What if there were no grades, would students still learn?


Get a room full of teachers and eventually, a few topics comes up … Grading, Student motivation/apathy, and testing to name a few.  However, more and more I am seeing fewer teachers talk about learning.  I have found myself drawn into conversations on twitter and other social media platforms about what grades should really mean.


Are grades a motivating factor or a demotivating factor in regards to student learning?  Are grades actually required to encourage student learning, or do they get in the way of student learning?

Are grades meant to encourage compliance?  If you do your homework you get a 10/10, otherwise, it’s a 0/10.  Are you complying with the teacher’s wants and needs?

Are grades meant to show what a student has learned? Standards Based Learning/Grading takes this completely to heart.  Show the students a learning target and evidence that shows that they have reached those targets and only assess that.

The research I have been reading “Why don’t students like school?” by Daniel T Willingham, “Drive” by Daniel Pink, “The Gift of Failure” by Jessica Lahey, “Visible Learning for Teachers” by John Hattie, to name a few, seem to point to the idea that external rewards (like grades) may motivate in the short term but actually demotivate in the long term.  And more importantly it totally short circuits creativity.  So although the year is not complete (we are not even into the final quarter yet), I am thinking about next year.  As a teacher and (hopefully) a motivator, what can I do to spark student curiosity and creativity?

One idea is to remove grading from the equation.

I have been really encouraged by a few other teachers I have connected with in Twitterverse to leave the grades up to a one-on-one Student – Teacher conference at the end of the grading period.  John Hattie reports that Self-reported grading has by far the biggest effect on student learning based on his research.  During that conversation, some important questions should come up.


During Student-Teacher one-on-one conference, some important questions should come up.

Aaron Blackwelder (@AaronSBlackwel1) uses three questions: What evidence do you have that demonstrates mastery of the standards? What is your evidence of growth? What evidence you have that you can create your own projects to meet standards (transfer of knowledge)?

Adam Lester (@CoachLesterBHS) has 5 major questions: What areas do you feel like you improved over the course of the grading period/year? What areas do you feel like you didn’t grow as much as you should/could have? What major assignment is the best representation of your skills? What major assignment do you feel isn’t representative of what you can do? What grade do you think you deserve and why?

I am not sure I am going to go in this direction but I am definitely going to look into it.

What do you think?  What are the advantages of traditional grading?  Standards-based grading?  Self-reported grading?

8 thoughts on “What if there were no grades, would students still learn?

  1. How courageous of you, Mike, to consider this shift. I think I’ve been doing this for years, just not calling it as such. I remember my father telling me the story of him getting a C in algebra even though he got near perfect grades on assignments and the final. His classmate, however, who struggled all year, but managed to do well on the final, got an A. His teacher’s reasoning was that the second student learned quite a bit, whereas my father showed little learning at all. Now that’s growth mindset!

    We owe it to our students to make sure that they learn – and know how to learn – while they are with us. You are in the right track. Good luck to you.

  2. Keep blogging your thoughts. Writing them down is an excellent, cathartic process that will help solidify what it is you will ultimately do.

  3. Mike,
    There are some of us who are trying this approach! You can do it! I have 7th graders in ELA who just finished their conferences with me this week (the end of the quarter is tomorrow). What a trip. What I have found is that the reflection piece is so very difficult for some that it’s a skill in and of itself. (Especially at 7th grade? I’m not sure.) I’ll be writing another blog post about it tonight. I collect mine and other teachers’ journeys all in one place – the “Teacher Journeys” tab of the Feedback in Lieu of Grades LiveBinder: tinyurl.com/FeedbackBinder. Check it out, and let us know when you jump in!! (You’ll never go back…!) 😀

    1. Joy –

      Thank you so much for the words of encouragement. It’s funny I was just thinking that maybe I should just have my AP students do this … that 9/10 grade kids couldn’t and then I read your comments about 7th graders.

  4. Mike-

    Great work. It’s a challenging move to release some control to our Ss, but the results are worth it. I can’t wait to read about how this turns out for you.

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