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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

Moving from levels to feedback–what happens when we don’t give grades?

Many teachers I know are experimenting with giving more specific feedback and fewer marks.  It makes for some interesting thinking and a lot of questions.  Here are some examples I’ve seen:

  1. In writing  teachers are conferencing with students throughout the writing process. They work with students to identify places where the message is unclear and the students continue to work on the piece.  The feedback might be things like “I got confused with who was talking at this part” or “I loved the story but your lead didn’t catch my interest” or “I wonder if there are some places we could insert some description of the main character so I could visualize him better”.

  2. In Science students received the final rubric marked by the teacher PRIOR to handing in their portfolio of work. It was clear to students where they needed to improve before they submitted the work for grading.

  3. In math class the students get feedback  on their homework from each other by comparing answers the next day.

  4. In music students receive feedback on their playing that does not have a grade or level attached. Students base their personal goals for improving their playing on this feedback.

  5. In reading students handed in their short essay responses and the teacher asked some questions.  Students had another chance to revise their answers.  Students knew the information; they hadn’t included it.

The research is very clear that if we give students marks, they pay no attention to any feedback that might be included:

” Overall, detailed, descriptive feedback was found to be most effective when given alone, unaccompanied by grades or praise.” A. Lipnevich and J. Smith

“Studies have shown that the more students are induced to think about what they will get on an assignment, the more their desire to learn evaporates, and, ironically, the less well they do”  Alfie Kohn

“Real learning of both the topic and personal responsibility comes from specific, timely, and frequent feedback to students during the learning, not after the learning.” R. Wormeli

‘Learning in a graded classroom becomes an isolated act delivered in units that have clear starting and ending points instead of a fluid process of continual exploration and connection and growth and discovery.” B. Ferriter

“Our aim must therefore be to create assessments that provide better feedback by design, and not think of improvements in terms of more accurate evaluation. Indeed, without better feedback (and guidance based on the feedback) in student assessment, there is little point to precise scores and value judgments.” G. Wiggins

“Actual assessment practices are often harmful: marking and grading are overemphasized while giving useful advice is underemphasized, and comparing students competitively causes low-achieving students to believe they cannot learn.” Paraphasing Wiliam and Black

The research by Carol Dweck and others around growth mindset also fits into this paradigm shift.  We know that students who believe they can succeed are more likely to do so.  If, in the learning process, all of their “feedback” is grades and levels, they are far less likely to make those efforts to improve.  In fact, if we want students to develop a growth mindset, we must create the conditions in which that will happen.  In an environment in which grades or levels is the result of their work, students are less likely to develop a belief that effort matters.  What if they thought they had tried their best but weren’t that successful?  We can’t just tell kids to develop a growth mindset; we have to create the conditions in which they will come to believe it is true.

Mark Barnes is a proponent of no grades (  He suggests that when we are looking at student work we use the following dialogue:  Summarize, Explain, Redirect and Resubmit.  So, a conversation might go like this:

Sam, I see that you have explained your findings from the science experiment (summarize).  I do not understand what conclusion you are drawing from the data presented (explain—and perhaps chat a bit about this).  Could you please add that part (redirect) and then let me know when it is done (resubmit)?

The feedback loop is clear.  The task for the student to do is both clear and not overwhelming.  The student has an opportunity for further learning.  The student’s final “grade” may improve because there was an opportunity to learn the parts that were missing.  Isn’t learning, not grading, the ultimate goal? Contrast that situation to:

Sam, you got a level 2 or 60% or a C+.

Of course, feedback with no grades is not without questions and challenges…

  1. Parents expect grades. So, if we are changing practices we must communicate this.

  2. Our report cards have grades. If a student is going to get a poor grade on the report card both the parent and the student must be prepared for that.  Does this happen through conversations?  Does this happen with some assignments having grades?

  3. If we must have grades through the term, do we give students opportunities to resubmit the work? Or, how many times throughout the term do students have to practice before we give a grade?

  4. Could we give a test, provide feedback and not grades, and then allow student another chance? Is this “cheating” or allowing learning?

  5. Do we revisit concepts so that even if students did poorly early in the year, they have opportunities to improve?

Teachers who have been experimenting with fewer grades and more descriptive feedback have been pleased with the level of student growth and engagement.   If you haven’t tried no grades or levels, try it for your next learning cycle—see what happens—no one will die and everyone will learn something.

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