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My "No Grades!" Experiment: The Final Huzzah

 

 

For those of you new to my romance with no grades:  In 1996, I decided (with a GPA-addicted senior AP Lit class) to abandon grades for a six week period, give everybody an A, and learn for the sake of curiosity and engagement.  The experiment failed miserably, but it did lead my students to reflect on their intellectual and academic motivation, and I was convinced even more of the power of a measured “end product” to shape student learning. (My thoughts on this original experiment can be found in "Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation," English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28:31.)

In October 2014, I decided to do the same thing, but under much different circumstances: my students were younger, less jaded, less bought-in to the factory-grading system. And unlike the former class ( an AP content class), this class was an elective creative writing course.  During the unit, students read several craft articles plus a technique book on plotting, and they wrote every day toward an end product: the first 50,000 words of a novel   Mid-way through the experiment, I discovered some interesting things which I noted in an update.    

However, the "No Grades!" experiment was over January 5, and I’ve had some time to decompress and think about our shenanigans and mull over some of my students’ reflections. The class of 20 was split almost exactly into thirds – those who hated it, those who loved it, those who didn’t care. Here, in their own words, are some of my students’ feedback:

I Hated It: Give Me Grades!

  • This “no grade” system would absolutely, positively NOT work in a long term period for me. I have no personal initiative or discipline, for that matter. I need the initial push to get my work done.  - JW
  • The moral of the story is this: Don’t ever, ever, ever give me a choice to get a free ‘A’ in any class because I do not care about integrity. -AL              
  • I have learned that once I have something I can hold, I won’t do another thing to advance that journey. Once I’ve won the trophy, I won’t run another meter. And I know, for a fact, I failed this experiment; it engulfed me and spat me out. - TG
  • I wish that the “no grade” climate could work for me, but unfortunately I am simply too unorganized and at times even too lazy to perform at levels necessary for sustainability in school. -NP
  • I would be cool with the no grades thing if everybody in the entire whole wide world were not giving out grades, but that seems like a hairy mess just waiting to happen. -BT

I Loved It: The Revolution Starts Here

  • With the no grade system, I felt relaxed and as worry-free as possible, which allowed me to truly learn and create something with confidence. By setting my own goal of finishing my novel, and achieving it, I feel much more accomplished than I would for getting an A on something I didn’t even try hard for. - RT
  • The only reason I stayed on track in this class is because I like to write. It’s not a chore to me, and to be honest, I never really thought about the grades in this class before they were taken away. But if you put something like this in my English class, it wouldn’t work. You have to be motivated in what you’re doing for this will work.  -CB
  • I did find the experience to be a good one. I performed well due to my enthusiasm for this writing program.  I would enjoy actually keeping this system because it shows a difference between students who work hard and those who don’t. While there are no real grades to prove this, it is more of a personal loss. –MH

This Experiment Didn’t Even Phase Me

  • The “no grades” system, in this class, never felt like a burden to me. It showed me that I didn’t need grades to drive my overall motivation. It gave me freedom from deadlines and the stress of them. I love this class, and what we do, and I don’t need grades for that. -CB
  • I am a nerd. A complete nerd. I love learning. I love doing everything to the best of my abilities. If I’m not giving all my effort in a class than what’s the point? The state has stuck me here, so I might as well make the best of my time. - HT
  • Before we started this experiment I expressed my concern that I would be too consumed with what fabulous work Julianna Margulies was doing on The Good Wife to pay attention to my writing, but I have found that the class really didn’t feel any different than it did when we started the experiment. -DC
  • My motivation to write probably comes from authors who’ve preceded myself, the ravenous need to reach the ridiculously high standard I’ve (sometimes regretfully) set myself to reach for and stay up writing into the wee hours of the night for, and/or to make real the stories and fantasies inside my head. I wouldn’t trade that motivation for any grade in the world. - KF

And for a final observation, I was struck by this lovely explanation from a student who captures all the nuances and cross-purposes of learning and assessment.

During this semester, there was no external motivation.  There were no grades, no nagging parents or teachers, there was nothing.  We were surrounded by a sort of carefree atmosphere.  There was no reward for doing the work.  There was no penalty for failing to complete it.  But I didn’t give up this semester because I wanted to do this for myself.  With all of the pressure of competing against other kids to be the valedictorian, to get into college, to get a perfect GPA, grades make the classes about everyone else.  They make the classes about competing for the perfect score, for the attention of the teacher.  They don’t encourage learning.  Grades make it so that your intelligence in that area is measured by a letter.  But how can we even do that?  Everyone starts off at different levels—not everyone enters the class knowing the same information.  So, to compare these kids right off the bat simply isn’t fair.  With this competitive atmosphere, school becomes more about skimming by on an assignment as opposed to actually learning the material.  That’s why when the grades were taken away in this class, I felt like I could finally make it about me.  Where am I with my writing? How do I want to improve?  Those where the kinds of questions I could ask myself, not do I have an A?  I am in this class to learn something, to improve who I am.  And that’s something that a grade can’t measure.

-LA

 

14 Comments

Billy Jackson commented on March 30, 2015 at 11:28am:

Liz

  If judged by products, this experiment might be viewed as a failure.  However, the reflection process that comes from this lesson is outstanding.  The aspect that students are learning what motivates them through experience is something that goes beyond traditional learning. Understanding personal motivation and subsequently using it for self help is an obvious life skill.

            The other valuable portion that might be overlooked is that the teacher is providing a unique experience.  By high school, students have experienced as much as 100 classes that were the exact same.  Turn in work, get an arbitrary grade, make Mom happy. This experience gave them a unit that focused on intrinsic motivation.  This is admirable in a society that too often promotes extrinsic rewards.

Josie Holford commented on March 30, 2015 at 12:14pm:

Grade toxicity

Great experiment. Trouble is - once students have absorbed the apparent normality of grades - the toxicity - it is an uphill battle to function easily without them. What if these students had never been graded and arrived in your class ready to learn without them?

Liz Prather Liz Prather commented on April 3, 2015 at 9:45am:

Toxicity magnified

Yes, grades are a conditioned response to learning, so much so that many kids won't do an activity or an assignment unless it's "for a grade."  Interestingly, every year I have about two or three students in my freshman class that come to me from a local Montessori 8th grade, where they do not have grades. Those students walk around our high school for the first two months of their freshman year looking like they've been blasted out of a cannon because they are so shocked by the aggressiveness of grades, deadlines, final exams, etc. 

Kris Giere commented on March 30, 2015 at 4:24pm:

My Takeaways

Thank you for sharing, Liz!  This is an excellent experiment that seems to have provided a great deal of experiences to reflect upon and grown from.  Intentional or not, the two takeaways I have received from what you have shared are as such: student identity is tied to evaluation & students understand the broader context of experiments.

The number of identity related comments that your students connected to grades and grading struck me.  I've always known that this was a byproduct of our system, and I've always tried to minimized its negative impact on my students.  However, I don't know if I really understood how deep that connection between identity and grades runs for our students.  I will advocate even more vigorously for more responsible grading practices because what I have seen today.  Thank you for reinvigorating my fervor.

Another thing I noted was the numerous connections students made to how your twelve week project fit into the broader scope of their educational experience.  It was for a number of them a factor in their response.  I noted at least five references to other coursework and a few references to more societal contexts.  I wonder how much their knowing that your class was the only one who'd do this and for a limited time at that impacted their engagement in the process.  I don't think we'll ever really know, but it was very interesting to see the connections they made.

Thank you again for sharing this very important experience with us all.

- Kris

Liz Prather Liz Prather commented on April 3, 2015 at 9:54am:

Other Coursework Did Impact the Experiment

You are absolutely right. Their other classes were exacting grades and giving assessments, all tied to their GPA,so they expended more time to those classes because-- even though their passion is writing and they were working on a meaningful and personally-gratifying assignment in my class-- they knew they had a guaranteed A in my class, and they didn't in those other classes.   Of course, even this reality wasn't lost on them; many of them commented that grades didn't assess real learning. Most grades only assess how timely and neat their assignments were, how well they played the game of school. 

Bill Ivey commented on March 30, 2015 at 10:58pm:

These student reflections are pure gold.

I teach middle school, and feel especially strongly about not using grades with this age group. The kids, to be honest, have mixed feelings, mostly echoing what your students said. For those who want grades (maybe a quarter of them or so), it seems to boil down to, they think it's more fun when they do it for themselves but they miss external motivation and believe they won't do as good a job without it. For those who prefer our standards-based system (who appear to be a solid majority), it seems to boil down to they feel much less stressed and much more able to focus on actually learning.

Loved the "Zen and the Art..." reference, by the way. I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when it first came out in paperback, and have reread it several dozen times since. Probably the single most important book I've ever read.

Great piece - thank you!!!

Brianna Crowley commented on March 31, 2015 at 9:41am:

Parallel Minds...

I love that you are far ahead of me in experimenting with this! (my reflections on grading) and I also love that we can share our reflections together by including our students' voice to inform that reflection (my students weigh in). Thanks so much for posting this! I look forward to where we both go from here...let's reach out. Maybe connect our classrooms around this topic at some point? 

Your students' reflections, as many have noted, are pure gold. A perfect lens from which to examine our greater system of student motivation, personalized learning, and the one-size-fits-all model we currently have.  

Renee Moore commented on March 31, 2015 at 7:09pm:

What About their writing?

I'm curious to know what types of writing they generated during your experiment. Was it noticeably different in quality or quantity than when they or other classes are graded? 

I admire your tenacity and integrity.

 

Liz Prather Liz Prather commented on April 3, 2015 at 10:02am:

NaNoWriMo

That's a good question, and if the experiment had been executed on another unit, I wonder if I would have had the same results.   We were writing the first 50,000 words of a YA novel.  The students in my class who are plotters spent a good four weeks plotting, storyboarding, fleshing out character sketches, drawing up intensity scales, blocking out action, etc. My build-the-plane-as-I-fly writers drafted a lot by hand during those four weeks and started drafting chapters earlier.  But both groups started on November 1 with a modified-National Novel Writing Month challenge: to write every day during our 90-minute class for eight weeks in the hopes that they would write about 3/4 of a YA novel. Intrinsic drive was possibly the highest for this unit compared to any other unit we tackle. 

Tobey Reed commented on April 2, 2015 at 8:09pm:

Wonderful

Wonderful student responses.  It is difficult to argue against the students reactions.  I am in my third year of no-grades for my senior electives and what is interesting is that the reflections are remarkably the same every year which implies that they are honest.  Here is a link to my students reflections from a few weeks ago.

Peter Lydon commented on April 2, 2015 at 8:11pm:

Boys v Girls

HI, Did you notice any differences between boys and girls? Did one like it/hate it more than the other? OR was there no discernable difference?

Liz Prather Liz Prather commented on April 5, 2015 at 5:27pm:

No Difference

There was no discernible difference - about the same number of each were divided up among the three stances.  In fact, I have six boys in this class, and they were divided equally: two who loved it, two who hated it, and two didn't care either way.    Knowing their personalities, I could have guessed their responses to the experiment.  The two who hated it need and want grades to keep them on track, the two who loved it are typically a little more anxious about grades and loved the freedom this project afforded them, and those two who didn't care are the students who are going to write and learn and discover whether they get a grade or not.   

Tricia Ebner commented on April 4, 2015 at 8:45am:

Very interesting

I've actually declared in front of a class that I wish I could abolish grades because I knew they weren't learning to learn, they were learning to earn grades. Of course, I regretted the outburst instantly, but then about four students said, "Could you do that? 'Cause you're right: I'm more concerned about the grade than I am about what I'm learning." (And this was in a class of sixth graders.) This year I have that same group as seventh graders, and we're doing year-long 20-Time projects (some call them genius projects). It's possible to fail at the project and yet still do well overall, because it's a very reflective kind of project. About 2/3 of the class has embraced the project. The remaining 1/3 is struggling--and I think it's because they're so programmed by deadlines and grades that this kind of open-ended project is a huge, terrifying challenge to them.

My son is in a standards-based grading system in his K-4 building. But he still gets grades--and there are times he dwells on those grades more than the learning. He's in third grade. He's figured it out already--and he's not even in a traditional grading system (yet). 

Some big questions and challenges in all this . . . but it's also very exciting, too. 

 

 

Carissa Zill commented on April 28, 2015 at 7:52pm:

Quality of Work

 

I teach middle school art and threw out grades this year.  There are no points - students only receive detailed, written feedback on their projects. Their final grade is determined by a conference where the student and I talk about their successes, failures and then come up with a letter grade that reflects their learning.   The quality of student work has gone way up this year.  Students feel free to make work that they are interested in and take more creative risks because there aren't grades they are obsessed with getting.  The handful who would rather go back to the points based system are the A students who want that letter to self-satisfy.  I find those kids struggle to please themself.  We have a great group of educators on facebook, "teachers throwing out grades" and on twitter #TTOG if you are interested in following more on this topic!  

 

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