12 Years Without any Grades…Kind of

Alfie Kohn’s article, “The Case Against Grades”, discusses some really interesting ideas about how to eliminate grading and encourage learning.  I can image for many of you these ideas may seem crazy and totally not doable, but I’m here to say it is not and share my experiences.

I was home schooled for all of grade school years, from kindergarten to 12th grade, taught by my mom with my 3 siblings. We had a regular class day schedule from 9-12 and then independent study time in the afternoon (unless you were under 12 and you got naps and play time) and took all the regular subjects. But the grades I received were different.  My math homework would be returned to me with marks on questions I missed and I could only move on to the next lesson until I got them all right.  My English essays or literature questions would be returned to me with comments for revision and improvement and I would talk about them with my teacher (my mom!). Again, I revised and rewrote until we were both satisfied with my progress.

I had a conversation with my mom about my grades this weekend and found that I actually did have real grades, but they were not visible to me.  Like the middle school teacher, Jeff Robbins, interviewed by Alfie Kohn, my mom kept notes and evaluated my progress over the entire year and assigned me a grade for my official transcript.

Because there were few grades assigned to me during my home school years I really liked all of my class subjects.  But then I got to college and all of that changed.  I took English Literature and introduction to biology, among other classes.  My English teacher gave me grades I couldn’t understand and really discouraged me from enjoying the class. While in my biology course, I got all A’s but wasn’t challenged and often felt bored.  But it wasn’t long before I learned that I wouldn’t get any credit for taking the imitative and exploring more in-depth different areas of Biology that interested me.  And that it was easier to just write the interpretation of a play the teacher explained to us, instead of trying to figure out how to do it on my own.  Once I was faced with the chance of a bad grade, I was less interested in trying to figure it out.

For those of you trying to decide if teaching without grading is worth trying, I would tell you it absolutely is.  It will take some work to restructure our classes and will take some more work on our part to have topics and assignments that are engaging enough to keep students engaged without the carrot or stick of grades.  But if my mom–who did a terrific job and has  business degree, not an education degree–can teach me so well without grades then  I’m confident that we will be able to figure it out in our classes too!

Guest Commenter: Dee Wolters

Are you curious about how this grade-less teaching actually works?  My mom, Dee Wolters, home school teacher of more than 25 years, has agreed to participate in our discussion this week and answer any questions you have about her experiences teaching myself and my siblings.  I’m sure there are some great stories about what worked and what didn’t.

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13 thoughts on “12 Years Without any Grades…Kind of”

  1. This is so interesting, Bethany. Even though everybody is different, it reflects some of my hunches about how learning works for many different types of people. Even though I was never homeschooled, I went to an alternative, arts-focused high school where we did not get grades. All classes were pass/fail and at the end of each, we’d get a written report. Also, students’ individual interests were pretty strongly supported. This openness had a huge influence on my life, and even though that system worked better for some than others, I think it’s a great model overall. My peers and I generally did really well on the SATs and a lot of us have gone on to have interesting careers (and be, I think, interesting grown-ups…!).
    I’d love to hear from your mom, by the way!

    1. Very true. And homeschooling also works better for some people than others, but there are lots of benefits. I think what I appreciate most about my educational experiences and what you mentioned, was the freedom to explore my interests. It set me up with the attitude that learning could always be fun regardless of the subject. I would like to figure out how to bring that into my teaching.

  2. I got here first! I’ll take that A, please. Thank you for this insightful post, Bethany.

    I had a few questions for Dee:
    1. What prompted you to homeschool your children?
    2. Were you ever worried your children might lag behind their public school peers of the same age?
    3. How much of a time commitment was this for you? Was this your full-time job?
    4. What kind of support/guidance did you receive from the community?

    I am fascinated by the whole concept of homeschooling and how homeschooled students integrate with others in the higher education setting. I didn’t even know one could be homeschooled and be eligible to go to college until I moved to the US.

  3. Thanks for allowing me to enter into this discussion.
    1. The decision to home educate our children was a lengthy and personal choice, basically too much to answer here. Basically, it just was the best decision for our family given our frequently changing geographic location, life style (living on a farm) and religious convictions. You may ask Bethany for more details.
    2. All parents are concerned that their children are keeping up, or more importantly, at the top of their class. Home school parents are not different. I was very purposeful in my choice of curriculum and my dedication to the effort involved in teaching. I always abided by the state laws concerning home education (these vary greatly from state to state) and used standardized tests periodically to conform to these laws. However, there were never any surprises in the exam results, as I was so involved with my students that I was already aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
    3.I am very thankful to my husband for providing well for our family financially so that I was able to stay home with my children from the time they were born until the last one graduated high school- over 26 years. Home schooling was my full time job! I spent a lot of time researching and selecting curriculum during the summers, this included lesson plans. During the school year- mornings- 9:00-noon were spent with teaching. Afternoons were less structured for me- with the students working independently.
    4. I had several friends who were ahead of me in the home school journey and they gave me guidance and support. When we lived in Oklahoma, we were active in a home school support group. The teachers (mothers) met monthly for education, support, guidance and community. There were field trips organized, books swapped and parties planned- to give the students “socialization.” I also read many books about home education.

    While my children were educated at home, they were involved in many activities with other children and adults; including 4-H, church activities and community sports. Because our school schedule was flexible, we could be apart of activities during traditional school hours.

    About grades: from the beginning- much of the teaching and feedback was verbal- so I knew the student had mastered the material. For young children- a sticker on a paper or the reward of a cookie was enough positive affirmation to motivate them. If the work was unsatisfactory, I would return it with verbal instructions to correct the problems. I actually could not figure out a meaningful way to explain letter grades to young students, so just gave up. As the years went by, the idea of grades would surface, but I never thought it would make any difference in their performance. Finally, when they were in high school I was forced to issue grades- for official transcripts. Realistically, the kids all had mostly A’s because I would not allow them to achieve anything less.

    1. Yes, I definitely earned those A’s. Sometimes I had to complete an assignment 2 or 3 times, but I mastered it in the end. And I think we can all agree that we would rather have stickers or cookies than letter grades, even now.

  4. This is such an amazing post and that you Bethany and Dee for interacting with us this week. I am fascinated and I’m very very excited because you’ve presented something for us that we see proof (Bethany, living proof) that it works! When I was teaching high school, when I gave feedback on students’ papers I always wondered if they looked at the feedback or just the grade…did they just glance at the grade and store or recycle the paper with my comments without ever reading them? I never found the answer…as a teacher that was my unresolved curiosity I had to live with. The investment of doing an assignment 2-3 times calls for not just motivation and resolve but also patience and genuine curiosity, the willingness to learn and be challenged instead of the “oh well” attitude I have often observed. I wonder how we can learn from what you have done so very well for years and translate that into higher education settings.

    1. Please keep in mind that my “class” consisted of only 4 students, so the time I had to correct assignments was significantly less than a traditional classroom teacher. My teaching style consisted of a lot of reading aloud (by me) and oral questions and discussion, so feedback was immediate. My motivation was always for my students to learn the material, master it, and be able to use it when needed. If I had the responsibilities of a traditional classroom teacher with many students, I am not sure I could teach and grade in the same manner.

    2. I also wonder the same thing, if my students even read the feedback I given them unless they totally bomb the assignment. I think one way to move away from that is to create projects and assignments that are designed to be built upon and revised during the class. Or creating options for students to repeat assignments they did not succeed at, like creating a second problem set that could be assigned as extra credit or makeup points. The online math lab computer software often used in math, stats and chemistry classes uses a similar approach, where you complete the problems until you master them. The problem I’ve observed with this type of assignment is that students wait until the last minute and then don’t get any benefit or even a passing grade.

  5. This is a really interesting post. While reading the Alfie Kohn article, I thought to myself how one would make the transition from a non-graded school environment to a graded one. I came from a very traditional, grade oriented high school so I never had the benefit of having a “gradeless” curriculum. Reading your post (and your mom’s contributions) really gave some valuable insight that what Alfie Kohn spoke of was a plausible alternative to teaching without grades.

    1. Jason- you have brought up my challenge in regards to grades- how to transition. As I explained in my initial post, I had a difficult time assisting my students with the transition from no grades to grades

      The reason I did not use grades at the beginning of school was probably due to my “work load.” Bethany is the oldest of 4 children. So I had 4 kids in 6 years…There were some years that were just incredible difficult due to having 2 preschoolers, a toddler and a baby… then: 2 elementary school students, 1 preschooler, 1 toddler, etc. Just making sure life was happening was very time consuming, so I did not want to add another layer to school work. So in the beginning, as the teacher, I did not use grades because they were meaningless to my students and would have created more work for me.

      In addition, my students were incredibly motivated to complete their assignments well. We had a high standard of excellence in our school- as well as in our home. Do the job well the first time. Excellence was expected. And (generally) my students performed with excellence.

    2. You’re right, it is difficult to make the transition and adjust to getting grades. Actually, that was the hardest part of my transition to college. It was a big shock and really changed my attitude about certain subjects, especially the humanities. I can really relate to the story told at the beginning of the book by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, Imagination First, when they ask if you’ve had an experience where your imagination was swashed. That’s how it felt as first to realize that my work was being graded and sorted for the start. I think that is one reason I moved more toward sciences than humanities (I had a major spanning both, agricultural communications), because I could understand being graded in science where there was (usually) a right answer.

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience Bethany. It was also great to read the comments your mom wrote. Although it would be much more difficult to apply to a much larger classroom, I think that having drafts or smaller projects that are assessed based on comments/evaluations that help students get better (no grades) and only assigning grades at the end of the course is something that could potentially work.

  7. As a final comment to this discussion, I have learned a lot from my children about teaching and grading. All my “students” have graduated from my home school and are all enrolled in college (1 undergrad, 1 vet school, 1 medical school, and 1 PhD- Bethany). Three of my children have worked/ are working as tutors or instructors/ teachers in college settings, so they have a lot of great ideas!

    My current job is a tutor at the local community college- mostly Business classes, plus language arts and humanities. This is a teaching model I am very comfortable with, as it is generally 1 on 1, which is basically what home education is. But there are other challenges, mostly because I see these students on a less frequent basis than I did while homeschooling my own children.

    In addition, I am teaching a Literature and writing class for 2 students (ages 11 and 13) who live overseas. We are using Skye for lessons and they submit their work on-line via Dropbox or email. I am using a “low stakes” approach at the beginning of our class to get maximum work without fear of failing. I have instructed the students that I expect them to do the assignment well. I will look over it and return with any corrections. They are to fix the problems and resubmit. I purposefully tell them that the assignment will not be graded, but I expect them to put a fair amount of effort and submit a quality assignment. This has worked well.

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