Gradeless Teaching: What It Is and Isn’t

The name is turning heads, but what does it actually mean?

Most of us know the drill. Some of us strived for all As, some of us for As or Bs, and some of us were happy with anything C and above. Competence is what we were all working for, and passing meant…well, competence. You’re moving to the next grade. You’re approved. But in a postmodern realm of education, students and teachers are becoming increasingly aware of the effects of using numerical rhetoric to measure intellectual capabilities. The role of student data is impinging on old grade-tracking methods, and student-centered learning has changed the tone of classroom productivity.

Conversations are being had that dislodge the meaning of gradebooks, and teachers are coming out of the dark with their true feelings regarding traditional grading practices.¹ With this has come a range of reactions, most of which are based in curiosity or confusion. How on earth do you teach without grades? How do students stay motivated to work? Do students all become “the same”? How do you know if they’re “performing well”? These are common questions anyone may have with the term “gradeless teaching”, and rightfully so, as it does sound oxymoronic. Gradeless teaching varies in its extent for different teachers, but here are some general, clarifying distinctions about the movement as a whole.


It’s feedback-based learning and inquiry, which a lot of the time, still utilizes rubrics, ranks and numbers.

Essentially, teachers step away from traditional grading routines, and the majority of red pen percentages and numbers are replaced with communication of strengths and improvement action steps for students to navigate their academic journey (like a “glow and grow” method). The purpose of this is creating a continuous two-way street for learning spaces. Collaboration, not reporting. Guiding, not defining. Quality, not quantity or compliance. And yes, a lot of times, rubrics, ranks and numbers are essential for this understanding of progress. They’re just used more as a method of communication than a final destination.

Teachers should guide and facilitate critical thought, but learning is voluntary, and authentic inquiry is always by choice. This is the challenge for education systems, and in a way, the reason the traditional grading system exists (for student accountability). But student research and academic progress, under traditional grading, typically morph into labor-based pay for most students. They read requirements of an assignment, and then try to meet those standards. Their inquiry often leans towards how to get a good grade rather than the subject matter, and knowledge-wise, they take very little from it. This is exactly why the critique of traditional grading is reaching a peak. With a more fluid use of numbers and feedback, students are more likely to practice thinking for themselves, ask questions, and learn.


It isn’t making all students the same (actually, if executed well, it’s doing the opposite).

Understandably, an initial reaction may be that students will no longer be praised for academic success if numerical grades are no longer there to communicate their quality. After all, that’s essentially what grades are, a form of communication. But numerical rhetoric and scores, ironically, still play a role in gradeless teaching. There will, and should always be standards of success, it’s just a matter of how numbers and scores are used to get students there, and what “there” should look like.

In classrooms, the use of numerical grades is currently used more as an easy gauge for students to “make it” or “not make it”. Therefore, naturally, if the goal for people is to just meet the standard, that’s exactly what they’ll do. It’s human nature. Consequently, with the traditional handling of grades, student success ends up looking exactly the same since they’ve all been expected to meet the same, uniform standards.

With individual, personalized feedback alongside skill-specific, numerical, progress tracking of student data, students are likely to begin knowing their capabilities and caring about improvement. They take more ownership of it, as they know it’s individual to them. This model, if done well, actually raises the expectations of each student, allowing for more ownership, curiosity, quality work and growth.


It’s making the end goal a meaningful one, not a passing grade on a test.

With this fluid companionship between numerical scores, feedback and progress, students are able to navigate their own education, and are more likely (with guidance, of course) to set goals for themselves. The end goal becomes academic growth, instead of everyone hopefully meeting identical standards, and hopefully landing in the passing range (a.k.a. multiple-choice tests, “competence”, etc.).

With this, classrooms also have more space for experimentation, innovation, creative discussion, intellectual exploration, and project-based activities. Academic presentation and portfolios can accompany test results, or vice versa. This way, students have more exposure to others’ work. They observe more, and don’t feel alone. Student portfolios becomes more of the focus.²


It isn’t removing accountability for necessary standardized competence, or recognition for exceptional academic excellence.

Letter grades, or some form of numerical scores are essential in many cases involving certain paths in higher education and credential-driven occupations. The gradeless teaching movement, despite its name, can work alongside that rather than replacing it. It isn’t a matter of removing grades, it’s rethinking their use for teachers and students, in a way that fosters genuine academic progress, instead of a forced, watered down version of it for the sake of high student data.

In regards to academic excellence, high scores on multiple-choice exams are to be commended, because they do mean something. The gradeless teaching movement should be careful to not discredit this for students. Student data, and the practice of tracking progress with numbers will always be helpful, the question is just how to gather it authentically and meaningfully. Many argue that the dominant use of multiple-choice tests doesn’t yield data as helpful as when students create, write, or innovate something.

That being said, alongside success on exams should always be room for individualized student portfolios. Just performing well on prescribed multiple-choice tests shouldn’t be the end goal if we expect “academic excellence” from students. When students are treated as though they can be excellent, they, more than likely, will. Therefore, we must encourage more than high test scores from them.


It’s more time to teach for teachers.

When students are in it for more than a grade, teachers have an easier time facilitating academic growth in the classroom since engagement can develop organically. With the rise in use of student data in the classroom, traditional gradebooks have lost campus emphasis, and are used solely as a communication tool between families and teachers. Student data is the priority of campuses now, and although, for example, a test grade is technically a piece of data and in the gradebook, student data is treated differently from gradebooks. Thus, teachers are handling more information than before, and the opportunity is here for the two to become hybrid. This means less time in the gradebook, and more time put towards meaningful data usage and further growth.

The term “gradeless teaching” is still, to many, a mystery. Once explored, it’s easy to see that the movement has merit, and is worth consideration. Regardless, the movement has started, and actions are being taken.³ This could be the start of restructuring how we measure, or rather, celebrate, academic growth as we know it.


References

1. YouTube. (2020). Going Gradeless: Katelynn Giordano, Deanna Lough, Jeffery Frieden, Aaron Blackwelder, & Abby French. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FNhv-bwD9I.

2. Gonser, Sarah. “4 Reasons Teachers Are Going Gradeless.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 16 Mar. 2020, www.edutopia.org/article/4-reasons-teachers-are-going-gradeless.

3. Teachers Going Gradeless. (n.d.). https://www.teachersgoinggradeless.com/.

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