How I’m UNgrading my students

In my last post, I described why I’m UNgrading my students.  Yet, we all know the why is the easy part.  I’ve convinced many teachers that grades are harmful and that the carrot and the stick don’t motivate people.



However, these teachers usually give me the, “well, in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be grades, but…” response and I know the real conversation is over.

Still with me?  Good.

As I outlined in my last post, I’m working within a very typical system.  Not a charter school nor an alternative school; major poverty issues, etc.

My goal for this year is to not give my students a single grade.

So, how am I navigating these waters? Keep in mind that it’s a work in progress:

  • For the first 2 required progress report dates of the year, I had students complete a form telling me what grade they deserved and why. I entered their grades into the gradebook and attached their form to it to take home. The only change I made to any of their grades was to raise a “D” to a “B” in one case.
  • For athletic eligibility, I’ve done a similar thing. Athletes fill out a quick form for me on Thursday and I post it as is. I’ve really come to believe that using athletic eligibility as a carrot/ stick is cruel. For some of our kids, that’s the only reason they’re in school at all. Taking it away from them usually results in giving up.
  • Students are creating the rubrics for each project we do. They dtermine the criteria and the constraints for the project. I make sure they don’t get too specific or symplistic.
  • At the end of each project, student give themselves a grade using their rubric. That is the grade they get. If I really think a student is way off, I will sit down with them and talk about it. Hopefully, they will convince me (with their knowledge) that I missed something. If not, we may split the difference. Part of what I’m looking for here too is how they feel about their project. If they are really proud of their work, who am I to tell them that it’s not good enough?
  • Students are also compiling a digital portfolio of their work as we go. At the end of the semester, I will meet with each. They will tell me what grade they deserve and why.
  • We have also had a few whole class inquiry activities this year. In these types of challenges, the class was told that they would receive a common grade. This grade was solely determined by group consensus, not by me.
  • Finally, I’m giving lots and lots of descriptive feedback in the general format of “I Notice/ I Wonder/ What If?”.  I’m having students use this same format to give peer feedback.

This is how I’m working within district requirements while doing my best to subvert grades.  I’m calling it UNgrading because the students are getting grades, just not from me.

Big thanks to Joe Bower and Alfie Kohn for the courage to go forward with this system!

Next post: UNgrading – the early returns are in!

11 thoughts on “How I’m UNgrading my students

  1. so cool to see someone do this in a traditional setting. To often traditional settings are used as an excuse, but the creative teacher can figure out ways around the tradition, just as you are doing.

    I did very similar things with my students and even sat on committees in which we discussed how to move our whole building to this model – presented to the school board even. The problem with school boards is they think “it was good enough for me, so it’s good enough for kids now” & they really don’t get education. At best we get some retired lame duck teacher sitting on the board. (Sorry for the mini rant).

    This year as I teach preservice teachers I am modeling this kind of assessment because sometimes we have to experience something new before we’ll try it ourselves. Here is the post I wrote discussing my “grading” section of my syllabus. You’ll find it aligns closely with what you are doing.

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  3. This is awesome, and I’m so glad I read this. We’re coming up on the quarter, and I’ve been doing SBG, but now I’m going to add a twist, and ask them to take all the SBG evidence they have and figure out what grade they should get. Should be awesome, and I also have something to post about for the next SBG blog carnival.

  4. Thanks for this series of posts, Tyler! When I shift to a more PBL format, I think that I will also ditch SBG. What I like about your system is that no matter if students eat, breathe, sleep grades or don’t care about grades at all, you’ve really just taken the focus off the grade and refocussed on the learning.

    I just have a question about one thing I noticed – in your posts (either this one or the previous), you mention project based learning. I understand project based learning to be different from problem based learning – do you use these terms interchangeably? or are your project problem based?

    Thanks for the thought-provoking posts :-)

  5. John-

    That sounds like a spectacular way to put the focus on learning very specific information while giving responsibility for assessment over to the kids. The hard part will be helping them to understand how well they know the skill. They’ll need ample feedback with that for a while.

    When I did SBG and asked them to self assess, I used to say a 4 (out of 4) meant, “I know this so well I can teach it to someone else.” That made sense to them.

  6. Great stuff, Jerrid.

    We really need more teacher education programs that model good instructional practices, not just talk about them. A couple of professors in my teacher ed program did ePortfolios and I found it incredibly valuable. The key is making the process transparent enough for the teachers so that they can see how to use it themselves with students. It took me 5 years to get to this point. If I’d had more professors modeling portfolio assessment and self assessment, it might not have taken me so long to figure it out!

    It is hard to break the traditional mold. There have been many unexpected difficulties along the way, mostly caused by school structures. Our mandatory online gradebook being culprit #1!

  7. Great post, John. I’m always honored when I help another educator to make a positive change. Often it just takes someone else saying, “I did this and you can too.”

  8. Barb,

    I’ve really found that the more I’ve gone to PBL (which my students and I LOVE), the less SBG worked for me.

    I think SBG really works in a skill based class taught fairly traditionally, like most math classes. For it to really work the way it should, students need repeated opportunities to show mastery of a standard. Too often in PBL, they might only get one chance to show mastery of a standard. Additionally, many standards typically fall into one project. I had several projects last year that included 7 or 8 standards. That was confusing for them and for me!

    Taking the grades off the table to focus on the learning is exactly what I’m trying to do. I really feel like it’s working so far!

  9. Barb,

    Great question regarding problem based vs. project based learning. It’s actually a question that I’ve been meaning to blog about. Thanks for the reminder.

    Short answer – I consider the two to be similar and often congruent but not the same. My projects are definitely problem based. However, project based learning, by nature, is long-term and involves many facets.

    Problem based learning could occur during a single lesson. I think of Dan Meyer’s work (dy/dan) as an example of great problem based learning. We also do activities during a project that I would consider to be problem based learning.

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