Feedbacking Over Grading

My teacher partner Emily had a great idea for my blog: starting each blog with a question to think about.

So, here is the question: what do grades mean to you?  

Yes, loaded question. But this blog post is about grading less. And about going gradeless.

This week, we had parent-teacher conferences. Last night, a parent asked if I really only had one grade recorded in the online gradebook.

I started to answer, my mind whirling. It was the first time my online gradebook showed a “grading less” philosophy. I was confident to answer, but I was also girding my loins.  

No need. As I opened my mouth to answer, my student, their son, jumped in:  “It’s one grade, but it’s all the work we do. Ms. Cribby is giving us a lot of feedback, and she’s going to grade it again when we’ve made changes and shown our growth.”  

The parent explained that they understood, but was wondering if another grade would go in. Again, the student responded that the grade would be an assessment of “how much we showed our learning and our growth.” I nodded and said, “Yes, I’m giving more feedback than ever and grading less.” The student nodded his head vigorously and said, “yes.” Most days, he said, he feels like he’s working very hard and constantly learning.

More feedback and grading less. I’m there. Wow.

It hit me then that I’m a lot closer to being “gradeless” than I thought. Having them work, revise, work, revise, elicit feedback, revise, is truly making them feel that learning, not grades, is at the center of their experience.  

How We Do It

Students are 1:1 with iPads at our middle school. We also have a set of Chromebooks in the language arts classroom. “We” is my language arts teaching cohort: Emily and me. We have developed our class flow and procedures together, stemming from ideas from In the Middle by Nancie Atwell (which has formed the basis of my writing instruction since I started teaching in 1992).

Emily was my student 12 years ago, and when she was hired to work with me, she pushed the writer’s workshop boundaries by bringing fresh ideas and technology.

We’ve been honing and revising this new workshop for the past four years, and we’re both excited by the explosion of opportunities, especially the ones that put the learning fully on the students, making them accountable for the knowledge and abilities they individually develop rather than the grades I assign.

The Routine

Students come to class, open up their Chromebooks, and access the agenda in Google Classroom (also uploaded to a folder in Schoology, a school-wide platform). The agenda is filled with limitless resources, and all we do is copy it each day and change a few things.

This takes very little time front-of-class planning, and we are able to build each day based on what is needed day in and day out.

In the document linked above, you can see a section on the right with the 4 years of agendas. This is where we note our progress looping with our students for three years. So, my seventh graders can see what they did last year and what 8th graders were doing the year before.  Some students explore this often; sometimes we direct them purposefully to look at what they or other classes were doing one or two years ago. We also use this at the end of each year to assess their growth.

At the beginning of each class, students open their daily work document, a Google Doc pushed out through Classroom, and answer an inquiry question. Usually, this question relates to writing, reading, or research. The question asks students to reflect on what they are doing, how they are moving forward, and what they need.  

How do we know what they need?  Daily data gathered in real time, not days in advance. Each day, we make a copy of the agenda and change out the question.

Next, students choose what to do with what they’ve learned. They write, read, do more research. It’s up to them and what they need and want at that time.  

In an excerpt from another blog post, I observe what students generally do with their time. Last spring, I asked students to read that blog post and identify themselves. Here are some answers from that day’s Padlet.

With five minutes left in class, students record their mindset in their work document:

  • How did they approach the work?
  • Did they get stuck? How did they get unstuck?
  • What do they need/want and how to move forward?

In the past, they would write a self-evaluation. Toward the end of last year, Emily and I stopped having students talk about grades but instead write about what they learned. As our school embraces growth mindset, we moved toward their reflections being based in growth-mindset terminology.  

Nitty Gritty

Our inquiry questions act as the essential learnings (evidence/claims, symbolism and word choice, genres, non-fiction and fiction reading, etc.).

We have a link, on our agenda, to the essential vocabulary for each standard, and we have students use that document to make sure their choices demonstrate all the essentials. We gauge whether this is happening for our students on both an individual and whole-class basis.

Because they are working independently during the entire class, Emily and I spend our time giving students feedback, either in their documents or in person. We usually give every student personal feedback every other day. Some students get feedback daily.

That’s right: every student, every other day.

Other Thoughts

  • At our school, students write a weekly email to their parents explaining what they’re learning in their classes. They cc: any teacher of a class they need more support, communication, or help. They cc: both of us language arts teachers. Parents, teachers, students, everyone loves this. Here are the directions, rubric, and an exemplar.
  • Students have a snapshot of their best writing due once a quarter (rubric and directions). Some students write novels; others re-write their weekly email. It’s completely personalized.

Big Differences from Traditional Classrooms

  1. We grade growth, not a standard of accuracy that is not appropriate for all learners in one moment of time.
  2. We are fully in the back of the class as facilitators and co-learners, not specialists in the front of the room delivering information.
  3. We meet students in real time as they work, not at night, grading papers that are days, and sometimes weeks, beyond when they last thought about the work.
  4. We value learning, and our students know that they must show us what they’ve learned.

Emily and I are still learning from each other, but we both have the same educational beliefs: students should choose what and how they learn, and they should be comfortable, supported, and challenged. It’s not about grades. It’s about learning. We need to take grades out of the equation. Forcing students to jump through our hoops doesn’t cut it. We need to meet them where they are.

Grades, schmades.

Karen Clancy-Cribby teaches language arts at Westview Middle School in Longmont, CO. She’s passionate about learning and growing with her students and redefining what it means to excel and thrive in a language arts classroom. Happy Blogah is where Karen reflects on all of this. Follow her on Twitter @kcribby

4 thoughts on “Feedbacking Over Grading

  1. Inspiring ideas here, I am especially interested in the idea of a weekly email to parents . I wonder from your description though whether your students get the chance to discuss and debate with each other in small group and in whole class discussions ? Are their opportunities for group work and collaborative projects ?


    • Hi! Thanks for reading and commenting. Great questions. In a nutshell: yes, there are different projects we bring in to this workflow (such as literature circles). That said, we do focus mainly on using online backchannels and discussion boards because we want to help them build their online presence in a respectful, appropriate, professional manner. We have the luxury of teaching on close academic teams (math, science, social studies, language arts). We work closely to balance out our work platforms. So, social studies is all discussion and collaboration based, and science is mostly lab and collaborative based. Thanks again for your thoughtful response! Hope that helps?


      • Yes this is interesting information. Our school wants to move towards a more self directed learning environment and I see that you have described an interesting and successful one. I worry about losing the social constructivist aspect of learning or more simply talking together directed by an expert facilitator . In my experience, structured class discussion is one key to powerful learning and development of collaboration skills. I don’t want to lose this and up with every child isolated in headphones!


      • Hi Again,
        I completely agree about class discussion and your concerns. I appreciate your passion and commitment to not just jump into something when you know the power of discussion for learning. I’m a constructivist, and I feel this routine leverages students with so many resources to make their own meaning. We do have class discussions, group work, etc. The baby has not been thrown out with the bathwater (sorry for the cliche!). It’s really that the personalization has a work flow routine that really works to challenge all learners. We’re not pigeonholed into leaving out other valuable experiences. The idea of the backchannel does work to engage many learners who would never speak up without serious prodding. Also, their contributions are much deeper (from students who would not normally share their voice). Thanks for your thoughts and feedback. You raise very valid points. You obviously give a lot to your work, and your students are lucky!


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