Like most teachers, the pandemic made me reconsider a lot of what I do. Remote learning had me questioning the effectiveness of simply adapting the tools I’d always used in the classroom. The process put me on a path that revolutionized my practice.

The idea that the grade no longer limited a student and that they could improve to a high grade that was representative of what they were actually capable of by the end of the course was profoundly impactful. It was a transformative change for both the students and me, as we all finally felt like we were focused on the right thing.

When we flipped to remote learning, I asked myself, “How do I make sure students are actually continuing to learn? Am I just having them jump through hoops while I knowingly turn a blind eye to cheating?” Putting my assignments and tests online didn’t guarantee that learning would happen. I wrestled with these questions every day.

My solution to remote learning in March, 2020 was a system where students accumulated points through completing online simulations, at-home experiments, and a major project that ranged from building a project that demonstrated a concept, to developing their own lab, to creating a context-rich problem. All were tasks that required students to display their level of understanding as there was no memorizing or cheating their way through.

Tremendous Insights into Learning

During one-on-one interviews with students, I gained tremendous insights into their learning. One student had 95 per cent in my class until we went remote. But when he decided to develop a project, it became clear that he had little to no understanding of basic physics. When we talked, it was revealed that he memorized what he needed to get good grades on tests, but retained almost nothing. Another student with a 55 per cent in the course created the most engaging and well-thought-out context-rich problems that incorporated his own love of graphic design. During our interviews he showed genuine interest in physics and that he could, and should, go much farther. However, his grade communicated to him that he could never be successful.

This drove significant change in my vision for the classroom for fall, 2020. My question was: which is more important, that students can memorize a process or some random information and regurgitate it for me on a test, or that they develop the skills to think critically and problem solve?

We often think of students who do well on tests as the ones set up to succeed after high school, but it’s those students who are often least prepared for the deeper thinking required of university, college, or a 21st century workforce. As teachers, we may inadvertently act as gatekeepers that prevent a wonderfully creative, insightful student from realizing their potential – beaten down by a system that punishes every little mistake and stifles creativity, especially in STEM courses.

My solution: move to a skills-based grading model. Check out Scott Brunner’s blog, or scan the QR code (on page 10) for more info.

Skills-based Grading Model

The idea was that, with student input, we select key skills from the Cluster 0 section of the Manitoba Science Curriculum that would help students be successful, not only in this course, but also in university, college, the workforce, and their personal lives. These skills were present in every topic in the course, so if we were assessing skills, then students’ grades could actually grow as they do.

One of the biggest problems with traditional grading is that it doesn’t reflect student growth and this undermines student engagement and resilience. In a traditional events-based grading system, all tasks, new and old, are part of the grade and there are often limited, or no opportunities for students to demonstrate growth.

The idea that the grade no longer limited a student and that they could improve to a high grade that was representative of what they were actually capable of by the end of the course was profoundly impactful. It was a transformative change for both the students and me, as we all finally felt like we were focused on the right thing.

Then, I made another big shift. During the winter, 2021 semester, I explored the idea of going gradeless, or ungrading. Ungrading means acknowledging that grades can prevent students from taking risks in their learning, push them to cheat or give up entirely and act out, and sometimes result in anxiety or depression, and so we work to remove the grade as much as possible from a course.

I had already seen how grades held students back from what they could be and how traditional grading was focused on getting students ready for the test or final exam, but not on the learning itself. I read an article by Ontario physics teacher, Ashley McCarl Palmer, titled “So you want to go gradeless”, and we soon started working together. This collaboration was a tremendous push in the right direction.

Skills-based Ungrading

In fall, 2021, I moved to what I call “skills-based ungrading”. We select the skills that students need to develop to be successful long-term, and each semester we revisit them and provide opportunity for new input. We have no choice but to determine grades at midterm and finals, so this has become part of a self-assessment process. In a one-on-one interview with me they justify the grade they have selected, supported by their portfolio of work—similar to a job interview.

In this assessment model, all coursework is formative until the student decides what is summative in their portfolio. It gives students the opportunity to showcase their growth and puts as much ownership as possible on them. Since we want our grades to be more meaningful, as a class we developed our “What Does a Grade Look Like?” sheet so that students know what each grade range looks like, along with the criteria for requesting each level of grade. The criteria that students evaluate on this sheet are based on the problem-solving and critical thinking skills that we should value most, not the content.

And what are the results, you ask? Far beyond my wildest dreams!

Students Take Ownership of Their Learning

My students know that this course is about their growth and long-term success, so they take ownership of their learning. They’re more engaged than I’ve ever seen a class. Since students know that they will grow throughout the course and won’t be punished for mistakes in the long term, there is much more risk-taking, incredible collaboration between students, and no more cheating.

One of the most important benefits is that student anxiety is almost non-existent. Many students who previously suffered from debilitating anxiety no longer feel it in this course. And they’re even able to transfer skills to other more traditional courses. I’m able to ask my students more challenging questions than I ever have before and I see far greater success from them. Students that have traditionally struggled with a course like physics are engaging with the course, building confidence, rising to the challenge and finding success.

On my side, regular feedback and asking questions that dig deeper into their understanding means that I’m taking less work home with me. I have the healthiest work-life balance of my career and teaching itself feels far more fulfilling—the way it always should have been.

COVID-19 robbed our classrooms of so much. Who would have thought it could also create so much opportunity?

– Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of the MB Teacher

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