Ditch That Grade! 9 ways to move beyond the grade and on to meaningful learning


Assessment | Monday, May 20, 2019

Ditch That Grade! 9 ways to move beyond the grade and on to meaningful learning

How can we give feedback to our students without handing out grades? Here are 9 ways to move beyond the grade and on to more meaningful learning.

[callout]This post is written by Rachael Mann, the founder of #TeachlikeTED and coauthor of The Martians in Your Classroom. She speaks and writes about the future of education and helps teachers rethink the learning spaces of today. Connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn: @RachaelEdu. [/callout]

I know what you are thinking, ditch that grade? Really? Well, maybe not all grades… or maybe? It begs the question, why give grades? Where did this whole grading frenzy start? What do grades really measure anyway? What about schools that don’t give grades? Do students stop learning?

If April showers bring May flowers… Okay, let’s stop there, we all know what April brings… tests… and grades… and students going home crying after failing a test. I have seen countless posts from frustrated parents with young children who are stressed out over grades. That’s right, kids in the single digits who should be enjoying the prime of their life- elementary school. But the battle of the grade doesn’t stop, it gets worse as students enter the double digits.

Preparing Students for the “Real World”

We hear it all the time- the intent of education is to prepare students for the “real world”, but is it? Really? I have never been handed a grade by a boss or manager and asked to take several 3-hour tests every quarter to prove my worth in my position. Have you?

Instead, the actual real world offers us opportunities on a daily basis to demonstrate our commitment to goals, level of expertise, tenacity, leadership potential, team interactions, creativity, and innovation.

Actor, Matthew McConaughey, gave a commencement speech a few years ago to the University of Houston, outlining his own “13 Truths” and expressed that in the real world of the entertainment industry, measuring performance is paramount. He said, “I’ve read a lot of my bad reviews, and the good “bad reviews,” written by the more talented critics, are constructive. They reveal to me what did translate in my work, what came across, what was seen, or what wasn’t. I don’t obsess on the unfavorable aspect of their review, but I do seek what I can learn from it — because their displeasure actually uncovers and makes more apparent what I do well, what I am successful at… and then I dissect that.”

I strongly believe that our students would benefit from the same approach to educational assessment. The untalented critic, or in this case – teacher, is the one who provides evaluative feedback, whereas the talented critic/teacher provides descriptive feedback.

A teacher who slaps an A, or even an F, on a student’s paper is relaying relatively little information on their assessment for the student who desires to learn more and wants to improve. It has been proven numerous times that written feedback is more important than grades and will have more impact on student growth and learning than a solitary letter grade.

On a side but relevant note, if you want to prepare students for the REAL real world, I recommend that you check out this Wakelet Collection on Professional Skills, aka Soft Skills.

The Way Back Machine

“Our results suggest…that the information routinely given in schools—that is, grades—may encourage an emphasis on quantitative aspects of learning, depress creativity, foster fear of failure, and undermine interest.” Butler R, Nisan M (1986)

Depress creativity? Foster fear? Undermine interest? Whoa… isn’t that the exact opposite of what kids need to succeed?

Given that the primary goals of education are to provide feedback, motivate, and measure ongoing performance, then it is clear that our current system needs a drastic reboot – but reboot from when?

When we take a field trip in our Way Back Machine to see when our traditional grading system began, we find that we don’t have to go that far back after all. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the letter grading system we are most familiar with actually began to catch on (…but in fairness, pre-Google, it took a while for anything to go viral). That said, according to the National Education Association, only 67% of primary and secondary schools in the United States had even begun using letter grades by 1971.

From the beginning, it was evident that the regular distribution grading system was a difficult way to fairly evaluate students. Several alternatives have popped up over the years, but grading on a curve still reigns as the most popular deviation.

The Real World Reboot

So can this whole grading problem be solved if a student is given a letter grade as an evaluative mark as well as descriptive feedback in the form of comments on a paper?

Unfortunately, no. Studies consistently show that students often ignore the descriptive feedback if they see a letter grade is written beside it.

However; if the descriptive feedback is offered as a stand-alone evaluation, the student is not only more likely to read the comment but will also go on to improve their work on the next assignment.

9 Ways to Ditch That Grade!

I’m not suggesting that we begin offering perky dinosaurs and smiley face stickers in lieu of grades (even though that would make any teacher’s job much more entertaining!). What I am suggesting, is that we actually prepare our students for the savvy world out there by teaching them that failure is a part of the innovation process and we need to make room for growth through learning that is not attached to an A-F scale. Risk is necessary for new discoveries and self-reliance is necessary for healthy growth. We need to focus heavily on both of these areas as we continue to move forward in education.

1. Don’t Grade It. It’s as simple as that. Some of the best, longest lasting learning occurs with no strings or grades attached. Before assigning a score, ask if it will increase or decrease student engagement and long-term impact. Some assessments hinder student growth by causing a motivational shift. Grades do not tell us much about what students know and can do, so let students focus on learning for the sake of learning versus learning for the sake of a grade.

2. Give a Bitmoji or emoji that says it all. For example, the “Are You Okay?” Bitmoji shows that this isn’t a student’s normal performance and that you are concerned about them. It also opens the door for them to share what is going on in their life and if they are in need of a caring adult to intervene.

3. Give descriptive feedback. No grades, just meaningful comments.

4. Pair share and group work. By giving students an opportunity to provide feedback to each other you are preparing students with a necessary workplace skill and an opportunity to practice communication and leadership. Plus, number three can be really time-consuming and you are just one person and let’s face it. You can’t give what you don’t have so taking care of you – is necessary for you to give back to the students too. So give students an opportunity to develop the feedback skills they need in their personal and professional life and give yourself an opportunity to avoid feedback burnout. (Taking care of YOU is good for students too!)

5. Negotiate Grades. Negotiating grades is an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and to advocate for what is best for student learning and well-being. On the school level- In reality, until more school systems adopt forward-thinking strategies, adopting a grade-free zone in your own learning space may not be an option. That said, as the captain of your own ship (…or classroom), you can still strike a balance between what your school district requires and the number of grades you feel is good for your students and good for you.

6. Give students agency through input. Negotiating grades may also mean giving students the chance to build agency as they reflect on their own merit. Ask what grade they feel they have earned and give them the opportunity to prove why they deserve this score. In many cases, students will be much harder on themselves than you would have been. This also provides a safe, reflective space for you to build rapport with each student as you build up his or her confidence in how to accurately evaluate personal performance.

7. Choice Menus. Creativity and play are common themes in innovation and can help solve big problems. Give students agency in demonstrating mastery of content in fun and creative ways. Allow students to choose how they will demonstrate what they know. No grades attached! For downloadable templates that you can customize for your classroom, click here.

8. Challenges. Offer challenges for your students to solve that may result in mastery or provide opportunities to evaluate what went wrong, which is sometimes an even bigger lesson. We can inadvertently rob children of the excitement of learning by putting too much emphasis on grades. If we really want our students to learn how to innovate and prepare for life in the much bigger global classroom upon graduation, we need to inspire them with exciting challenges to solve. Create your own, or let them choose from some of the challenges and competitions found here.

9. Digital Badges. Digital badges and mastery learning go hand in hand. You don’t need to do anything fancy or make an expensive purchase. For instance, you can create your own digital badges for free using Accredible’s Badge Creator.

If Nothing Changes – Nothing Changes

At the end of the day, it is imperative for all of us to find new solutions to our old problems, and turn the page. Please add your own classroom strategies for ditching the grade and relevant links in the comment section below. I look forward to learning your own educational strategies for moving our next generation into the REAL real world.


National Education Association. Reporting pupil progress to parents. Res Bulletin. 1971;49:81–83. (October) [Google Scholar]

Butler R, Nisan M. Effects of no feedback, task-related comments, and grades on intrinsic motivation and performance. J Educ Psychol. 1986;78:210. [Google Scholar]

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