Shifting The Grades Mindset

Traditional grading has been ingrained in American educational culture for more than a century. Because of the culture of grades that has emerged, we have lost sight of what is important in school: the learning.

Too many students, parents, and educators focus excessively on labeling learning with numbers: they are willing to let that number or letter represent almost anything that can happen.

Here are a few issues with traditional grading that must be hacked:  

  • Grades misrepresent what students know and can do because they over-simplify student achievement 
  • Grades generate a competitive learning culture that de-emphasizes progress and pits students against each other. 
  • The language associated with grading often has a negative connotation that shuts the learning process down. 

It’s time to change the way we communicate about learning, and the most important step is to make sure all stakeholders understand why the shift is necessary. We need to help everyone involved, particularly students, understand that grades don’t represent the depth of their understanding, that in fact grades are a short-sighted way to explore or to communicate about learning.

Students must understand the various methods of feedback that their teacher and peers will provide and how to parlay that feedback into future growth.

In the bestselling Hacking Assessmentaward-winning teacher and world-renowned formative assessment expert Starr Sackstein unravels one of education’s oldest mysteries: How to assess learning without grades – even in a school that uses numbers, letters, GPAs, and report cards. 

We must inspire students to focus on a growth mindset that allows for change and movement, rather than a fixed mindset that has the potential to stifle growth. When students earn C grades, they have a tendency to define themselves as a “C students,” often becoming stuck with this label.

If we remove the label, we encourage students to see themselves simply as learners.

The shift to a growth mindset demands a corresponding shift in language to discuss the learning and assessing processes. Teachers must emphasize that there are multiple paths to learning and no one way is better than another.

When students ask about grades, challenge them to think about learning. When we give students feedback, we aren’t judging them; we are encouraging them to improve. This shift is an active one and will require vigilance on the part of the teacher and the learner.

What You Can Do Tomorrow

Transitioning away from traditional grades is a serious challenge, but there are several ways to ease the tension. Consider the following next steps:

  • Talk about going gradeless. This discussion is essential: How you present it to students is going to determine how well they respond to the idea of eliminating grades. Begin by asking students what they think learning looks like. If they answer, “Doing all our work and getting A’s,” push back by asking more questions: “What do you get from doing all the work?” “What does it mean to get an A?”
  • Talk about mastery learning. Initially, students may be able to wrap their brains around the idea, but how this new process actually looks will feel like a mystery. Dispel the uncertainty by providing concrete examples of mastery learning.

How To Implement A Gradeless Classroom

Step 1: Continue the dialogue throughout the year. 

Just because you had the conversation once doesn’t mean it’s over. Expect to have on-going discussions about this concept all year long. Try not to get frustrated or exasperated when students need more time to take it in.

They will continue to ask what they “got” on something and it will be your job to redirect the conversation--take the opportunity to remind them that learning has no grades. Instead ask them, “What did you learn from that assignment? What could you do now that you couldn’t do before? How do you know?” Students will come to expect the redirection until they have internalized the shift. 

Step 2: Routinely review and clarify the standards of learning.

Make sure students understand class learning expectations (not rules) and standards. Have students translate expectations and standards into student-friendly language and internalize them; then, ask each student to determine his or her level of proficiency based on mastery of the standards.

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Since standards are often written in a language students don’t readily understand, it will take time to build a vocabulary and understanding of learning and each subject will require a specific jargon. 

One way to help students know what they don’t know is by asking them to apply skills and knowledge to new situations without help. When they have reached mastery level, they can take what they know from one place and apply it appropriately to another without prompting, creating and synthesizing new ideas.

Step 3: Create and share feedback models regularly.  

Exemplars will be your friend throughout the year, but even the best samples of last year’s work will need to be updated. (See the example at the end of this hack.)

Students must understand the various methods of feedback that their teacher and peers will provide and how to parlay that feedback into future growth.

For example, they will have opportunities to receive written feedback on work, to engage in short conversations during group projects, or to have one-on-one discussions that include specific strategies about different aspects of their learning. They will also be providing feedback to you about what works best for them.

Step 4: Change the vocabulary associated with learning

Traditional grading language is passive and is often negative, so we can shift the way we talk about assessment. Instead of using the words “grade” or “grading,” use “assessment” or “assessing.”

We must be conscious of our diction, as our words characterize our thinking and communicate attitude: one simple word change can affect the connotation drastically. 

Overcoming Pushback

Students and parents won’t understand this shift; they are used to grades. Let’s face it, this system is the only one they know and it’s validated by the fact that parents understand it and have instilled in their children that getting good grades is equal to success.

Of course, they do really want their kids to learn and generally will agree that learning is more important than the grade, so you will need to be patient.

The best way to overcome this fixed mindset is to continue to have conversations and share the reasons you’ve eliminated grades and the value of assessment based on narrative feedback and self-evaluation. 

The best way to overcome a fixed mindset is to continue having conversations.

Be strong. The system won’t change overnight; it will take time and many people making the conscious shift together. If you can get the whole school on board, that will greatly increase the likelihood of success with parents and students.


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