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Going Gradeless: Student Self-Assessment in PBL

Matt Weyers

7th Grade Social Studies 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. 

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Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Good morning Ms. Allen!

I am excited to hear that you are embarking on a similar journey. I think it will be fantastic. I just sent you an email with some documents. To answer your question - I think it is wherever your comfort level lies (or maybe what your building admin thinks too). I simply sent home a letter and did not worry about a face-to-face meeting, and it worked fine for me. Hope this helps! Please let me know if there is anything else I can do!

-Matt

Susan M. McMillan's picture

Hello,
I am a parent of students in another MN district (Eden Prairie), and I am also working on a blog post about "assessing PBL" (broadly speaking at this point). I'd love to have an email exchange with you regarding your experiences. I know it's an imposition on your time, but when you get a chance please drop me a message. susan.m.mcmillan@gmail.com
Thanks very much.

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

For a fellow Minnesotan --- anything! I'll send you an email momentarily.

-Matt

Nicole VanTassel's picture

I teach in an urban high school where student initiative and motivation is often an issue, in addition to deficiencies in basic academics. Many of our students would prefer to spend their time socializing or playing on their cell phones than doing anything resembling work if they didn't feel they "had to"... What are the demographics/student attitudes at your school? How could this be implemented in a school with a student body like mine?

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

@Nicole
Hi Nicole - I have been doing PBLL-aligned (PBLL = Project-Based Language Learning) units for some time now in my French classes, and I have found that it matters little what the demographics are, and how much students want to be on their phones, or not work. The thing is this: what is meaningful work? When students are presented with meaningful, engaging work, the phones become a tool for learning and support students in their own inquiry. They socialize, but much more about what they are learning. The collaboration is about solving problems together, not about the prom or what new movie is playing. I think you would be very happy with the results if you made the decision to venture out into PBL world! You will see an amazing transformation. It will not change overnight, but it will change.

I highly recommend reading more about PBL and PBLL here on Edutopia, as well as at BIE.org. I also recommend Suzie Boss's book, Setting the Standard for PBL. In this book, Suzie helps newbies to PBL to understand the elements necessary to plan a PBL-aligned unit, and she includes many project examples from different grades, and for several different content areas. Check it out, you'll be glad you did!

Best wishes,
Don

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

@Nicole,

Thank you for the comment and question. To answer your question, my school district could be described as strongly middle class. In addition, I have to agree with the comment from Don - my experience is such that when students know they will be sharing their work (as often is the case in my classes) with a group or organization outside of the school system that would see a mutual benefit to their work (ex. We shared our work for a project on climate change with local governmental agencies), the engagement level mostly takes care of itself.

Having said this, I need to acknowledge there are still a handful of students who struggle to connect with the work. I try to combat this by 1. Make them do the work no matter what. I may hold them in from recess, refer them to after school homework programs, etc 2. Require them to present their work to the outside audience on presentation day, no matter what stage of completion their work is in and 3. Bring up points 1 and 2 at the grading conference. Also, as a whole, I have found this only to be an issue at the beginning of the school year. Once the kids get used to the system, there is a pretty significant buy-in. Hope this helps! Have a great day.

-Matt

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

@Happygirl - Thanks for the question! I have approximately 80 students a year. Have a good day.

-Matt

Aaron's picture

Hello Mr Weyers.
I was most intrigued by your article about gradeless learning. Having grown up in a family that prized academic achievement quite highly, I was quite turned off from the notion of grades despite doing well in school. I felt that chasing the grade not only made learning less effective, but it also DRAINED the fun out of learning. When I went to college, I chose a school that provided extensive feedback and only showed you a grade if you so requested. This was a wonderful system and really changed my approach to that of a growth mindset. I applaud what you are doing and think you are on the right track. I think the secret is in providing the right kind of feedback to encourage further learning and help kids figure out what they will do differently next time.
I was curious if you had tried this outside of PBL in regularly subjects? Also, I wondered how much time providing the narrative feedback takes compared the more traditional style. Lastly, I wondered if you used a particular model for your feedback. Keep up the GREAT work! Regards, Aaron

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

@Aaron -

Thanks for the question. I am thrilled to hear that you chose a college that focused on feedback more than anything else. It sounds like quite the progressive institution! To answer your question regarding trying this outside a PBL format - no we haven't. My colleagues and I have chosen for the past two years to predominantly teach using the PBL framework as outlined by the Buck Insitute for Education. I would posit however that it would work with just fine in any classroom as long as it was laid out in a way students and parents could understand. I will admit that I was a little leery of how long it would take to incorporate the feedback component into my work schedule, but I found that the time it took to provide the feedback was roughly equal to how I had graded in the past. Finally, I discovered that the SE2R Model advocated by Mark Barnes works particularly well. Thanks again for the comment and questions. All the best! - Matt

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