I have always hated grading papers.

It is right up there with watching state-mandated online training modules and filling out our labyrinthian teacher evaluation as one of my least favorite parts of the job.

Before moving on, I want to make it clear though that I don’t mean reading or responding to student work when I say “grading.” As I discussed earlier this year, grading and responding to student work are often used as synonyms, but they are actually highly different tasks. Feedback is the act of giving students information that they can use to grow and move forward; grades, on the other hand, are static markers meant to communicate to the student and others where a student’s skills are right now. And as a teacher, I have always felt much more comfortable with helping students chart a path forward than I have with rating them.

Matisse’s Cat with Red Fish

But my dislike of grading goes far deeper than that. I also regularly worry about what grades do to my students–the way that so many of them so readily take a grade and wear it as an identify (“I am just a C writer…”). There’s also the fact that grades act as extrinsic motivators, and while extrinsic motivation has a place, it has also been well proven to generally decrease intrinsic motivation, damage creativity, and encourage negative behaviors like plagiarism. And, lastly, the bluntness of grades as an instrument has always bothered me too. Often, while giving a grade, I have felt like I was trying to capture the nuance and intricacies of Matisse’s use of color (see right) using a black and white lens.

These worries weigh on me every time I assign a grade, but despite them I still give grades in my classes. Part of this is contractual; I am required to give grades per our district’s contract. Part of it is cultural; no one in my school is gradeless, my administration is not very interested in making the switch right now, and my students and their parents largely expect grades. And part of it is that I haven’t fully figured out what would go in their place; many secondary and postsecondary institutions (ranging from colleges, to scholarships, to organizations like the National Honor Society) need grades or some sort of rating to differentiate between students, and I don’t have a better alternative considering the current structures I work within for how to pass information about students along when these institutions come calling.

So, while I fantasize about the moment where I can drop my grade book in the trash and focus entirely on learning and growth, I am not there yet. Hopefully someday, but not yet.

This all leads to the topic of today’s post, which is based on a comment I’ve heard many times in recent years. When I talk to teachers about grades, many nod along with my concerns, but when pushed about grades in their classes the most common response I get is some variation of the following statement:

“I love the idea of going gradeless, but I’m just not able to do it right now…”

For many years I said similar statements myself, but what I’ve learned over the last two years is that going gradeless is not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to either grade like normal or have no grades at all. Instead, as Jeffery Frieden of the wonderful blog Make Them Master It so eloquently told me just last week, “Going gradeless is a spectrum. It’s right there in the name. We are trying to grade less.”

Frieden here captures the approach of my own grade-less journey, which began after seeing The Paper Graders at NCTE in 2017. Due to the issues discussed above, I knew that dropping grades instantly wouldn’t work for my situation, so instead I have been looking for ways to grade less, especially in regards to eliminating the most damaging grading practices.

In recent years, this goal has led me to make four big pedagogical changes that have borne almost immediate fruit for my students and me:

1. I Separate Grades and Feedback

I’ve already written about this, but it warrants repeating that when grades and feedback are given together, one is going to get short-shrift in terms of student attention–and it is easy to imagine which one often does. Further, whenever we have feedback next to grades, it is only natural for the teacher to focus that feedback on justifying the grade (as opposed to focusing on how to move forward).

For this reason, I now completely silo off feedback from grades whenever possible. The biggest change in this regard is that instead of giving a ton of feedback at the end of papers on what students could have done, I now give the bulk of my feedback in the early stages, while the graded final draft only gets a grade. For more on how this works, go to this post here.

2. I Create “Grade Deserts”

A steady dose of low, medium, or high grades is a recipe for a fixed mindset. And no matter whether a student views themselves as an ‘A’ student or a ‘D’ student, a fixed mindset doesn’t correlate with maximizing learning. Because of this, I have “grade-deserts” during most units where the students spend the early weeks of the unit swimming in ungraded waters. During this time we do lots of writing to learn and my teaching focuses on skill-building and giving meaningful feedback. For those who are afraid that students won’t fully commit to building skills or engaging with feedback without the carrot/stick of grades, I have found the opposite to be true. In my classes, students generally give more effort and thought when grades aren’t present than when they are, as for many of them it changes the work of class from checking boxes to get a certain grade to building skills and knowledge that will help them in their lives.

3. I Have Lots of ‘A’ Only Assignments

Much of the writing in my classroom is smaller targeted assignments that focus on building a skill or small suite of skills. These assignments look like this one, which is a targeted write on commas:

This assignment has a point value given in the last bullet point because I need to put something in the grade book, but it is secretly a gradeless assignment. This is because if students have any comma errors, I will give them feedback and then have them fix the errors during workshop time before I will give them full credit for the assignment.

I do this all the time, telling students that the skills we focus on in class matter, so they need to keep at them until they get them right. What I am essentially doing here is creating ‘A’ Only assignments, where one has to master the subject matter, and once one does, full credit is granted. The beautiful thing about these assignments is that this approach requires everyone to learn the lessons and even the students who struggle with the topic (for example commas), will see an A for the Comma Paper in the grade book once it is done.

4. I Wait to Talk About Grades Until the End of my Units

When I used to handout large papers and projects, I always made sure to print the rubric on the back so students would know how the grade would be calculated. This idea is reasonable, but it also establishes right away that the point to this paper/project is to get a certain score.

My approach now is that I hand out the paper and explain to students what the goals of the paper are, but I don’t talk about points at all until we co-construct the rubric (more on this in my next post) together right before students write a final draft. I’ve found that if I am clear concerning the goals and expectations, students don’t miss the grading rubric; on the contrary, not having to worry about point values opens them up to risks that few would likely take if the grade were one of the first things they saw.


So often in education (like in society), we divide into diametrically-opposed camps. Five-paragraph essay supporters vs. five-paragraph opponents; the workshop classroom model vs. “normal” classes; prescriptivist vs. descriptivist; choice reading vs. assigned reading. And in the arguments between these camps, it is so easy for the supporters to frame their approaches as all-or-nothing propositions, which in turn can scare many off from adopting what are good practices.

I have found that nowhere is this more true than when it comes to going gradeless. So if you dislike and worry about grades too, I encourage you to not to wait until the moment where you can go completely gradeless to start looking for ways to grade LESS.* If my experience is any indication, you and your students will be glad tomorrow that you started this journey today!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

*For those interested in learning more about going gradeless, I encourage you to read the ongoing work of Aaron Blackwelder, Sarah Zerwin, Jeffrey Frieden, and John Warner, among others, or to pick up any book by Starr Sackstein.

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Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.

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