Going Gradeless

Project Based Learning, Learner Centered Design, PBL

The first grade I ever received on a college exam was a big, ugly 65 percent. I was devastated. How I would react to this shock is a testament to my having been taught through PBL. As my friend Jess Sloan mentioned in a recent blog post, in PBL, exposing students to failure is imperative. I remember that, for me, not only was it hard to learn to think on my feet, but it was even more difficult to learn how to emotionally recover from failures. Though I learned the skill of dealing with setbacks through doing multiple projects throughout high school, the biggest shift in my mentality happened when I started to think deeply about what had always been a huge source of anxiety for me: grades.

In traditional schooling, grades serve as a method of motivation. The logic is that if the students know they will receive a number for what they have done, and will be judged based on that number, they will produce meaningful work. Yet this kind of motivation works by using fear. The “good students” are the ones with straight As, the ones who have rarely (and sometimes never) encountered a bad grade in their life. Before I transitioned into a school that uses PBL, I was this student. I never ventured outside the box with any assignment because I didn’t want to risk getting a bad grade. Mistakes were not an option. Ever. After transitioning into a PBL school that prompted me to reflect, engage in process and more, I then began to realize that my intense determination to be a “good student” was actually blocking me from engaging with material. I rarely cared about how much I was learning; I simply wanted an A. There’s been substantial research on the fact that students forget a large chunk of content from a test very soon after they take it. We are not learning, we’re memorizing. I didn’t know it, but letter grades were actually turning me into a bad student.

Evidence for Learning, an Australian organization that conducts research about the effects of different teaching practices in Australia, discusses an approach called Mastery Learning. They write, “Mastery learning breaks subject matter and learning content into units with clearly specified objectives which are pursued until they are achieved...Students must demonstrate a high level of success on tests, typically at about the 80% level, before progressing to new content.” The idea of abolishing grades sounds nearly impossible to carry out. Don’t we need to prepare students for numerical assessments in college and beyond? Though it is true that we live in a world that is mostly organized by numbers, and students should be prepared for that, letter grades are not the way to do so.

Recently, Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire has completely converted to this type of learning. Students there are given a list of core skills, and until the end of the school year to master them, in order to pass the class. Instead of a letter grade, they are labeled as proficient or not in each skill. This more accurately simulates the working world because, as Vice Principal, Ann Hadwen, states, “the world that we live in, you have to do things, you have to perform..It’s not a paper and pencil test that you’re trying to gain 100 points to say that you passed.” In the six years that the school has tested this method, the number of students getting into competitive regional schools, such as Northeastern and Boston University, has significantly increased. Since college does not usually give any second chances when it comes to mastery of content, the students are worried. Yet Principal Brian Stack is confident they will succeed because they are going in with the skill of constantly trying to improve their work.

I was taught in an environment similar to that of Sanborn High School that allowed me to take charge of my own education. When I transitioned to this school that uses Project Based Learning, I didn’t need the fear of grades in order to produce my best work. For the first time, I was encouraged to take risks and pursue big challenges. The quality of my work was brought up to a level that I would have never reached if I were still shackled to a looming letter. My new mentality about true learning caused me to have a different reaction to a low grade than the reaction that a younger me would have had. Instead of seeing a low grade as end-all measure of my innate ability in Calculus, instead I now choose to see a low grade as a tool to gauge changes I need to make to better my overall understanding of the subject. Now, in college, in response to my first exam with that 65% I started to go to every single office hour, I read extra chapters in the textbook, and I proactively reached out to peers who had a better comprehension than me in the class. I have learned to see a low grade as an opportunity to grow instead of as a judgement of my current or my future capacity.

I ended up with an A as my final grade that semester.

Learner-Perspective Coach Sam Fiallo is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Biology at Pepperdine University.

To learn more about Sam's journey with Project Based Learning you can watch her story in the film Most Likely to Succeed which follows her transition from traditional schooling to her first semester at High Tech High.

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