Life Without Grades

As I was reading Kohn’s (2011) article, a new insight into my own educational history came into view. I was homeschooled from Kindergarten – 12th grade and in my own experience homeschooling I was never given grades.

In describing this to others, I have explained that, “I was expected to do the work and get it right.” So I developed the belief that I should have all of the right answers for any worksheet, assignment, or test that I encountered. When I read a chapter, I felt I should know all of it when I was done. A “passing grade” (though that was not a concept in my mind at the time) was 100%.

Once I reached college and found myself retaining the idea that 100% was the only acceptable grade on tests, quizzes, papers, and other assignments (I was always disappointed when I got a 94 or even 98 on things) I assumed that this was a wrong viewpoint that I had developed based on previous experiences and assumed that I needed to readjust my standards to the “correct” ones that I was doing well if I got an “A” on whatever grading scale we were using (rather than 100%) and that, really, even a “C” should be fine with me, since that was said to be “average” (and who did I think I was to assume I was above average among college students?).

As I read this article it slowly dawned on me that rather than simply having a misunderstanding of grading scales and expectations, I had developed an entirely different view of learning than is perpetuated by environments focused on grades. I had developed habits of learning just to learn. There wasn’t a grade coming at the end. There wasn’t “enough” learning or retention to pass a class. I just did educational activities and learned things. AHA!! Until this moment I had no idea that I had been a living experiment (though not necessarily an intentional experiment) in how students respond to educational opportunities when grades aren’t involved.

This new realization from my own history and experiences has been helpful in continuing to shape my views on education and learning. In the past I had thought, “There’s no way that students would be motivated to learn if there were no formal assessment measures.” I am so appreciative of the realization that I have a lifetime of personal evidence to the contrary. While I still do not lean strongly one direction or the other on whether or not we should continue using grades in formal education, I am thankful to have a new perspective on my own educational experiences and how they have been impacted at various levels of education by grades (or a lack thereof), which has subsequently impacted my later experiences with learning as well.

Reference

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership69(3), 28-33.

22 Replies to “Life Without Grades”

  1. Great post. Thanks for speaking up. You definitely have a unique perspective. I’ll admit that I am a little jealous that you were able to go through much of school without the burden of academic competition, especially in regards to traditional grading, hung over your shoulders. It seems that it would be nice. I believe that I might have done better in an environment like the one you described. I, like you, am split on the subject of grading. On one hand I understand the need to map the progress of each student. I also understand that in order to do this on the scale of millions of students, it might be difficult to do anything but conventional grading and testing the way that it has been done traditionally. At least for the time being. On the other hand, it is difficult to go along with an assessment system that is replete with problems and from one that I personally didn’t thrive within. I imagine that eventually the problems will be solved through technology or educational reform, but for now it feels like everything is stuck. Thanks again for the post.

    • Thanks for your response! While I do believe that there have been benefits from the educational environment that I was in, I don’t know that it would have been effective for every person/personality. For example, my sister had the same (or at least a very similar) experience, but does not feel she benefited from the environment.

  2. Thanks for sharing your personal experience with this! Given your experience in “both worlds” I wonder what approach you would take if you were to teach a class in your discipline next semester? Would you use grades? How would you assess students? Would you assess students? I’ve only ever experienced the “graded model” which I was good at. Admittedly that experience (and lack of any other) has made my process of trying to use less grading and more process improvement difficult for me. Coupled with the fact that students aren’t used to this model, it’s a challenge to make the transition.

    • Thanks for your response! Good questions…I think that a pass/fail system can be a compromise in some ways (though certainly not a perfect system, either). I am taking a class right now that has a pass/fail grade and in that I feel quite a bit of freedom to learn, explore, and do “my best” without the distraction of grades on every assignment (we get check marks when we complete assignments and when assignments have a significant error or problem we are asked to resolve those). I think that’s the approach I would use if I had the freedom to chose for a class of my own.

  3. I’m glad you gained so much from the readings, Shannon! If you don’t mind me asking, would you mind going into a bit more detail into how your homeschooling system operated? How were tests administered and by whom? Were you given extensive feedback on all assignments and activities, or did the educators offer more on some than others?

    • Thanks for your response. I’m finding it somewhat difficult to answer some of your questions. Words such as “system,” “operate,” and “administer,” all have certain connotations with them that don’t totally fit or describe the environment. There was a standardized test required by the state that was administered in a proctored environment, but other than that it was a very unstructured environment. Plenty of learning materials and opportunities were made available to me but otherwise I was given a great deal of freedom in how I responded to that. I am certainly not advocating for this approach (as I think it could be ineffective and even detrimental in many circumstances), but I think it developed a few skills in me that have been useful later in life.

      • Thanks for the response! Sorry for the loaded language, I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance! I appreciate you sharing your experiences, though! What kind of circumstances do you think would render this ineffectual? And could you provide an example of the skillsets? Sorry if I’m prying, I’m just really interested in this kind of learning environment.

  4. I hadn’t fully thought about homeschooling in the context of grade flexibility, so this was a very interesting post. Along with Jon’s line of thought, what kinds of documents did you have when applying to school if there weren’t grades.

    In New York, if I understand correctly, homeschooled students are meant to take all the standardized exams at testing centers to basically prove that they are still getting a quality education. That way they also have grades when applying to universities, but it sounds like you didn’t have these. I’m just curious as to how it all worked out because it could certainly provide some good insight for a grade-less future.

    • Thanks for your comments. I was living in VA during that time and we also were required to take standardized tests annually. I think one difference was in how this was presented to me as a student. While I was aware that the tests were a measure of whether I was making sufficient educational progress, it was viewed as an almost unrelated measure from the work of learning that I was doing the rest of the year. The tests felt more like a formality and a minimum requirement, but not any real assessment of my learning or abilities, and there was certainly no “teaching to the test” as we often see now in schools.

  5. WOW that awesome, I haven’t heard about the homeschooled before. It seems there is no way instead using assessments if we want to have an effective learning environment. I have taught a class seven years ago, and I tried to give the trust to the students to learn without any grades, but actually there were lack of learning. Then in the middle of the semester I decided to give more quizzes and projects, and with that there was more learning, and the students were more improved.

    • Thanks for your response! There are certainly a wide variety of approaches to homeschooling, so not every person has an experience similar to my own.
      I greatly appreciate your sharing of your experience with a “less graded” environment in light of some of our readings. The idea sounds so promising but your example shows that the idea is not without flaws and may not be as effective as we might hope. I would be curious to learn more about what circumstances might contribute to minimal (or no) grading being effective and if there are circumstances in which it is less likely to be an effective option. I wonder if there might be certain student characteristics that fit better within this model than others, as well.

  6. Thanks for the post, Shannon. Like you said, you never knew you were a living experiment. I think the present grading system does not promote healthy competition. Rather it hinders with the learning process as you mentioned. It needs some change and soon as well.

    • Thanks for your response! What are your thoughts about a good starting place for change in our educational systems? Is there a particular change to the grading system that you feel would be most effective (especially in the beginning stages of change)?

  7. Awesome perspective. I wish I had the opportunity to be homeschooled. While I wasn’t in a position to have such an opportunity, it’s something I look back on and wonder if I had that kind of learning experience if I would enjoy it learning overall more. I have an appreciation for learning — but I know due to shallow evaluation in my early years it affected my life rather negatively. I was a ‘slow’ learner and it forced me into more remedial courses that more taught me the system rather than learning. This wasn’t always the case, but it happened enough for me to reflect on it poorly.

    I will say, it gave me the sight I needed to understand ‘failure’ and how to go about improving using said scores. But I wish I learned how to handle failure on a creative level and not a quantitative one, and your experience of being homeschooled showcases that for me.

    • Thanks for sharing about your experiences. I’d be interested in hearing more about some of the patterns, habits, and views that developed in light of your experiences. It sounds like you learned how to effectively work within a certain system but that may not have translated well to other environments. Would you say that was the case? Also, it seems that you have been able to overcome some of those challenges. What was most helpful later in life that helped you continue to grow in these areas?

  8. I appreciate your perspective! Sometimes it does feel like students feel so much pressure to get an A that they disregard learning for the sake of learning. I also thought your earlier comment was interesting — seeing tests as a milestone to pass but something that was relatively unrelated to your actual learning. That’s definitely not a perspective we see in most schools nowadays. It seems like homeschooling really allows students to learn at their own pace. While this could be beneficial for some, could it be at the detriment of others? I’m thinking specifically of those who don’t learn as quickly or whose parents may be trying to homeschool multiple children who are at different levels at once. I’d love to hear more about your experience!

    • Thanks for commenting! I absolutely think that homeschooling is not for everyone (though I do not think that this is a perspective that my parents would share). I agree that one benefit is that the education has the potential to be more individualized, with the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles really being attended to. This obviously becomes more challenging the more students are in the home. I have also seen situations in which neither parent nor child is particularly focused on learning, the child is not around other students to have a “norm” set for certain achievements, there are fewer built in resources (programs for those that may be falling behind in a certain area or testing for learning disabilities), and the child gets significantly behind on certain milestones (in this case, learning to read). Whether this is detrimental in the long term or is helpful because the child is learning at her own pace without the pressure and embarrassment of not keeping up with her peers I’m not totally sure. Maybe time will tell for this child/family.

  9. Thanks for your interesting post! I didn’t really know why people do homeschooling and what is it exactly. It turned out to be something very interesting and to be considered.

    • One thing that is interesting about homeschooling is the wide range of reasons that people choose to homeschool and the equally wide range of ways that the choose to approach it on a practical level!

  10. That’s really awesome!!! You must definitely be grateful for your background. That is really a blessing! Yet that sometimes might be challenging to face with students who have been trained in this competitive system and a system which puts everyone in benchmarks, a bit different from yours. If you don’t mind, I kindly ask you that, – I am really curious – don’t you think that being compared with grades will badly affect students’ learning process, even sometimes discourage them?

  11. Thanks for your response! To clarify your question, are you asking about when a student who has been in an ungraded system transitions to a graded system with other students who are accustomed to grading? Such as if someone has had no grades until they reach the college age? My apologies if I misunderstood.

  12. Interesting perspective ! I am curious to know how, in a homeschool or grade-less setting, does one know if they have successfully learned the content? Are there set concepts that must be understood and explained by the students? Projects? Portfolio-style?

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