The “No Grades” Experiment

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Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Last year, Jean Erickson, our Language Arts teacher extraordinaire, gave her 12th grade students the freedom to decide what to study for the last two weeks before Christmas break. They chose “spoken word poetry” and the fun began. Students listened to spoken word poetry, analyzed it, figured out what made it powerful, and decided why they liked some poems and not others.

At the end of the unit, Jean asked her students to break into groups and come up with a spoken word poem of their own. She told them that they would have complete freedom to do whatever they wanted, and that the poems would not be graded.

This class is a strong one – a group of talented, bright students – but they often feel overwhelmed and complain about their workload. On any given assignment, about a third of the class will hand their work in late… sometimes very late. We were curious to see what kind of work they would do, knowing that the assignment “didn’t count,” especially at this time of year: they were busy with their end-of-the-year schoolwork and university applications. In widely held teaching mythology, the general belief is that if kids don’t get grades, they won’t bother doing the work.

On the day of the presentations, I was invited to come in and watch. The first group got up to present, and their poignantly moving poem portrayed the sadness they felt when breaking up with partners and not only losing a love, but losing their best friend, as well. When they finished speaking, there was a long, thoughtful silence that spoke stronger than any words could.

We listened to poems that dealt with the capturing of pictures to share on social media instead of fully living the moment, the Cold War, and the scariness of deciding on their future as they graduate high school.

I’ve rarely seen anything so powerful.

The best part about it was that it happened with absolutely no external incentive. I was amazed, and I had to ask the students what they thought of the project and why they had put so much effort into doing this astonishing work despite the lack of grades. This is what they had to say:

  • We had the freedom to write about whatever we wanted. I asked how that was different from a normal writing workshop assignment, in which they have the freedom to choose their topic, and they said: Because there wasn’t going to be a grade attached, we felt free to write about anything we wanted. For instance, one group wrote about breaking up with a boy, which a teacher might think is a superficial topic. If we thought a teacher was grading us, we’d try to write about something the teacher would think was more meaningful, so that she’d give us a better grade.
  • There wasn’t a rubric, so we didn’t feel limited. This one surprised me – a rubric is supposed to provide guidelines, not limit students. When there’s a rubric, you have to focus on meeting the requirements – using figurative language, including imagery, and all of that. Without the rubric we were free to do whatever we wanted and we could go deeper in our thinking.
  • We were free to take risks. When you’re afraid of the grade, you try to do exactly what you think the teacher wants you to do and you don’t take risks. Grades make us nervous and then we can’t be creative.
  • We took on a challenge because we weren’t scared of the grade we’d get. Normally when we’re getting a grade, we do whatever is easiest for us so that we can be guaranteed a good mark.
  • When asked why they all did the work on time, they explained: When you feel pressured by a grade, sometimes you get so nervous you can’t do the work. But for the spoken word poetry project, there was no pressure, so we just got into it and had fun.

Jean and I listened in awe to their comments. The students basically reiterated what all of the research on grading says. Within five minutes, students had mentioned all the key points: grades kill intrinsic motivation, they stop students from thinking deeply, and instead of enjoying the learning, students focus only on the marks they’ll get.

The grade-free experiment was an over-the-top success. Now comes the hard part: how do we take this information and use it to make real changes to the way we assess everyday?

 

For more information on the negative effects of grading, take a look at the following:

http://www.education.com/magazine/article/Grades_Any_Good/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-crouch/grades-do-more-harm-than-_b_4190907.html

http://hs-survival.blogspot.com/2010/11/grades-poison-that-slowly-kills-love-of.html

13 Comments

  1. Thanks for tagging me on this Carla–wonderful to hear about the experience from the students. We need to enable more of this kind of atmosphere–and it is possible. Human beings love to learn–sadly schools have set up situations which kind of “beat” that out of us. But not always 🙂

    • Thanks for reading Gillian. Because of your work with creativity, I though you’d be interested in these students reflections on how grades stifle their freedom to be creative. I was amazed at how clear they were on this point.

  2. You should join and share this with our Facebook group: Teachers Going Gradeless.

    There is a big movement of teachers who want to promote autonomy and growth.

    • Thank you for introducing me to the Teachers Going Gradeless Fb group – I didn’t know this group existed. I”m looking forward to joining and learning with all of you.

  3. I love this, and it mirrors my own experience with “nearly” gradeless projects (they had elements that were graded, but not the final product…mostly completion grades on reflections they completed throughout the process). It’s amazing what students create and how much they enjoy themselves when they are given the freedom to explore and learn!

  4. I did something similar last year for my last unit in 9th grade World Studies…a top 10 list with rankings of why they chose what they decided to rank. All they had to do is make sure it was global. Kids blew me away with their presentations. Some did their “bucket list” while others did the best punk rock albums of all time…they loved the ability to do what they felt was important.

    • You hit the nail on the head, Dean. Being able to work on what they felt was important really makes the project more meaningful and therefore the final products are generally stronger.

  5. Much here rings true for me, too. This thought also occurs: no grades didn’t mean no accountability in the poetry scenario you retold. Public performance can create its own kind of stakes raising. I’m wondering if this came up in any of your observations or debriefing.

    • I hadn’t thought of that aspect of it Brian. And it makes perfect sense – I’m sure that presenting their poetry made the students want to do a better job. It’s not quite the same when you hand your poem in and only the teacher reads it. We’ll try this again and I’ll be sure to ask the kids about that part of it.

  6. “…how do we take this information and use it to make real changes to the way we assess everyday?” We can just be in school for learning’s sake! ;D I second Aaron’s comment – come join us! I share teacher journeys w/o grades on the “Teacher Journeys” tab of the Feedback in Lieu of Grades LiveBinder here: tinyurl.com/FeedbackBinder

  7. Isn’t it possible that these results have more to do with students responding to a new situation? By the third assignment I would expect results to be far less impressive. We need to keep our approaches fresh and mix it up. This gradeless approach would be part of the mix. I would be interested in reading results from similar studies when the content is physical sciences or math.

    • Yes, this probably has a lot to do with it, John. This was just one small experiment – not proof of much and I do agree that change is motivating. However, in our elementary school we don’t have grades at all and students seem to enjoy learning for learning’s sake. This changes when they get to 7th grade (where we use number grades, for many reasons, but not because we like them) Suddenly they focus more on pleasing the teacher than being creative and their stress level increases. I found the 12th grade students’ reflections interesting in this regard.

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