Why I stopped putting grades on papers

I’ve been poking at this video for a while as something for Mathagogy, but it’s closer to 4 minutes than 2 and not so much about math as it is about grading. As such, I’m going to put it here and do something else for the 2 minute math project.

PCMI instigated a lot of changes in my classroom. This video is about what I believe was the biggest change and something that I think caused a lot of positive cultural shifts: I stopped putting grades on the papers I handed back.

The paper I talk about is Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom by Paul Black, Christine Harrison, Clare Lee, Bethan Marshall, and Dylan Wiliam.

I used SBG as my quiz structure in all classes, so students were regularly getting 2-4 question quizzes handed back (I’m not a fan of collecting homework). Prior to the article they had a number corresponding to the rubric I used and some comments. After the article they had no numbers/grades and all of them had comments (right or wrong, often in the form of a question). The change in discussion post-handing papers back was huge, but it did take time to happen and was just one part of my ongoing campaign to figure out ways to get students talking math and recognizing each other as fellow learners.

Not putting grades on things that students expect to have grades is a big shift. There’s backlash from the kids to deal with who were used to getting instant status from their grades to deal with and it takes time to change culture. Do I recommend you go and try this right now at the end of the year? Not really. Do I think you should consider this as a change for next year? Definitely. Post any questions you have in the comments and I’ll get back to you. Thanks for watching 🙂



Follow up: Emily Steinmetz over at Crazy in Math gave dropping the grades a go in favor of some student grading. Read her breakdown here.


35 thoughts on “Why I stopped putting grades on papers

  1. Pingback: MTBoS30 posts worth reading. | a brand new line.

    • Absolutely. Of course, college kids are better able to complain because the power relationship is slightly less extreme, so I would recommend three things; talk it through with your department chair first and make sure they are clear on your aims (k-12 teachers, the equivalent person is either your department chair, your assistant principal, or your principal depending on your school culture), explain your reasoning to your students, and (maybe) consider having a mid-term assessment with grades so that students are able to both get the feedback they want, and 1 time to consider their absolute performance in the course.


  2. I’m totally fascinated, Ashley. So, am I understanding this correctly: grade as normal (but make those marks elsewhere–not on kids’ tests/quizzes); make comments on the quiz/tests, mostly in the form of a question; enter grades in after kids have had the chance to discuss. Is that about right, or not so much?

    This would be totally revolutionary and might be a good way for me to start to implement aspects of SBG in a non-SBG school. Thanks so much for sharing. And–hysterical video! 🙂


    • That’s exactly how it went. With the online grades some kiddos would try to look up their scores on their phones during class or right before it started so I adopted the habit of entering them but only publishing at the end of the day. I also found that a lot of the time I could repeat responses on student papers as the same mistakes would get made. Thinking through what question/comment to put down helped my thinking a lot with regards to how to help push the class forward. Lots of mental processing while working through quizzes and my planning went smoother.


      • Well wow. Thank you so much for sharing. I think I want to try this in my precalc classes next year. I’m always interested in tools that will get kids talking about math and seeing each other as fellow Learners/teachers. So this sounds totally perfect. Thanks again, Ashli! {So sorry I spelled your name wrong last time…😔}


  3. Love the video! I stopped putting grades on quizzes after taking Jo Boaler’s MOOC last summer. I am required to put grades on tests and tasks though (hmmm, how to change that policy?). Our quizzes have always been formative – not sure if that played a part, but there was no “where’s my grade?” response. They were totally fine with getting feedback without a grade. Thanks for this post – gave me more to think about…


    • I hear you on the tests. I was still putting numbers on those, but I wouldn’t put a total anywhere (I would tell the kids they are capable of adding). I had a different structure in place for breaking down tests in a discussion with the class which worked alright for me.
      Happy to inspire things to think about! It’s a great conversation to have with other teachers to. No longer “what score would you give this?” but “What would you write in response to this?” Brought around the (to me) far more interesting conversations about student misconceptions and strategies to help students work those out.


  4. Ashli: I love this idea. Will definitely spend this summer reading and mulling it over. Question: did you do this for ALL your classes, or start with just one? Would you ever share what one or two of your quizzes looked like?


      • Have you thought about presenting something like this at NCSM? We have a group of people at my school who have done a great deal of thinking about how and what we grade. We are trying to rethink the crazy way we grade, just bc that is how it has been done forever. Some of them presented at the National Council of Teachers of English last year and have been encouraging me to bring it to NCTM or NCSM. (Too late for this year’s NCTM….)

        But I like the fact that YOU have spent a year doing this! It has been a number of years since I was able to go to NCTM. Do you know if there have there been talks like this in the past (from the looks of things TMC13 had some SGB talks). You should think about sharing what you have learned this year! 🙂


      • (for some reason I cannot reply to your reply so I will reply here)
        As a point of clarity, I’ve been out of the classroom this year and last due to a cross-country move and a lack of open positions in the less-populated area I now live in. The grading practices I’m describing in the video I used my last two years in the classroom.

        I’ve actually not thought about presenting something like this at NCSM (or NCTM), but that’s an interesting thought I’ll need to ponder some. I’ve been at the past two NCTM’s, but didn’t track down any sessions on this sort of stuff so I cannot speak to what was offered. TMC13 did have some SBG chats and I was going to lead a discussion on it at TMC14, but I’ve had to (sadly) drop out of TMC14 this summer so that one’s been removed from the list. Thanks for the push 🙂


  5. I’ve thought about not putting grade on papers to focus on the comments, but wasn’t sure about going through with it completely, so I came up with this system that I’ve been using this year – http://rootsoftheequation.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/level-up-1-to-exponents-2-to-equations/

    There’s certainly some benefit because there’s no failing grades on papers, so no one immediately shuts down. Also, because it’s growth-based, someone with a lower level often gains more levels from an assignment or test because there’s more to gain, so there’s some nice balancing to it, too.

    But I still feel that, at the end of the day, there’s still too much grade comparison with this system. While it’s definitely better than what I’ve done before, or what is done traditionally, I’m wondering if next year I’ll try keeping the same system but not writing the levels gained down on the papers. It would certainly save my hand a lot of writing.


    • I dig the leveling up idea and it looks like you’re cutting a nice balance between grades and feedback. I also think moving away from a traditional grading system often needs to be done in increments for both the students and the teacher to adjust.

      One thing I didn’t mention above is that I maintained a class summary for all the quizzes on the wall showing the class average (blue for 90-99, green for 75-89, orange for anything less and shiny gold if a class hit 100% (rare)) that was updated weekly. I would update these in class with phrase for their demonstrated understanding and questions for when things were still low. Students seemed more willing to say what they were still struggling with in front of a class when the average wasn’t yet in the 90’s and it could sometimes lead to good discussion and help me plan instruction and warms ups for extra practice or to go at the topic from a new angle.

      So much of this is just to get kids talking about their mathematical understanding and adopting that growth-mindset. Math needs that type of culture desperately, and it’s way more fun as a teacher to listen to them argue about math then have me drone on in the front 🙂


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    • Thank you! With regards to dynamics after posting grades, I found that since they were posted after the students were gone for the day by the time class rolled around the next day they were not a topic of discussion. I’m sure the kiddos could have been talking about them out of class, but I’m doubtful it was common. When I was in math class it was just a matter of seeing the big A or B on my neighbor’s paper that made me want to hide my lower grade in algebra 1 and want to shut down the rest of class–the other person didn’t need to announce it. That shutting down response was one I saw in my students and is one of the main things I wanted to remove by adopting this practice.


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  9. I like that it is a reflection for Ss that happens the next day. I am also looking at Exit Passes/Reflection forms for student assessment. I know on my trial run for Exit Passes this year, I have had students come to me and check to see if they did well enough to leave. Asking questions like: “What do you mean by..?” Or “Did you check your answer on…”, whether right or wrong would get Ss thinking and justifying. I am going to post some of my ideas which are also close to yours.


  10. Pingback: My plan for next year…. | MathLab

    • I was fortunate that my school had computer labs that students can use before/after school and during lunch in addition to the laptop cart in my room (it was shared between the math department but kept in my room), so that wasn’t a problem I dealt with. In the past I had posted quiz scores using students ID numbers on the wall and updated them about once a week.


  11. Many teachers experimenting with not giving grades have posted grades in their own grade books but not on student work. This does have the advantage of getting the students to read the comments, but they tend to read the comments in order to find out what the grade is going to be, when they are told the grade later. So, as an alternative, how about not having a grade until the student has had the comment, and used it to improve their work? In other words, either grade formatively, without grades, or summatively, with grades. As Alfie Kohn suggests: “Never grade students while they are learning”. Instead, grade at the end of learning, because grading tends to stop the learning.

    This distinction is neatly illustrated by the response of a 15-year-old student named Åsa, in the Swedish town of Borås. Åsa was taught both Swedish and Philosophy by the same teacher, and the teacher, after reading “Working inside the black box,” decided to give comments, but not grades, when grading Philosophy homework, although, because of the importance of the grades in Swedish for entry to higher education, the teacher continued to give grades for Swedish homework. Åsa, in reflecting on her experiences of getting just comments in Philosophy, and comments and grades in Swedish, wrote the following:

    I have gone through the comments, but when there is a grade given, you become a little blinded by it, and focus too much on it. So personally (even though I quite possibly would complain if I did not get the grade) I would prefer you not to do it, because I have noticed that I pay more attention to the comment and learn more when the grade is not written on the paper.

    For those with two hours to spare, and who would like to see a reality TV show of me bullying teachers into trying these techniques in their own classrooms, you might try the following:


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