The Road to Gradeless

The Road to Gradeless

Inspired by the experiences of Starr Sackstein and Joy Kirr, last January, I decided to significantly modify how “grades” were determined in my 8th grade science classroom. Like many, I teach within a school and a district that abide by a traditional grading philosophy, requiring a final “grade” for each student.  So while my student learners and I were unable to go completely gradeless, we got as close as possible. Going gradeless last semester was a significant change for my students that forced me to critically analyze the feedback I provide to my student learners.

The Shift to Learning over Grades

I have emphasized learning over grades for several years (see my previous blog post, Focus on the Learning: The Power of Mastery), so this shift was a natural progression for me as an educator. I plan our learning journeys using backwards design, starting with the end in mind and then working alongside my student learners to help them navigate towards their target destination. Within each learning objective, I still assess student work, formatively to help learners visualize and evaluate their paths towards mastery. I give specific feedback and also provide a number “score” using a Mastery Grading Scale I created based on Marzano’s work on standards based grading. If I feel that a student demonstrates limited command of an objective, I provide specific feedback to the student to help push their thinking and understanding, but do not provide a score. After learners reflect on their feedback and revisit and revise their thinking, I add a rubric score. While I require those who do not demonstrate at least moderate command to reflect and revise, every student is always welcome to push their thinking and understandings through the revision process. After completing all of the learning activities associated with a learning objective, students complete a reflection on their learning (Space – Learning Objective #5 – Personal Evaluation & Reflection). I also ask my student learners to mini-conference with me about their evaluation & reflection. I let them know that while I might challenge them in their mini-conference I will always respect and honor their assessment of their overall learning. Most of my student learners completed 3 learning objectives during the 3rd quarter and the 4th quarter. This means there were 12 points total in the grade book for each quarter. I used the following scale to weave my 4 point system into my school’s traditional grading system. 

Reflecting on Our Journey to Gradeless

At first, my student learners were excited when I introduced our learning focused system. Eventually they realized that the ownership of learning was placed on them. Some kids embraced this, some kids didn’t. We worked hard on reflections throughout the semester. During the first round of reflections, most kids assessed “how hard they tried” rather than their level of understanding. Although I focused primarily on verbal feedback during the first round of reflections, my limited written feedback also left  much to be desired (Student A, Student B). By the final round of reflections, both my student learners and I were improving. This improvement involved lots of modeling for the students, both by myself and their peers. I also focused on the questioning strategies I used with my student learners as we verbally conferenced on their learning reflections. I also drastically changed the format of the reflection documents. By the end of the semester the student reflections were significantly deeper, more thoughtful, and evidence based and focused more on their learnings and understandings rather than their effort levels (Student A, Student B).

Bumps in the Road to Gradeless

An unanticipated issue I experienced was a handful of students who completed all learning experiences for a learning objective and then did not complete their learning reflections. I wasn’t expecting this and was not quite sure how to handle this roadblock. I decided to address the issue on a case to case basis. I structure my class so that student learners can complete all learning experiences, revisions, reflections and mini conferences during our class time. I ended up working with the majority of kids who did not complete self-reflections 1:1 to verbally help them work through their reflections.

Navigating the Road to Gradeless in the Upcoming Year

As I anticipate the upcoming year, I am considering eliminating the mini-conferences after my students participate in their first round of learning reflections unless I disagree with their learning self assessments or they would like to mini conference with me. I am also thinking of giving student learners the option of completing their learning reflections verbally through a tool like Voxer or via video. I also plan to provide more structures and scaffolds to help my student learners assess one another more effectively and provide specific peer feedback that moves everyone’s learning forward.

I would appreciate comments and feedback from others who are thinking about or are actively making the transition to a gradeless classroom. What successes have you had? What structures have you provided or implemented that have been effective in helping student learners take ownership of their learning? What speed bumps have you encountered and how have you addressed them?

2 Replies to “The Road to Gradeless”

  1. Erin, I LOVE that you began your gradeless journey this past year! Kudos to you and your students!! I added this page on the Feedback LiveBinder here: so even more teachers can learn from you, as well. I, too, have learned that the reflection step (with 7th graders) is tough. I wonder how much time they have in their classes to reflect? It may just start with us… Keep it up – thank you for sharing with the world!

    1. Joy, thanks for checking out my post and for adding the Feedback LiveBinder link! I’ve used lots of resources from your Genius Hour LiveBinder ( and look forward to diving into the feedback resources you have shared! I too wonder how much time our kiddos get to reflect, not enough I would imagine. My hope is to help change that.

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