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Going Gradeless: Student Self-Assessment in PBL

Matt Weyers

6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools
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I like reading professional material. I would posit that most teachers do. Professional reading (OK, all reading, really) allows our thoughts to constantly shift, transform, and travel to currently uncharted mental territory. If we are lucky, we encounter a watershed idea or concept that shatters our thoughts and understanding to such an extent that it requires a complete rebuilding of our philosophy.

I was provided such a moment when I read Mark Barnes’ Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in a Student-Centered Classroom in the spring of 2015. Mr. Barnes advocated using narrative feedback to enter a feedback loop that would culminate in mastery of specific learning targets within the context of a larger project. I was immediately transfixed by this idea. My mind was figuratively blown when Mr. Barnes mentioned that he did this without ever assigning a formal grade until the end of the grading period, at which time he and the student conferenced and agreed on a grade based on feedback. I stewed on this for a roughly a year until I decided, for the good of my students, that I had to do it. I was going to go gradeless. My question became: "How can I implement this in my sixth-grade PBL classroom?"

My Goal

It was my intention to simultaneously promote mastery learning as well as increase students' ability to metacognitively assess their work against a given set of standards. Here's how I would accomplish this:

  • Remove grades from the daily equation.
  • Have students reach learning mastery using narrative feedback loops (Mark Barnes’ SE2R model).
  • Students would self-assess their work in a 1:1 conference with the teacher at the end of the quarter, at which time student and teacher would agree upon a final grade.

My Plan

I knew that I needed to maintain accountability to various stakeholders in this process -- the students, their families, and the administration. After a great deal of thought, I came up with the skeleton of a plan that looked like this:

  1. Use the SE2R model to provide feedback on our two PBL projects per quarter via documents created on Google Classroom. There would be no grades assigned to any of the projects, just feedback.

  2. Furnish families with an outline of the process at the beginning of the quarter, complete with learning targets and the research behind this process.

  3. On the first day of the quarter, provide students with a list of the learning targets for the following nine weeks.

  4. Administer approximately one standards-based assessment per week on the provided learning targets using the program MasteryConnect.
    • The results of the assessments would be placed in our online grading system for parent viewing. However, the results would not calculate toward a final grade.
    • The assessment scores would be used as data points in our end-of-quarter meeting.

  5. Confer with individual students on the last two days of the quarter and ask them: "Based on the project feedback that you received, the standards-based assessments that you took, and your ability to elaborate on how you showed evidence of the learning targets in your projects, what grade do you feel that you have earned this quarter?"
    • If I agreed with the student's response, I would put that grade into the grading system.
    • If I didn't agree, I would interject my viewpoint based on the feedback that I had given, as well as on the results of standards-based assessments. I would then ask the student to reevaluate his or her response to encourage deeper metacognitive thinking.

The Results

I've only been officially gradeless for less than a quarter, but the results have been astounding. As soon as the students came to understand and be comfortable with the process, my inbox has been continuously flooded with their emails asking me, "What can I do better?" The conversation has completely shifted from getting a grade to learning. It's been amazing! Similarly, when I communicated this process to students' families, I thought I would be walking into the lion's den. Of the 80 families who received that communication, I heard back from only three -- and all three said, "Sounds awesome." All in all, it's been a wonderful experience, and a true illustration of the power that the written word can have over all of us. (Thank you, Mark Barnes!)

I would love to hear your feedback, thoughts, or other ideas in the comments section below. And please feel free to follow our story this year at our Byron 6th blog.

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Comments (26) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Laura and Andrea,

Wow! What great conversation. I am in complete agreement. I believe PBL and a type of "grading" system mentioned above would work just fine in a big school Special Education classroom. One of the more productive findings I had this quarter was coincidentally with students who had missed chunks of school. When discussing grades at the final conferences, I had numerous conversations with students who mentioned "they weren't in attendance that day", and should therefor not be penalized. But the moment I said, "Tell me the steps you took to make up the work/talk to me/ask classmates, the metacognitive light-bulb switched on. I believe that students started to see that they needed to actively engage in school if they wanted to be successful. If you decide to embark down a similar path, I wish you the best of luck, and would love to hear how it goes!

Matt Scannapieco's picture

Hello Matt,

Thanks for the post. Really interested in the idea of going gradeless. I've read a bit about it already, and your experience is hopefully the motivation I need to get it set up this summer.

I am a language teacher, and while we certainly have standards of proficiency, we don't engage in PBL. Do you think most of what you do is still transferable outside of a PBL approach? Thanks.

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Good morning Matt,

Thanks for the comment. I highly encourage you to venture down this path. I absolutely think this framework is transferable to all classrooms. I believe the narrative feedback piece to be especially transferable, as it can be adapted for use with any assignment (I find it works particularly well with writing though). Best of luck! If you choose to do this, I would love to hear how it goes! Have a great rest of the weekend.


ryanmullen's picture

Hi Matt,

I am curious to see which students you feel this method benefits most. Have you seen the most relevant improvement in your high achieving or low achieving students?

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Good morning Ryan -

Great question! In a nutshell, the low achieving students bought into this framework almost immediately. I came to understand during the end-of-quarter conferences that they enjoyed this framework because they had a voice. I learned that many had started to internalize the idea that they were simply not strong students, and would not be successful not matter what they did. On the other hand, the high flyers needed a little bit of a sales pitch. They were taken aback by the notion of not knowing if they were getting an "A" throughout the quarter. Hope this helps!


Carl Shuptrine's picture

This sounds very appealing to me in my high school career tech classes.

I'm curious what your learning targets were. Where these standards-aligned, content-based, skills-based, or a combination of all?

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Good afternoon Carl,

Great question! I am glad this sounds appealing. It has been an excellent transition in my classroom, and I hope it can be for you too. To answer your question, all of the learning targets were based off the "Critical Essential Learner Outcomes" as identified by our PLC. In other words, we identified the standards that we felt were most essential that students master by the time they exit sixth grade, and designed assessments based off department conversations. Hope this helps! Please feel free to let me know if you have any other questions.


Carl Shuptrine's picture


Thanks for the reply. Would you be willing to share some specific examples of the targets, and how many learning targets you found to be appropriate to assess per quarter? Lately, my head has been swimming thinking about all the things I "should be" focusing on in all of my different classes and I am curious what others have deemed important.


Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Do you have an email address or Twitter handle you'd be willing to share with me? I can send you some links to documents that I've shared with kids with learning targets, etc. My twitter handle is @mr_weyers if that helps.


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