Concerns for equity have led many school districts to eliminate or restrict grading during this time of widespread virtual schooling.
How then, are teachers supposed to let students know that their work is seen and valued? How should they coach students toward growth? The answer is through high-quality feedback—which is an essential element of Project Based Learning.
In his book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades (2010), author Ken O’Connor makes the point that teachers don’t need grades to teach well and students don’t need grades to learn well. After all, people learn all kinds of things without grades – to walk and talk, to play games and sports, to drive, to shop, to cook – the list is long. Grades are an invention of schooling, not of learning.
For the purpose of this conversation, let’s be sure we have a common understanding of the term “grade” and related concepts. Grades are statements of achievement, the numbers or letters that are intended to indicate what students have achieved in relation to a certain objective or set of objectives. Evaluation is a judgement; it’s the decision-making a teacher does in order to determine a grade.
Feedback, on the other hand, is a conversation. Feedback occurs within the context of a relationship between the learner, the expected learning, and a teacher who has taken on the role of coach. People who learn to do things well thrive when the feedback relationship is established. They engage because the feedback relationship is meaningful to them.
The shift in schooling during the pandemic that’s pushed all educators into new paradigms presents a perfect opportunity for teachers to experiment with establishing the feedback relationship.
The following steps will help you plan for this different way of supporting learning.
1. Communicate the value of feedback to students and families.
Many students, especially students who are traditionally considered high achieving, have become dependent on grades as affirmation of their hard work. That’s understandable, since so many of the accolades of schooling are tied to grades – honor roll, National Honor Society, scholar-athlete designations and the like. Long-term, this mindset is not helpful to our students, since some fail to learn to monitor their own achievement and constantly need the reassurance of teachers that they are doing things right. The “no grades” policy that many school districts adopted last spring provided an opportunity to start to build students’ internal monitoring systems. Assure students and families that the lack of grades at this time is a good thing.
2. Offer work that’s worthy of feedback.
Sometimes grading is the fallback because the work assigned is easily graded. It’s relatively simple to divide the number of right answers by the total number of questions and multiple by 100. But that kind of grading doesn’t dig into the deeper thinking or creating that students might be doing on those tasks or could be doing on different types of tasks, like projects.
Many teachers this fall are being asked not to move forward in their curriculum (again, an equity issue) but to review content that’s been previously taught. Review doesn’t have to be practice for a test. Students could be manipulating content they are familiar with in new and deeper ways and creating products that show understanding rather than mere memorization.
For example, an elementary teacher could “review” the concept of an ecosystem with a series of multiple choice questions, or they could review by asking students to mark out a rectangle in their yards and collect information about everything they see living there, as is described in this Quadrats to Biodiversity project from the PBLWorks project library (free account required to access this and many other projects). The Quadrats to Biodiversity project culminates in students writing a newspaper article, but any informative writing format would work. Through this project, teachers and students would have the opportunity to engage in the feedback relationship as students collect data, tabulate their data, come to understand what a good newspaper article looks and sounds like, and as they produce and publish their articles.
3. Provide models and let the students tell you what matters.
The high school math project I Auto Save Some Money results in students making written recommendations to a client (could be a parent or grandparent, a teacher in the school who is shopping for a car, a neighbor or friend) about their best automobile buy based on price, rebates, down payments, interest rates and the like. In projects like these – really in any work that results in kids creating a product – the students benefit from seeing and analyzing models of what they are expected to create.
As students look at the model either with you in the classroom or virtually, have them answer the following questions. What is the purpose of this product? Who is it intended to impact? How is it attempting to make that impact? What makes this product helpful or not helpful to its intended users? What is working? What could it do better? Turn students’ answers into a checklist or single-point rubric. Single-point rubrics, which focus less on levels by creating space for notes about what is being done well and what steps the learner might take next, are especially effective when your focus is on feedback rather than grades.
4. Accentuate the positive.
Once a group of learners understands the work they are expected to complete and the criteria for success, feedback becomes more targeted and meaningful. Students aren’t guessing about what is important and teachers aren’t inventing criteria based on what gets turned in. In addition, students are better prepared to give each other what Ron Berger, chief academic officer of EL Education, calls “kind, specific, and helpful feedback.” Ron explains these ideas in this short video. Feedback does not need to be focused on what has not yet been accomplished. Being kind means noticing what is right in students’ work as well as being diplomatic when noting what needs improvement. This opens the door for the specific and helpful critique that will help learners grow.
5. Coach for growth.
When providing feedback designed to point learners toward next steps, ensure that it’s framed as an action that you want the learner to take. Point the learner in the right direction, assuming if they knew to do what you are commenting on that they would have done it. For example, “this writing doesn’t flow” isn’t actionable. “Use a variety of sentence structures like we saw in our model” or “use transitions to show the relationship between these three sentences” are actionable. Noting trends in actionable feedback will help you determine what mini-lessons students need to be reminded of or learn next.
Finally, know that what looks like a great deal of individualized work can be made more efficient through the technological tools that you might already be using.
If your students are working in Google, create a list of frequently used actionable feedback statements in Google Keep and simply insert the right statements in in the right place. For students working in a Microsoft environment, OneNote and Evernote offer similar functions. Several different apps and programs can be pre-programmed to provide students with the right answer, or a model of what is expected, nearly instantaneously.
The sudden shift to digital learning has been a challenging one for teachers and students. The feedback relationship opens the door to building even stronger human connections to your students and their families, which is now more important than ever.