Gradeless – part 2

Gradeless – part 2

My last post was about going gradeless for part of a communications class. The experience was rewarding. Needs tweaking, but valuable. 

Here are some further thoughts on the process and results:

1. Having students self-assess does not mean less work. Not for me; certainly not for students. There were complaints – it’s far easier to just accept the mark given than have to go through own work and identify strengths and weaknesses. 

2. Students need support. This is time consuming, but critical. Unused to the process, students aren’t always sure where to start. Practicing self-assessment on shorter paragraphs grows confidence and expectations shift from what they think I expect to their own expectations. This is a process, but well worth it. Not all students made it to this point, but those that did saw the value in it.

3. Their final self assessment consisted of a chart where I checkmarked every assignment submitted, and every in class activity completed by the individual student. Then using a rubric, students assessed for both effort (did they attend most classes, submit all assignments, ask for help as needed, etc.) and competency (did they feel confident in their ability to meet all the practiced course objectives – these were often specific ie: confidence in accurately paraphrasing and citing). They also wrote a paragraph giving themself a grade and justifying it. 

4. The most enlightening part for me was this week when I went through looking at their self-assessment in conjunction with their final submitted paper (which incorporated all the learning objectives we had practiced, and which they had assessed). It was so much more valuable than just a grade. I was able to identify the process each student went through. And more importantly saw their work through their own eyes. It took time, but I felt I got to understand the students better. 

5. And? The big question I’m always asked is how students do. Do they give themselves A’s? Rarely. Many of my strongest students – those who really saw the benefits of self-assessment – tended to under-estimate their abilities slightly, and I found myself increasing their mark slightly (B to B+ for example). Most students were pretty accurate, demonstrating that they’re aware of strengths and where they need to improve going forward. That’s something I’ve rarely seen in traditional professor-graded half term results.

Best of all… when there was no alignment between how students feel they are doing and what I see in their work (for my purposes, this was any time the grade differential was more than a full 10-15%. This was maybe for about 10 percent of students… and in most cases, the differential was around 20-25% which is significant!), I now KNOW this which I would not have before, and in all cases I’ve been able to instigate a conversation that I hope will help get to the heart of what is going on, and how to identify the gaps to promote success. 


Is the gradeless classroom possible? I certainly would never have thought so a few years back, and I’m still not entirely convinced. 

The longer I’ve been teaching writing, however, the longer I’ve contemplated the inadequacy of a grading system to evaluate and assess. Rubrics are – forgive me – not designed to foster creativity and though a single-point “rubric” can help identify key areas of focus, too detailed a rubric only leads to overly structured, unimaginative, cookie-cutter writing that lacks voice and authenticity and any sense of joy.

To me, that’s not writing.

To be fair, sometimes students need that detailed structure. The five paragraph essay in elementary school is training ground for developing a sense of how things fit together. What I’m after though, with college students, is a narrative that they use to help explore and make sense of the world, and share that broadly with a larger audience.

And that doesn’t lend itself well to systematic grading. 

Not everyone agrees with me. That’s okay.

But this year, I decided to have communications students self assess for the first half of the semester. I’ve written about this before but now this week I’ve had an opportunity to see the results.

But that’s my next post! Stay tuned.

On Reading

Show me a student who is a reader, and I’ll show you a writer. Show me a strong analytical writer, and I’ll show you a sophisticated thinker. 

Anecdotal? Perhaps. But in my experience, there is a clear correlation between the three. 

It’s not wholly true that students don’t read. Ask a student and they’ll tell you. They read Textbooks, Text Messages, Instagram Posts,  Online Sites of Interest, even the occasional Email (though reluctantly – email is pretty old school today!)

But none of us read the way we used to. I don’t exclude myself. Although a voracious reader, I have gone from reading a book or two a week to maybe one every month. I read more online, finding myself losing focus more easily, finding it more difficult to immerse myself in a body of literature…

And yet, when I do get lost in a book, I thoroughly enjoy myself.

I’m experimenting with ways to incorporate more reading into classes. Not necessarily fiction ( though the odd bit of poetry is a surprising hit!), but also a variety of articles for discussion, analysis, and interpretation. Students sometimes struggle with reading for homework, so I’m embedding the analysis into class time. 

There’s only so much time. But I suspect the rewards are worth it.

Knock knock

Knock knock. 

I pause from my teaching to see a student hovering at the door of the classroom. May I come in, Professor? May I enter, Ma’am? Sometimes just strolling in. 

I was explaining a concept. Giving back an assignment. Interacting with students doing an activity. Demonstrating. 
It is five minutes into class. 25 minutes. 85 minutes. 

There are-I know-many professors who shut their classroom doors when class starts, and students have to wait for break. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons for this, and I’m 100% in support of professors using whatever method works best for them.

Me? I always let students come late. No questions. 

My philosophy is that life happens. Sick kids. Car troubles. Late getting up. Feeling ill. Struggling. Stressed. 

I prefer students come late to class than not coming at all. I make sure they know that. I will talk to students who make it a habit – mostly to reach out and make sure I’ve connected with them. Often being late is an indicator that there is something else going on in their lives and I want to open that communication channel. Just in case. 

It is five minutes into class. 25 minutes. 85 minutes. 

It doesn’t matter. Come on in. 

Outdoor Ed

It’s no secret that Autumn in Ontario is my favourite time of year. The weather is great and there are no insects. At least once every fall I plan a class outside. I usually take advantage of a time 3-4 weeks into the course, when students are starting to feel the pressure and I sense that the theory they have absorbed is in need of some space for non-judgmental reflection.

Students submit a homework assignment that will be graded for half the mark, and for the other half are sent out of doors in teams with guided questions for discussion. This works best in a class such as Ethics or Critical Thinking, where creative reflection and collaboration can be so valuable. 

Some of the deepest conversations are these unscripted moments as I’m wandering around listening to students reflect and apply their learning. It feels less like a class, and although I collect a copy of their notes, it’s low-stakes and getting off topic happens. I learn more about students -what their weekend looks like, where they work, what they’re enjoying, where they’re struggling – in this 2 hour period than I would indoors. It feels fresh and relaxed. Our campus is waterfront and students enjoy the pace of sitting around having a conversation. 

I let them go a little early, we debrief the following class, and it’s a lovely way to give students a bit of a respite without compromising learning.