Through Machon Siach’s Innovation Lab – a project funded by a Covenant Foundation Signature Grant that enables pedagogical experiments at SAR High School – we have been experimenting with “ungrading” in our classrooms, a methodology that has gained popularity across the country. We wanted to know how the experience of teaching and learning would change when grades were no longer a primary focus. Our three classes of high school seniors still complete assessments, but instead of receiving a test score or essay grade, they only receive feedback. To satisfy the practical need for a transcript grade, at the end of the semester, students assign themselves a final grade based on criteria that we provide.
When we began the ungrading experiment, we thought that the most valuable outcomes would be in the realm of learning. Released from the stress and pressure of working towards a grade, we hoped students would focus on learning and on acquiring skills, exploring for themselves what they already know and what they need to know.
All of that is happening, at least to some extent, and it’s great. But we’ve found enormous value in ungrading in a way that we hadn’t anticipated. By taking the focus of the course away from the teacher—the teacher’s expectations, the teacher’s standards, the teacher’s giving or taking of points—we’ve created more space for student voices. When we ask students to reflect on their writing process or share with us how they think they are doing in the course, quieting our own voices, we learn so much about them and find ourselves thinking differently: incorporating student preferences and adapting to student needs.
One highlight was this year’s first parent-teacher conferences. At the suggestion of Becca Glassberg, an SAR Academy teacher who is also experimenting with ungrading, we asked our seniors to attend parent-teacher conferences along with their parents. We did this not to enable students to hear our feedback but so that we – and their parents – could hear directly from them. If we aim to shift the focus in the course away from the teacher, it hardly seemed consistent to run parent-teacher conferences exactly as they always had been, with teachers reporting to parents how their kids are doing. Instead, we asked students to take the reins and report on their own learning.
Students in Sarah’s English class were given several questions to prepare for conferences. At the beginning of the year, each student set personal goals for the course. At conferences, they explained to what extent they had achieved those goals and whether they’d like to revise the goals in light of how the class was going. They also reflected on the source of their motivation in the course, given the lack of grades. Finally, they considered what they were most proud of and their biggest challenge in the course so far.
During the brief conferences, some students stuck to their prepared answers, reading their notes aloud, while others initially looked to the teacher for guidance as to how the conversation should go. Ultimately, though, students took the lead in talking about their learning experiences, and the insights they offered were illuminating.
Many students in Sarah’s class discussed their most recent reading and writing assignment—a vignette in the style of Colson Whitehead’s Colossus of New York. They reflected on the process of visiting a New York City landmark with intent to observe, pushing themselves out of their writing comfort zone, and on their pride about the finished piece. Since writing in Sarah’s class receives detailed feedback but no grade, a number of students noted that they thought less about what the teacher was looking for and focused more on discovering their own writerly voice.
Students in Rivka’s history classes similarly prepared for conferences. Most of them delivered their feedback directly while others preferred to let their written answers speak for them. Again and again, it was striking to see how much we can learn about students’ experience of school when we ask them about it rather than telling them what we see. Some students were able to identify when they were distracted by technology and make the choice to take notes by hand. But another student said that, even with the temptations of her technology or side conversations, she was still staying on top of her work, and so didn’t see the need to change her learning approach. Both of those responses are meaningful, and knowing them about each student is valuable.
Student-led conferences forced us to recall that students are the experts on their own learning. One student had initially set a goal to participate more, but when asked if she believed that more vocal participation would really benefit her learning, she admitted that it might not actually make a difference. Students are so conditioned to “perform” classroom investment in the ways that we expect them to that they are surprised when we let them decide what learning style works best for them.
When we began the ungrading experiment, we read the anthology Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum. It asserts that some students, when assessing themselves, will be far harsher on themselves than teachers would ever be. That, too, showed up in conferences: students who are, from our perspective, excellent class members reported, “I participate occasionally, but I think I could do better.” That, too, affords us great insight (and a chance to let students know that our perception of how they’re doing in class is more generous than theirs).
The jury is still out on ungrading—we aren’t pretending that we’re done just because it’s gone well for one semester or because one set of parent-teacher conferences wildly exceeded our expectations. Each of these is a data point in a broader trial of how we can shift the school climate. The goals of lessening student pressure and diminishing the relentless focus on grades still exist. But alongside those important objectives, we’ve found enormous and unexpected gains in our ability to know and understand our students more fully and to meet them where they are, both as learners and as human beings.