by Phil Olson & Nick Truxal
District-Wide Thoughts from Nick Truxal
Why the Focus on Feedback?
Work to redefine progress reporting and grading has been happening for far longer than I’ve been in education. With that said, there are some real attempts at change happening world-wide for the first time I can recall. There are currently pushes for:
Plus, the tools available to educators have been evolving to enable these approaches as well: there are larger comment areas in student information systems, there are now ways to weight newer assignments more than older assignments via the use of decaying averages, and there are tools like Mastery Transcript that attempt to focus purely on skills and students’ evidence of each of those skills.
I’ve worked with our elementary and middle schools in Dover-Eyota, Minnesota to move towards a feedback-only grading system focused on feedback around key skills, areas of growth, and illustrations of excellence. Upon our first parent survey—which admittedly had fewer responses than we would want to make lasting judgments—we were told that this system was preferable and that they would love some additional information as well, including ways parents can work with their students on areas of growth while at home.
With all the great work happening in our district, I wish I had discovered Sarah Zerwin, first—before we had begun this process. Her work is applicable to all grade levels and content areas, and it explains how to smoothly transition a community that can’t imagine life without letter grades into one that, instead, focuses on learning versus points and percentages. Her work, once digested, makes such approaches to grading and reporting seem obvious.
The simplest way to describe Zerwin’s thesis, at least to me, is that we can engage students through robust and meaningful activities, which helps create deep thinking and lifelong learning. Points, on the other hand, distract from learning: thus, the play on words that is Zerwin’s 2020 publication, Point-less.
Classroom Application for Any Grade-level or Course Area
In exploring Zerwin’s nine specific learning goals for an English classroom, we made a more general template that can be applied to any grade level and content area. The focus is simple—if we don’t have purposeful goals, we won't have meaningful activities to reach those goals.
Before diving in, a reminder that the single most important part of this work—at least to us—is to make sure we bring everyone along with us. That work starts with conversations with students about grading, reporting, and what is important to them. We need to be sure that parents don’t feel left out, that administrators have our backs, and that local colleges and universities support anything that drops points or grades from the picture. Zerwin further discusses ways to accomplish these things in our podcast with her as well as in her book.
Back to our generalized goals (these have been adjusted to target approximately a third grade reading level, thus the shift to “I can” language); of course, tweak and adjust these as needed for your own work, and at the direction of your conversations with your students.
While, Zerwin’s work in Point-less is relevant to all educators, it perhaps is most directed to English Teachers; the subtitle of the book, after all, is An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading. In fact, I first learned about Zerwin from one of my colleagues, Phil Olson, a long-time English teacher in a nearby district who read the book and immediately tried some of Zerwin’s ideas. So, I invited him to participate in our podcast discussion with her and asked him to share a reflection about how things went in regards to implementing her ideas in his own classroom.
Classroom-Specific Thoughts from Phil Olson
Classroom Application for English
The 2020-2021 academic year was tough on students and educators. From technology overload to personal wellness, the effects of the pandemic hit schools hard. Still, we education professionals pushed through, and we now have another year in the books. Before we get too far into summer mode, though, let’s do a little more assessment:
What grade would you give your performance as a teacher or administrator this past year? An A, B, C, D, or an F?
Before you answer, consider that your grade must accurately encompass all of your efforts to teach and lead, including the ways you managed controllables and responded to uncontrollables. Keep in mind that your performance is also compared to that of your colleagues. Were you a top-tier, A-level educator all year, or did your performance flag at points? Perhaps, just for this one year, we should consider assessing ourselves on a Pass-Fail basis: that’s easier. Or, instead of a single letter, maybe we should discuss our performances with descriptors, as in “this was not my best year” or “I rose to most challenges.”
Assessment is hard, especially when complex dynamics must be compressed into a single letter or a vague description. Some of the same challenges are present when assessing students’ performances. Think about the grades you recently submitted. Are you, like me, plagued by the nagging sense that some grades are inaccurate or do not tell the whole story? Do you sometimes lament the time, energy, and emotion you must invest in your role as a grade broker? I do.
About two weeks before the end of the semester, a straight-‘A’ student realized that he had earned his first ‘B’, and his disappointment and frustration shifted to resentment of me. Our positive, working relationship was damaged.
These vignettes and others are on my mind, in part, because I am working to transform my grading practices. I want to think and talk less about grades and more about learning. Perhaps you too have read and been nudged by Alfie Kohn, Ken O’Connor, Rick Wormeli, Tammy Heflebower, Thomas Guskey, Myron Dueck, and others. I recommend you add Sarah Zerwin to the list. In Point-less, Zerwin explains how and why educators can and should shift the focus of our classes away from grades and percentages to, instead, target knowledge and skills.
I have applied some of her suggested strategies, and I look forward to this fall when I intend to borrow more heavily from her playbook because I whole-heartedly agree with Zerwin: Until we find ways to “create classroom[s] that [don’t] orbit around grades, [our] students [will] focus on collecting points to cash in for grades instead of on the critical learning they need to do as readers and writers” (3).
This past fall (in distance mode!), I launched my Advanced Placement Literature classes with an overt focus on learning by communicating my learning goals for reflections instead of publishing a syllabus with a grade scale and an enumeration of which assessments were worth how many points: my students’ first assignment was to read, think about, and reflect in writing on those goals. I asked students whether they thought the goals were (1) appropriate course objectives, (2) which they found most essential, (3) potentially most challenging, etc.
In addition to embracing the nine goals—with some quibbling, of course—students also expressed appreciation for the emphases on practices and skills, as opposed to products like papers or tests, and many others also recognized that the reach of the goals far transcended the class to include other classes, post-secondary aspirations, and “real life.” No one missed the absence of points, and we started the year with calibrated aspirations.
As the year unfolded, we returned to these goals often, and students used them to give me feedback on features of the class and to make their own, self-tailored goals. Instead of typical goals like earning 95%, students talked about carving out time for close reading, needing to lean into revision, or wanting to project more confidence in symposiums. More talk about working to learn, less about working for points.
For a thorough guide to planning, see Zerwin’s Course Planning Template.
Another tool my students found meaningful was the Writer’s Notebook (see Goal 3 above), and it is utterly simple: students capture their thinking on the page in ways that make sense to them. Sometimes I gave students prompts, other times we created prompts together as a class; sometimes I encouraged them to do some creative writing to add a scene to a work of literature or to try to capture the rhythm of a writer’s style. Often, students had free reign to ask questions, make connections, take issue with a character or author, zoom in on memorable passages, or to write about anything else aligned with the texts and ideas of the course. I directed them not to worry too much about mechanics. Sometimes I read their entries and sometimes I didn’t. I wanted students to recognize that they were writing for themselves, not their teacher.
The truth is, not every student kept a robust Writer’s Notebook, and a few even explained that the lack of points was a disincentive. The vast majority, however, reported that deemphasizing points yielded a more authentic and substantial learning experience. One student told me she was using a Writer’s Notebooks for other classes too!
Though the Writer’s Notebook did not directly impact students’ grades, it proved a powerful learning tool. Their informal writing fueled discussions, offered a starting point for essay ideas, and most importantly, provided a no-stakes space in which to think informally but purposefully about texts and ideas.
A Strategy to Try Next: Letters (Not points) & Letter Grades
As Zerwin’s classes reach the end of a term, she asks her students to close with a “Semester Grade Letter,” and she asks that letters take the form of a story, a story about learning that has a protagonist and antagonist(s), other characters, conflicts confronted, setting(s), a plot arc of major events, and a resolution. The story must also include links to evidence from students’ papers and projects, their writer’s notebooks, feedback from instructor and peers, and anything else that adds rich detail to the story. She weaves several sample letters throughout Point-less, and they demonstrate that students are deeply reflective, honest, critical, celebratory, and creative.
Their stories also arrive at a grade determination, and this provides an opportunity for the student and the teacher to discuss and come to agreement about what the evidence of learning--not a percentage of points—reveals.
I am eager to try these learning story letters next fall, and my intent is to make the course requirement known right away so students are documenting evidence and thinking about their learning stories as they take shape. I anticipate that doing so will help to mitigate some of the grading frustrations and inaccuracies, like those shared in the vignettes at the start of this article: the ones that emerge when the pursuit of points is allowed to distract from the real target, learning.
As indicated above, we are both fans of Zerwin’s work, so we recommend you do two things: first,listen to the podcast and then check out her book, Point-less, as we skim only the surface of her work in the article above. Zerwin’s groundbreaking guide also offers:
Sounds good to us!
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.