Reducing grades is the consequence

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For some time now, when I do trainings, I have been meeting teachers who want to reduce the grades in their subjects, but don’t really know how to do it. Since we opened the No Grades group on Facebook (not yet part of the group? There are already over 400 of us!), I get even more enquiries from teachers who are concerned about the over-reliance of students on grades.

There is a strong academic consensus, from different studies, that grades given in the middle of the learning process, in formative assessment, have a negative influence. All of them point out that feedback with comments only is better. On the other hand, any teacher with a little experience (and it doesn’t take much), perceives that students are much more concerned about the grade they will get for an assignment than about the learning they will get from it.

This leads some teachers to consider how to reduce, if not eliminate, marking during the learning process, be it a term, a project or a teaching unit.

 

But I always tell them the same thing. The reduction or elimination of grading is the consequence, not the cause of change in the classroom. It is good that it serves to make us aware that changes have to be made in classroom methodology, but it is surely one of the last steps to be taken.

The reduction of marks must be the result of transforming assessment into formative assessment, assessment for learning. There is no point in continuing to do things the same way and reducing grades. What is more, students will not understand anything and it will probably be counterproductive.

When I am asked what process can be followed, I always describe this possible way forward (among many other possible ways).

  1. Be clear about the learning objectives: in that learning process, what are the 4 or 5 learning objectives you want learners to achieve?

  2. In order not to make a radical change, design one (yes, only one) competency-based and complex task that helps learners to achieve one or two of these objectives. By complex task I mean a task where the learner has to put into play concepts that he/she has learned and understood. Following Bloom’s taxonomy (with its limitations), a task that requires higher order thinking (create, analyse, apply…).
  3. It foresees different moments of evaluation (not grading) of the task. The idea is to allow students to deliver different prototypes of the task and to improve on these prototypes. Start, for example, with 3 (delivery of two prototypes and final delivery). In other words, as other authors say, let the learners have different refreshment points during the completion of the task.
  4. Once the task has been presented to the students, design with them the evaluation (not grading) instrument to be used for the different prototypes. This can be a rubric.
  5. On the agreed date, dedicate one session to evaluate the first prototype. Organize this evaluation with small groups of 5 or 6. Each student shows the task to the peers and the peers, with the help of the rubric, give indications of what needs to be improved. The rubric gives them clear criteria for what to assess.
  6. Suggest that they create a learning diary where they record the evolution of the task, the indications they have received from their peers and the improvements they will make.
  7. On the agreed date, review the students’ homework (second prototype) and give feedback on how to improve it. Encourage them to write it down in the learning diary.
  8. Finally, on the day of the final hand-in, you do groups again and do co-evaluation (not co-grading). And you, grade the assignment indicating what they have achieved for each objective worked on in the assignment.

All in all, it can be between 5 and 10 hours of class (or more, it’s up to you). It is an investment of hours, but it is not a radical change. We have not eliminated grading, as we have graded the final delivery, but we have started the change. Students deliver prototypes, analyse them, listen to their peers, make improvements, etc. without thinking about grades.

And, as I said, this is the beginning of the process. From here on, introduce more complex tasks, turn the learning diary into a portfolio, explicitly introduce self-assessment, and so on. And select, because in order to introduce all these aspects of reflection and metacognition, you will have to stop doing other things.

But, at this point, the reduction in grades will have been natural and will have been the consequence of the whole methodological change. If you are making this change, the reduction in grades will probably be the least interesting thing that will happen in your classroom.

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