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

Ms. Horner -

Thanks for commenting! It is amazing how close we are already to starting another school year. I just sent the forms to the email you provided. I hope they help. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do!

-Matt

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

Katie P -

Great questions! It's exciting to hear from other educators interested in moving the conversation on grading forward. I absolutely think this process would work in a high school English classroom. To start out - I would check out anything written by Mark Barnes (he runs the website www.brilliant-insane.com and has authored several books), and the #TTOG (Teachers Throwing Out Grades) hashtag on Twitter, as well as the TTOG Facebook Group. Hope this helps! Take care.

-Matt

Derek ROBOTERRA's picture

Hey Matt! Loved the article! We are a robotics education company and our solution is PBL with robotics and coding and wanted to also get some of the documents and ways we can help teachers incorporate our solution. I would really appreciate it. Perhaps we can even do a small pilot program with you and your school. MY e-mail is derek.capo@roboterra.com

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

Good morning Derek,

Thanks for reading! Sounds like your company is up to some great things. I will send you an email shortly!

-Matt

robfirchau's picture

Brilliant idea and one that I will use in my classroom, but, even called when using "data points," it's not a "gradeless" system.

Especially at the primary level, grading is the single most destructive obstacle to the acquisition of a love of learning.

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

Robfirchau -

Thanks for the comment. I see where you are coming from and I understand your thinking. I agree with you, grading practices are an incredibly powerful component in the learning process. My intent in using the "data points" at the end-of-quarter conversation was to enter into a metacognitive discussion with the student on topics like effort, self-efficacy, and accessing quiz retakes vs. simply calculating a percentage that equates to a grade . In having this conversation, I hoped the students would internalize that these factors directly impact their learning. In addition, like many educators, I wanted to build on Barnes' system that turned the conversation back towards learning, while still working within the grading framework that many of us are required to operate in. I am glad to hear that you will use this system in the classroom. I'd love to hear about any future iterations you develop regarding this process. Thanks again for reading. Take care.

MsAllenMath's picture

Hello! I'm going to be trying this out during the first 6 weeks of school. We have 2 units of study during this time period. I think I'm going to walk the students through it the first topic and then see how it goes with them on the rest of the first unit. Hopefully, the 2nd unit will be a solid go! Do you suggest I meet with parents or just send the letter? Do you have any documents you think would be good to use? My email is saramallen@katyisd.org. Thank you!

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

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

-Matt

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