George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Going Gradeless: Student Self-Assessment in PBL

By replacing student grades with an end-of-quarter conference, you can change that persistent question of “Will I be graded on this?” to “What can I do better?”

March 29, 2016
A young boy wearing a black, long-sleeve shirt and headphones has one arm extended next to his laptop, and the other hand is touching a remote control. In between his laptop and the remote control is a robotic device made out of plastic, metal, and wires.
Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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.

  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?"

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. 

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Assessment
  • Student Voice
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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