one assignment labeled as Late.
  7. You have kept up with your Biology Journal (shared with me as a Google Doc) throughout the semester and have loaded them with overwhelming and thoughtful evidence of your excellence and your improvements on all work, including Unit Exams that have been deemed Complete.
  8. You have been a positive community member: provided helpful contributions and feedback on exam workshops and group writing, engaged in effective conversation in class, helped others, navigated our classroom with kindness, and did not distract others or limit their success.
  9. You have done meaningful work.
  10. You have conferred at least once during the semester with Dr. Strode about your progress and success in class.

Below are the grade levels you can claim you have EARNED for the semester. Please do not think of these as grade you deserve.

A = Achieve ALL 10 goals outlined above. If not all goals are achieved, provide a convincing argument for consideration.

B = Generally achieve the goals outlined above but CLEARLY leave some room for growth in a few areas.

C = Achieve only some of the goals outlined above, leaving clear room for growth in several areas.

D = Achieve only a few of the goals outlined above.

F = Achieve none of the goals outlined above.

DISCLAIMER: it will not be possible for a student to end up locked out of the A category for one small oversight, but the oversight must be explained.


Student Feedback

I surveyed both levels of biology students in May at the end of Second Semester. Not all students took the survey. In the first year course, Pre-IB Biology, 49 of 64 (76%) students took the survey, while in the second year course, IB/AP Biology, 34 of 62 (55%) students completed the survey. I asked the students various questions about the course. In the next two figures below I have provided summaries of their answers to the questions I asked that were most relevant to the pointless and grade de-emphasis approach. One result I found surprising was that the general consensus among students between courses—the first-year Pre-IB Biology students (9th and 10th graders) and the second-year IB/AP Biology students (12th graders)—was an overall sense of low stress, control, and a focus on learning and understanding.

Example free response feedback from both sets of students is provided below the graphs. An interesting difference was that some of the seniors thought that my approach to grades took the focus too much off of their end-of-year IB and AP Biology Exams. As a result, some students felt under prepared for these external assessments. However, and at the risk of contradicting the entire argument of this post, many readers might be interested to learn that overall scores on the IB and AP exams by the seniors in my courses have changed little (IB), if any (AP) over the years both before and after implementing my approach to grades, and even given new requirements in both curricula that began in 2015.

 

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Example first-year student feedback from an end-of-year survey about their experiences in my courses. At the top is an example question and the scale students used.

 

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Seniors in the second-year course were asked the same questions as the students in the first-year course. The frequency of responses are nearly identical in both groups.
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Student were asked to provide anonymous open-ended feedback about their overall experiences in the course. In the first-year course, the 49 students who took the time to take the survey were overwhelmingly positive with their feedback.
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The seniors were understandably somewhat focused on the IB and AP Biology Exams in May. These students took the survey after these culminating exams.

 

Where to now?

I am pretty sure that my courses and approach to learning and understanding, the science practices, and grades will continue to evolve over the remaining years of my career. But one thing is for sure: I will do my best to take risks, to be innovative, to listen to my students and to my colleagues, and to keep the focus on improving science literacy, critical thinking, and fostering an overall love for the biological sciences in my students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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