Assess without grade: my experience

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A couple of courses ago I decided that during the term I would not give any grades to the students. I had made similar experiences before with specific groups and specific trimesters, but at that time, I decided to implement it in all my subjects and projects. Only at the end of the term would they get the overall grade. Logically, this was the consequence of a much longer process, probably more than 10 years.

There are many sources that indicate that the numerical grades during the learning process are rather detrimental to this learning. The student focuses more on getting good grades than on learning. So I took this option, as there seemed to be sufficiently well-founded scientific evidence.

In this article I will share my experience. As a spoiler, I don’t go back and still don’t give any numerical grades.

Aspects to consider

You can’t stop grading if you don’t change anything

It would be illogical and counterproductive to continue evaluating exactly as we did with numerical grades and simply stop giving them. The students would not understand anything and the revolution could be considerable. Therefore, the first thing to do is to be clear that practically EVERYTHING must be changed. The elimination of grades during the learning process, in my case during a term, can only be the consequence of a change in methodology, caused by the big change, the change in assessment.

An aside. Whenever I say evaluation, I mean formative evaluation. During the learning process, I think it’s the only one that makes sense. As the title and content of one of Neus Sanmartí’s books (Avaluar per aprendre) says, for me, evaluation during the learning process can only serve to improve this learning.

Tasks must be able to improve

It’s all very well to say that everything has to be changed, but where do we start? In my case, I started by improving the tasks. I have never understood the idea of giving a task to students to see if they know how to do something from the explanations that have been given. Exaggerating a bit, I sometimes think that we ask students to learn to ride a bike just by watching how we go.

So all the tasks that were given had to be improvable. We had to be able to see what their strengths were (there are always positive aspects to the tasks given by the students) and what needed to be done to improve. The objectives and evaluation criteria helped us to determine whether we were on track or not.

More complex and competent tasks

Adding task improvement, forced me to redefine very well what tasks I was asking students to do. If a task is handed in and improved (once, twice or as many times as necessary), it has to be thought through very carefully, as it has to be complex enough for the improvement to make sense. It also needs to be thought through, as we will be able to review fewer assignments, so they should be very goal-oriented.

So it was time to review the objectives of the term very well, clearly marking the evaluation criteria and aligning them with the basic skills of the field and the transversal skills. These competencies had to be selected (and sequenced).

Evaluation tools

If the task was redone, detecting weak points, it was necessary for the student to have tools to make this reflection correct. We cannot forget that, usually, in secondary school a teacher has 30 students (or more) in class. How can a task be checked several times for each student? It is necessary that they internalize well the objectives and the evaluation criteria. And the way we write them is not the way. So what better than to incorporate rubrics (attention! competence rubrics, rather than products) and orientation bases. This means that part of the revisions no longer depend only on the teaching staff.

Co-evaluation and self-evaluation

With good rubrics and orientation bases (and checklists and …) students can assess whether their task is achieving the intended goal. What great learning students get when they evaluate peer tasks with good tools (if possible, created by themselves and agreed upon)!

And I mean evaluate, not grade. What a mania to go from rubric to number! I don’t know why whoever created the CoRubrics tool added the option to calculate a final grade. Look who could have saved it 😜

Spaces for reflection

All these evaluations provoke reflection in the student. What am I doing well? What should I improve? Why can’t I get it? Who can help me? How can I help my classmates? What don’t I understand? How can I understand? What have I learned? … and a long etcetera. And this reflection is essential to improve learning. So we had to help the student to do it. Therefore, I began to introduce classroom journals and portfolios. Spaces where to leave these reflections and assessments that allow the student (and the teachers) to be aware of their progress.

Where am I now?

And this is where I am now. In order to eliminate the qualifications I have had to completely redesign the learning objectives, selecting the competences very well (few and deep). I have changed the assessment criteria. I have redefined the activities that students do. I have introduced the improvement of tasks and, therefore, rubrics and guidance bases to be able to make this improvement in order to achieve the objectives. I have introduced co-evaluation and self-evaluation to be able to survive initially, but later, to improve the learning of the students from the reflection that this evaluation provokes, especially if it is expressed in a classroom diary or in a portfolio. Come on, I have changed practically EVERYTHING. And I still have some way to go, I am just a learner and I still have doubts. The good fortune of my real and virtual faculties, which allow me to continue learning and sharing.

What about the students who say?

Luckily, in the centre I’m not a very strange teacher. Perhaps no one else has completely eliminated the grades, but many of us do follow the same line. We all try to make a formative evaluation, we all encourage reflection on learning, we all use rubrics … and this helps a lot. If you are the only one in the entire faculty, you can be a very outspoken shooter.

The students ask for the grade right away. I take this opportunity to say that the important thing is to learn and not the grade. But at first they insist. But it’s not a matter of long before they accept that there is no grade, but that there is a lot of feedback. And that feedback is very useful to continue learning and improving.

Honestly, I expected more difficulties in this sense, but they accept it very well and they seem to be more relaxed. It also asks them for more responsibility, since they hand in the task, the corresponding evaluation is made, and they decide whether to improve it or not. And some also choose not to improve it.

Shadows

And let me finish the article with the shadows. Not everything is fantastic and you have to admit it.

The issue of deadlines is quite complex to manage. Students need to learn to respect deadlines for submission of tasks or products, no doubt. But if they can improve them, when is this deadline? If a deadline is set, some students don’t submit anything until the end and then we take on all the task improvement. If partial deliveries are set, what do we do if someone doesn’t deliver to the first one but delivers to the second one?

There are no magic solutions but for most students it works to see that by respecting the deadlines they receive proposals for improvement and therefore learn more. And, let’s be disappointed, they see that when they have grades at the end of the term, they will be higher. That one thing is that they no longer ask about their grades and another is that they don’t think about them.

A second big shadow is the workload for the teachers. Nothing that all teachers don’t know about. Rethinking everything implies a lot of hours, of failures and rethinking. With the hourly loads we have, it can only be by voluntarily increasing the weekly workday to 45 or 50 hours (or more).

And will all this change help them to have better results in an educational cycle or in the Bachillerato (my students are from the ESO)? The truth is that I don’t know. I do know that they improve the famous Learning to Learn competence. And therefore, they will have more facility to learn the rest of their lives. They will have more capacity to adapt to their surroundings. Therefore, you will have more skills to get ahead. But, logically, this does not prepare you to pass memory tests.

Final

As I say in many articles, I am only stating my opinion and my experience, based on many years in the classroom, with many exchanges with other teachers and with many readings of books written by people who really know. Disagree without any problem. If the article is thought-provoking, even if it is against it, I am already satisfied.

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