What happens when you abolish grades for twelve weeks and allow students to create and grow for the sake of learning? Some kids hated it, some kids loved it, and some didn’t give a flip either way. Here, in their own words, are the reflection of my freshman and sophmore class about our “No Grades!” experiment.
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.