Here’s How I’m Doin Grades Now


Been awhile since I wrote here. If you follow me and wanna check in on my classes this year, I’ve now got 180 blogs here and here for Engineering and Comp Sci respectively. But I wanna make this blog a place where I write about the big ideas, so here goes.

I haven’t put a grade or score on a paper in over a year now and I’m never going back! It’s awesome. My students and I focus on learning much more and I never get questions like “how much is this worth?” or “can I get some extra credit?”. Well I can’t say I never get those, but when someone asks one, they pretty much already know my answer will be something sarcastic like “oh that one is worth 2300 points, better make it good”. I say “POINTS!” at random things that happen throughout the day like when a kid makes a shot into the recycling bin from across the room. So we joke around about it, but at the end of the day we do still need to put a grade in the online gradebook. What I’ve come to realize – and I hope my students are starting to realize as well – is that the grade isn’t really for either of us. It’s for their parents, their other teachers/support staff, and prospective colleges. As such, we shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about it. But with that said, the grade isn’t meaningless and so it’s unfair to those other stakeholders to just make something up. So what do we base the grade on?

I’ve read a lot about what is wrong with grading and many articles including this one by Jenny Anderson contain a similar refrain. It goes something like this:

Guskey writes that there are many problems with traditional grading systems, including the fact that they combine way too many factors into one, including students’ achievement, attitude, responsibility, effort, and behavior.

So my thought was “why not make those categories into a rubric and come up with a grade based on it?”. So I made one. I was thinking that 4 categories was a good number; not too many to keep track of (or for parents to follow along with) but not quite as reductive as a single number or letter. Here it is:

UPDATE 8-27-17: I’ve already changed it since writing this post yesterday. Decided to go with three categories. The embedded spreadsheet updates automatically, so this’ll always be the current version even if I change it again (which I’m sure I will).

The way I describe it to kids and parents is like this:

I wanna know these four things:

  1. Are you doing your work?
  2. Is it reasonably well documented?
  3. Are you learning anything?
  4. Are you being productive in class?

I haven’t used the rubric yet; we just finished our second week of class (5 meetings). But my hope is to start using it this week. I plan to meet with each student for about 5 minutes. We will reserve the last 30 min of class for these meetings every day, so I should be able to get in about 5 students per day, seeing everyone in the class in about two weeks time. With those 5 minutes we will answer the 4 questions, decide on a score for each one using the rubric, and then decide on a grade together. The students with whom I’ve discussed this seem to like the idea of an average. So two 4s and two 3s should be an “A” they said. I think I can get on board with that logic, especially since it gives the appearance of some objectivity in a system that is trying its best not to be. But I’ll reserve the rights of the student or teacher to veto in favor of a different grade if it makes more sense after our conversation. Then I’ll post to the online gradebook the four scores and the overall grade. This way parents and other stakeholders can see the category scores (with the rubric descriptions) and also how they translate to one letter.

So how do we fit that into five minutes? Well they will have seen the rubric ahead of time, so we won’t be going over what it all means. Also I will already have seen a lot of the student’s work by that point. I don’t lecture very often, most of my class time is spent looking at student work and giving one-on-one or small group feedback. So I figure most of our conversation can be focused on the big picture. We’ll answer the first two categories – Organization and Completion – by a quick flip through their notebook. We circle the scores for those two and move on quickly (maybe one minute or two if we need to talk about how to improve). If I give specific feedback such as “pages 7-10 are not signed and dated”, then they’ll write that down on a post it and stick right on that page as a reminder. Mastery of Skills will be tracked in Google Classroom. It has a new feature where I can look at one student and see all their activity in the class. And since I’ve organized it by Learning Targets not activities, we are basically looking at a standards based gradebook. We’ll be looking for a particular number of skills to have evidence posted (only one or two to start next week). For each new piece of evidence posted, we’ll do a quick glance to see if they’ve explained how the artifact shows what they’ve learned. As I write this, I am realizing this could get tough – timewise – when a student has submitted many things since the last time we talked. But I still think it’s going to work because I can ask them to choose which ones to show me. As long we are looking at a few per meeting, we should be ok. And since the posts are in Classroom, I can always do a more thorough check later if I need to. Fitting this into the allotted 2-3 minutes will probably be the hardest part of the meeting. But we’ll be using a timer and will cut the convo short when we need to. Then finally we’ll spend the last minute of our time talking about “Use of Class Time”. This is the one I told myself at the end of last year to not throw out. We need to talk about this and it should be tracked over time. So I have a spreadsheet that I’ve been using to quietly note when a student is off task during class (and whether they were disruptive to anyone else in doing so). I tell students that one or two times will be fine, but any more than that and it probably affects their quality of work – which is the whole point of tracking it and talking about it.

Ok woah that was a lot to write. Fitting this into five minutes will probably be a challenge. But my students generally like the idea of the feedback only classroom, so I think they’ll be willing to help me out tweaking the process until we end up with one that works. After all, iterative design is one of the learning targets, so they can document their input and wouldn’t that be delightfully “meta”. Nice.


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