At the end of the summer, when my department discussed our approach to the feedback centered classroom, one of the biggest apprehensions was how to tell students they would not be getting a mark.

I’m sure there are all kinds of ways to introduce this topic. In fact, this is an area where I would love to hear how others have set the stage in their grades free classrooms.

This is the method I used this year:

I created random class groups of four students and gave them each a piece of chart paper and some markers. I showed this slide

and asked students to discuss and make point form notes. When finished each group took turns explaining their answers to the larger group.

“You can explain the information to others”, “you have learned something” “you get a good mark” were some of the topics brought into the conversation. We then had a larger group discussion about how you know when you’ve learned something, what exactly a “good mark” is, and what kinds of skills you need to be successful.

Then I had them discuss this slide.

I suggested, “What if you were learning to ride a bike?” “How often should you get to attempt the skills needed?” This slide required very little group conversation. Most groups concluded that they should get as many times to attempt the skills as they needed. Then I asked, “What if you were writing an essay?” How many attempts should you get then?” Most groups still agreed that they should get as many attempts as required.

“How often in school, do you get the chance to re-attempt a skill?” I asked. This question was met with silence and confused looks. I let the silence sit there. At some point, a student offered that sometimes they get the chance to re-do an assignment, but that mostly once you’ve handed an assignment in, your done.

We then discussed if this agreed with their prior conversation about the number of times you should get to learn a skill. This conversation also lasted a while. Some students argued that in school they only have a short time (in our school a semester) so there has to be an end to attempts. I posed questions like “Yes, that is the way we have always done it, does that mean it’s the right way?” and “Can you think of a better way?” “What if you figure out what you’re doing, after the assignment is done?” “Have you learned the skill, or not?”

I then moved the discussion to consider what kind of feedback students were looking for in their assignments and what they could do with the feedback they received.

At this point, I explained that I would not be issuing grades, but giving feedback only. I told them that they may re-do assignments and that they will be required to reflect on the feedback they are given. I spoke to them about studies about student learning; how researchers have studied the increase in learning when students receive just marks, marks with comments, and comments alone. I revealed that in the studies, students who received feedback only made the most improvement.

(I always tell them I have copies of the research for them to look at if they wish, but so far no one has asked to see it. LOL – I have a dream that my students will practice critical thinking and will want to see definitive proof of what I say, rather than just taking my word for it. Ahhh my rose coloured glasses.)

I told my students that this was a change in practice for all of us and that we were on a learning journey together. I pointed out that I have been guilty in the past of not giving students enough time to review and comment on their feedback. I let them know that it would be okay to tell me if I fell back into this practice. I wanted them to know that I am also learning new skills.

The biggest question I received at the end of this lesson was “if I don’t get a mark, how will I know if I’m doing ok?” This is a valid fear for students who have spent years working in the marks based system.

I assured them that we could conference at any time to discuss their progress. The reality is that with feedback they will know exactly how they are doing. When they come and ask me, and they often do in the first few weeks, I ask them how they think they are doing? Then I ask them to tell me how they know.

Prior to students leaving class that day, I had them write their thoughts on an exit slip. Some still had reservations about knowing exactly how they were doing, but they were all positive about the increased chances to practice skills and the idea of knowing what to work on from the feedback provided.

A large part of this process is giving back students the control and confidence over their own learning. In their past, they have experienced the feeling that the teacher just magically arrived at a number. (Whether it’s true or not, at some point in our academic career we have all had the feeling that a given mark was somewhat arbitrary) With feedback they know exactly where they stand and what to do to move forward. This is empowering.

I think next semester I may give each group a few examples of feedback from this semester and ask them to assess how the student is doing. This would hopefully lead to a rich conversation about what it means to learn.

What do you think? How would you approach this change in pedagogy with your students?