First Unit Gradeless in 12U Chem, Part 1

I would love to write a very long blog post right now, but just don't have the time, so I'm going to try to share what's been happening in a few 'shorter' posts (they won't actually be short, because I don't have time this week to edit them down to their I hope you don't mind if it feels more like a train of thought).

Student Point of View so Far

At the end of last week my grade 12 students had come to the 'end' of their electrochemistry unit having not received a single grade. I used single point rubrics to give feedback on their lab reports and written & verbal feedback for our quick quizzes and the unit test. On Friday my students were asked to complete a very brief survey with a single question.

What are your reflections about our gradeless classroom so far? Be honest and open. This survey is anonymous.

I currently have about 50 students in this course, and the responses from students varied. Here are some of the responses, categorized by me.

These comments expressed some of the negative feelings I expected. I was intrigued by the high level of uncertainty students are experiencing; the feedback they are getting doesn't seem to have had much meaning for them (either that, or by 'progressing' they mean 'numerically progressing'). They were also very honest about their anxiety and fear:
  • I do not like the graceless classroom because I like to know how I am progressing in the class
  • I like it because it’s different but I would also like to see marks on my tests so that I know where I’m at
  • I think a gradeless classroom has benefits that I fail to see, because I'm having trouble knowing if my study habits are producing the mark I want. I would rather be graded.
  • Terrible idea because grades are everything for university
  • I dislike it. I like to know where I am in the class and know what areas I need to improve on so I can work on them out of school
  • I want to know some grades that are put in for my final grade so I know what to work on more. Knowing grades would make some things less stressful.

And, some more positive reactions; I was surprised and pleased by some of these reflections, particularly that students are appreciating that assessment has become more of a dialogue:
  • I like it because it prepares us for university. As well it doesn’t discourage you when you don’t necessarily do as well as you hoped because instead of seeing a 89% on your test/assignments all you see is what you did wrong and what you need to work on
  • I believe it makes people feel better when they get their tests back. It makes me better to not see a mark rather just see how i did by myself
  • i like it that way i'm not always freakin out about a test or lab i can just focus on me and what i think i know and how i think i'm doing instead of being told what i know and what i don't
  • It's definitely different from what I'm used to but I'm honestly open to something new in the terms of how we're are graded. I'm very open minded to a gradeless classroom
  • Grades are an easy way to gauge the effectiveness and quality of answers on tests and quizzes, however taking some of the stress off of grades seems to be beneficial. As long as there is open communication between teacher and student, I see it as an effective way to refocus ourselves on process and not just results.
  • I like knowing how I am doing in the course, marks wise. But I like how you are not basing our grades strictly on tests. i like how you mark on the improvement more than just how you did on one task.
  • I like it. It provides more dialogue and allows myself and other students to prove we know the content.

These fall under the category of 'good idea, but please not us!!':
  • I think it is a good idea, and I see how developing this skill would be beneficial for university, but it is also our grade 12 year and these marks are very important for getting accepted into universities. Knowing where you stand in terms of a mark tells you if you need to continue what you’re doing or push yourself harder.
  • I think it's a good idea, but I certainly don't think it should be applied in a 12 U science classroom. It's important to know how you're doing in a class this year before university to see if you should be working a lot harder, or not in order to maintain your desired average.

And, one of my favourite comments:
  • It’s weird but if I can negotiate my way to a good grade I don’t mind.  

My Point of View so Far

In the background, I have been recording levels of achievement based on all of the evidence I have for student learning, including the products I mentioned above, conversations with students, and observations made during the lab activities. All of the information is being recorded in a spreadsheet with individual assessment 'items' coded by overall expectation. A snapshot of the spreadsheet looks like this:

I can easily see patterns here, and sort the data by expectation for each student to see if they have made improvements over time.

I haven't yet found an ideal way to record conversation information data on the fly, since conversations are often on multiple topics for any number of students in a short period of time. I know I don't have to record all of them, but I am still looking for a way of systematizing this process. There are times that I recorded levels for conversations, and other times that, based on a conversation, I changed a students' level of achievement for a written assessment (counting the conversation as an opportunity to improve upon the written work rather than as an assessment in itself). Getting there.

Our First Assessment Cycle: Assigning Numeric Grades

This week, students are completing self evaluations for the first unit of study. I have taken a look at the data I have collected and determined what I think to be a fair mark range (70-75, 75-80, etc.). The next step is to compare the student self assessments to my notes to see if they agree with each other. I know I won't have time for a long conference with each student, and plan to have short conversations with those students whose self-assessments agree with my assessment and longer conversations with those students whose self assessments don't line up with mine.

Students received feedback on their lab reports yesterday, so only a few of them have handed in their self-assessment (all high achievers!), but here is one (sorry for the bad quality; I just used my webcam & my shaky hand to take it!):

I can see that this student actually looked at and considered the feedback they received, because they have mentioned specific detail about what they know needs improvement. The mark range I had personally determined as appropriate for this student was 85-90, so I am very pleased that our assessments overlap.

It is unbelievable how easy it has been for me to separate myself from grading culture. I mentioned in a previous post (or maybe in a Twitter conversation?) that my decision to determine a grade unit-by-unit with my students is for two reasons: 
  1. I know that university applications are coming and that I have turned these kids' world completely upside down by not giving them grades. I don't want my decision to shift my pedagogy to have negative influences on my students' mental health, and I think it is fair that we assess conceptual understanding as we cycle through each major topic. There are other aspects of my students' learning that will be assessed over the course of the entire semester (communication, scientific investigation skills, etc.) a subject I have not yet broached with them but that they are now ready for, I think.
  2. Determining marks unit-by-unit will give the students and I five attempts at the self-assessment and grade negotiation cycle. I appreciate the opportunity to refine this process over time, and am looking forward to having the ability to tweak it each time.

OK, that was a good brain dump. More to come soon.


  1. Just incredible! I have known for a while that I should really take the marks off of my one-point rubrics. Definitely inspired by your determination to do this in 12U.

    1. Taking the marks away makes the students really uncomfortable at first. Students who are high-achievers seem to be the most unsettled. It requires lots of conversation! Can't wait to chat this weekend. ;)

  2. Amy, I love brain dumps! Keep it up! I added your entire post to the "Feedback in Lieu of Grades" LiveBinder that I created (for parents - and now for teachers) here: If you want to categorize your posts (tag/label), let me know via Twitter (@JoyKirr), and I'll just use one tag/label so only your "gradeless" or "ttog" or "feedback" posts show up on the binder. Just let me know! So glad to see a HS science teacher trying so hard at this!! Kudos!

    1. Thanks, Joy! It's nice to feel part of a bigger #ttog community. I have explored the LiveBinder - it's wonderful to have these things curated. More to come soon. HS Science is a tough place to make this happen, but anything is possible with some structure and good support from colleagues and admin.

  3. This is awesome! I am going gradeless in biology but am struggling to find a way for students to collect evidence of their understanding. Thank you!

    1. Hi Mike! Thank you. I'm not sure I found the 'best' way yet, but it feels like a good start. After the first two rounds I'm going to ask students for feedback on how things are working for them and consider other options if needed. It's nice to be a part of this community! :)


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