No grades? No marks? No worries.

We need to ensure that feedback causes a cognitive rather than an emotional reaction – in other words, feedback should cause thinking. … it should be more work for the recipient than the donor. Indeed, the whole purpose of feedback should be to increase the extent to which students are owners of their own learning. ~ Dylan William

Is there a joyful feedback loop?

Is there a joyful feedback loop?

I remember from my own experience as a school student what feedback can feel like, especially in those subjects at which I did not excel. A harsh or critical word, a page bleeding with red pen, or a mark – that number always so final and inflexible – can be crushing, humiliating or incomprehensible to a child or adolescent.

An approach to feedback

As a high school teacher, I never mark in red. I try to build into units of work multiple formative opportunities which allow students to try things, reflect upon their learning, and try again.

I encourage students to see a mark, not as an endpoint, but as a formative learning opportunity. I explicitly tell students that a mark is one number attached to one moment in time, not a judgement of them and their worth. That even summative assessments are really learning opportunities, to reflect on areas of strength, realisations of learning and areas for development.

I implement a post-test feedback process in order to facilitate this cognitive rather than emotional reaction to the result achieved for a piece of work, in an attempt to ignite, rather than shut down, students’ thinking.

My usual process after a test or assessment is this:

  1. I provide whole-class oral and white-boarded feedback based on the assessment rubric and patterns in student responses.
  2. Students write a quick prediction and reflection based on that oral feedback and their understanding of their preparation for that assessment and how they think they went.
  3. I give the assessment back, on which is written individual feedback in relation to the rubric. Students do not receive a mark or grade (yet).
  4. Each student silently writes a reflection on their work (including areas of strength, areas for development and strategies for future growth) and has a consequent individual conversation with me about their reflection. Sometimes this step also involves identifying a part of the assessment to re-do for their own growth.
  5. Students receive their mark and are then able to re-reflect or make a time to see me to discuss how they went, why, and how they might approach future work.

While many of them initially find this process excruciating (‘Just give me the mark!’), I hope that it helps them to develop skills for using their experiences, successes and disappointments as moments for reflection and growth, rather than emotive reaction and cognitive shutdown.

All this seems to have a lot of what ‘I’ the teacher am doing, but really the focus in on how best to facilitate the thinking of the students, and propel their understanding of assessments as data for growth, as opportunities for micro-transformation.

‘No marks, no grades’ in action

One of my classes is currently finishing up a term unit which has had no marks and no grades. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

That is, for this term, every student in Year 10 was able to choose a unit from a series of choices offered by the Faculty which would be run as a project-based and unmarked unit.

I was sceptical about this approach. While I endeavour to lead students away from their marks and towards their learning, I wondered if they would continue to work if there was no mark at the end. Would they apply themselves when they realised that there were no marks up for grabs, no traditional scoring of their efforts, no numerical way to compare themselves against their peers? What would happen when students realised that the work didn’t ‘count’, in the traditional school sense, towards a mark or grade?

To my surprise and delight, I have reached the last week of what has been a term of focused, engaged, passionate and diligent work by my students. My instincts about the pleasing way the students have worked, and the good (at times inspired, origial, creative or prolific) work they have produced, tell me that some combination of the following factors may have facilitated this.

  1. Students had ownership. They chose the unit, thereby placing themselves in the class, declaring an interest in the content and a desire to be there.
  2. Students and teacher were liberated from marks and grades. In a class with a very diverse range of abilities, I was able to work with students at their level and stage. I could help weaker students to move their work forward without having to disappoint them with a low mark after submission. I was able to extend and encourage more gifted students beyond what might have been considered mainstream curriculum.
  3. There have been other non-mark non-grade measures of success along the way. For each minor task I chose the top student responses and awarded small prizes to those who had produced the best work. I also offered opportunities for the class to off-campus mini-excursions, if work was completed, motivators which helped to keep students on track with milestones along the way.
  4. Student passion and purpose was harnessed through a passion-based project-based approach to tasks. As teacher I was guide, facilitator, collaborator and mentor to their work.
  5. Authenticity of audience. We organised an end-of-term showcase of student work, a kind of walk-through exhibition in which student work was displayed and celebrated. Students took responsibility for selecting and displaying work, and were able to share this work with community. We also kept class blogs which were creative, collaborative, organic explorations of ideas.

It turns out I should have remembered Dan Pink’s assertion that carrots and sticks (a mark or grade can be either), squash motivation and crush creativity. That people are intrinsically motivated by a desire for purposeful self-authorship. This recent un-marked un-graded unit was an example of students working with a sense of personal pride, personal voice and personal purpose.



15 thoughts on “No grades? No marks? No worries.

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  2. I’m curious about your assessment return process – we highlight the aspects across the rubric, so at a glance you can see where the mark/grade will fall. Do you not mark ON the rubric, only comments next to it???


    • I do the same – mark across the rubric’s descriptors – plus comments through the response, plus a summative comment (commend, recommend, commend). So students do have a sense of how they’ve gone. It’s not a total mystery! But they don’t receive the mark (which they desperately want) until after their written reflection, and a follow up with me. In some cases they also re-do part of the assessment.

      This approach is also inspired by brain research that finds that when we have an emotional response or feel judged, our response doesn’t move to the neocortex (for thinking and reflection) but stays in the amygdala (for fight or flight).


  3. Ah! Ok, thanks!!! I thought I did a pretty good job of feedback post assessment, but this is much better.
    I tend to give verbal feedback before I return work, but I like the way you do it, so will try to incorporate post exams and see how it goes. Not putting the number on the rubric I think will be interesting to watch and see also.
    Thanks so much!!!!


    • Good luck with it! No matter how students react, I try to remember that they get used to it as a process and that my aim is to help them to be self-reflective learners who can see any feedback as an opportunity for growth, not an end in itself.


      • Thanks. Will start with my 11s who I had last year and they’re pretty open to understanding the learning process and the role of feedback because they trust I act on mine, it does go both ways.


  4. Do you have them estimate their mark from the feedback?
    This is the most difficult time I have with my kids, is having them engage with the criteria properly. So evaluating each others work is hard for them, as they are either too nice or too harsh, and don’t see it through my eyes. I wonder if this process would help them get a better picture for each grade level as well (I’m meaning year 11/12 level in particular).

    oh so many questions. I do like this part of the assessment process!!! The thinking about thinking!


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  8. Hi! You are so inspirational! I really hope more teachers and schools adapt to this method! I am a student myself and marks give me anxiety/depression. I would have loved to be encouraged instead of criticized for getting something wrong. It seriously affects the health of many students and creates unhealthy worry along with unhealthy competition between peers. Thank you for being a perfect teacher!!!


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