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I abolished grades for all of my classes – here’s how, why and the difference it made

Written By: Bianca Pellet
5 min read
The challenge

In 2016, I was teaching in an international school in Paris. We had more than 60 nationalities and a high turnover, with students usually only staying for two or three years on average. The effect of home and geographical cultures, as well as the ‘third culture kid’ phenomenon experienced by students, cannot be underestimated. My group, to whom I taught English, was mixed ability, and virtually all of them spoke English as an additional language (EAL).

I found that when I gave back marked work, students would look at their grade and compare it with friends’ marks. It is dismaying as a teacher, when you have spent a great deal of time providing detailed written feedback designed to help students improve, only to find that they are only interested in the grade, not the comments.

This detracted from the purpose of having work marked – realising your own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how to improve and make progress – but it also developed unnecessary pressure and competition between my students. I wanted to eradicate this from my classroom and get students focusing on their own comments. So, I stopped grading students’ work.

My approach

Aside from my own observations, the research underpinning Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice (Black et al., 2003) was the basis of my change of approach. They say that formative assessment enables students to understand the gap between where they need to be and where their current knowledge/understanding or skills are – and then take action to build on this. But they are careful to point out that: ‘Although the teacher can stimulate and guide this process, the learning has to be done by the student’ (Black et al., 2003, p.14).

From the start of the 2015-2016 academic year, I stopped showing students their grades. Instead, I recorded marks in my book for report card and accountability purposes, but only gave comments to students. Other colleagues (in my own and other departments) continued to grade work, with varying degrees of commentary. This would give me an insight into the impact of my approach to only sharing comments, even though no firm comparisons could be made as there was no direct control group.

My approach also included lots of real-time feedback opportunities, which were quite new to my school. Following Dylan Wiliam’s ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’ (2011), I also used other strategies, including:

  • whole-class formulation of, and reference to, success criteria
  • open questioning in whole-class discussions
  • encouraging pair and group discussions
  • peer- and self-assessment (with focus on the WWW and EBIs).

Implementation was quite simple. At the time, I was working in a private international school so I had relative freedom to implement new ideas and strategies in my classroom. Some students were concerned that without grades they wouldn’t know if they were failing the course, but we talked about it and I explained that they would not end up in that situation if they acted on feedback given and continued to have an open dialogue with me. My colleagues also noted that you need to go comments-only from day one: those who tried it mid-year noted that their students seemed put out to not receive a grade on their work as usual, and were thus less likely to see the value of the exercise.

Evaluating impact

As the academic year drew to a close it seemed a good time to evaluate the purpose and use of comments and grades with my students under the new regime. So I asked students, colleagues and parents about their attitudes to this new approach to assessment. The number of responses received was relatively small – 52 students, 22 teachers and 6 parents – but provided some interesting insights into the perspectives of the various groups.

The first task was to choose two reasons why teachers assess students (from a possible 14). Students believed that the two most important reasons were to ‘make [them] aware of their strengths and weaknesses’ and ‘to improve students’ skills and subject knowledge’. Parents agreed on this first point, but their second reason was ‘to evaluate students’ existing skills and subject knowledge’.

Interestingly, only 9 per cent of surveyed teachers thought assessment was to make students aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Teachers chose ‘to improve students’ skills and subject knowledge’ as their favourite, with their second reason being ‘so that students can see how well they are doing compared to the last piece of work they did’. This provokes several particularly pertinent questions: is progress really that linear? How far can numerical marking help students achieve progress?

I then produced charts to show the different attitudes to grades and comments, and to compare student, teacher and parent answers. This helped to demonstrate where their priorities diverged. Some of the most dramatic divergences were:

  • 60 per cent of parents wanted comments on pupils’ work shared every lesson, compared with just 10 per cent of students
  • In fact, 7 per cent of teachers said that comments were not useful at all – but not a single pupil or parent agreed
  • Only 17 per cent of students and 13 per cent of teachers thought grades were ‘very useful’ whereas 80 per cent of parents did.

The percentage of parents, teachers and students (combined) who considered comments to be ‘very useful’ was 49 per cent higher than the number who thought grades were very useful.This could suggest thatcommenting should be given more priority. It’s also worth noting that this study was done in a country without league tables so it would be interesting to compare this with attitudes in a similar school in a country that does have league tables, to see whether this coincides with a shift in priorities.

All surveyed groups ultimately prized a mixture of assessment methods (i.e. receiving both grades and comments).

All respondents were given the opportunity to respond with a comment in an open text box too, which helped to shed further light on the quantitative results. It was particularly interesting to read that there was some possible impact on student self-esteem and progress. Comments included:

‘If my teacher only [graded] it, I would not know how to improve…’ S, aged 12

‘Improving the work before improving the grade is crucial…’ A, aged 16

‘[grading is] not very useful as you’re just comparing your scores to your classmates’ N, aged 13

‘in English, [I get only] comments, which helps me a lot, but not in French. I wish in French they gave me comments also [sic]…’ R, aged 15

‘Comments help students to improve with the help of the teacher…’ I, aged 17

‘[grading] every lesson [would give lessons] a very controlled atmosphere; it would feel like you’re being judged all the time….’ J, aged 17

While the survey indicated a preference for commenting, all parties acknowledged the importance of grading. It also shows the desire to be tactfully and constructively shown strengths, weaknesses and methods of improvement, beyond numbers on a page with no explanations. Equally, comment-only approaches should not be used as an excuse for students to cruise through their studies blind to any problems. As one parent put it: ‘Grades by themselves do not provide a direction […] The ‘why’ in life is what helps us understand.’

  • Black C (1998) Testing: Friend or Foe? Theory and Practice of Assessment and Testing. London: Falmer Press.
  • Black P et al. (2003) Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice. Maidenhead, U.K: Open University Press.
  • Black P et al. (2004) Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan 86(1): 8–21.
  • Wiliam D (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment. Indiana: Solution Tree Press.
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