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De-grade your classroom and instead use narrative feedback

Years ago, I stopped grading my students. This is shocking to most educators who wonder how assessment can be done without numbers and letters. The answer is surprisingly simple: I replace grades with narrative feedback.

Renowned education professor and researcher Dylan Wiliam, who has studied feedback and grades for decades, recommends in his book “Embedded Formative Assessment” using narrative feedback in lieu of grades, rather than in addition to letters and numbers. Wiliam suggests that grades detract from the value of the feedback. The research in favor of feedback is undeniable, and it suggests that eliminating grades can revolutionize learning. What makes this process so powerful is the willingness of students to use teacher feedback when they don’t perceive it as a reward or a punishment.

In my class, students complete many activities and projects on blogs and other web-based tools. I provide feedback, using a system I call SE2R — Summarize, Explain, Redirect and Resubmit. The comments on a blog, a student website or on a Google Docs page provide two-way communication between teacher and student that becomes an ongoing conversation about the work and about what the student is learning. What makes SE2R so powerful is that it is designed to foster a thirst for learning. Grades, conversely, discourage learning, as students either feel like failures upon receiving low marks or have a falsely-inflated sense of accomplishment based on high marks, which are almost always subjective. The SE2R system eliminates this subjectivity, creating a true cycle of learning that overcomes the traditional instruct-practice-test-grade-move-on approach to education, which completely fails students who don’t master concepts.

Consider the following example of narrative feedback in place of grades, using the SE2R formula. An eighth-grader, writing novel-length fiction, shares her work with me on Google Docs, so each time she updates the work, I can see it and leave ongoing feedback. Here is just one example of feedback that I left for this particular student: “This story is filled with life and passion. It’s clear that you believe in it and want it to be something special. . . Your writing is getting better with each page. Your mechanics are vastly improved from the beginning of the school year.”

These comments are a combination of the Summarize and Explain portions of SE2R, as I articulate for the student what I’m seeing – a growing, potentially publishable book that demonstrates improvement in writing, based on classroom lessons and discussions I’ve had with the author. Notice other parts of SE2R as the feedback continues: “I made a comment in the section of your book called LIFE. Keep an eye out for this type of feedback, as it will help you sharpen your skills. Meanwhile, keep your eye on the prize — a published work.” These last comments represent the 2R part of the system. I redirect her to a prior writing lesson and subtly ask for resubmission, simply by encouraging her to make changes based on further feedback.

In my classroom, students complete activities and projects willingly, without grades on their work. They read narrative feedback daily, making changes when necessary, based on a prior lesson or a meeting with me or another student. They fine-tune their work and gladly resubmit it for more evaluation, eager to receive further feedback. Since disdaining grades in favor of narrative feedback, I spend much more time doing what my colleagues call grading. I evaluate and re-evaluate student work daily. Project feedback is ongoing. I have 120 students so I’m writing seemingly all of the time. I’m often asked by teachers and friends, “Isn’t it a lot of work?”  Definitely. Would I ever return to traditional grading? Never.

Mark Barnes is a 20-year classroom teacher and adjunct professor at two Ohio colleges. He is the creator of the award-winning how-to video website for educators, When not teaching middle school students the love of reading, Barnes teaches five online courses about Web 2.0 and social media integration into any classroom. Look for Barnes’ new book, “Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom,” due in February by ASCD. Barnes blogs regularly at ASCDEdge and tweets @markbarnes19.