At the start of this year, I wrote a blog titled “Grading for Mastery and Redesigning My Gradebook,” which detailed my desire to rethink assessment in my classroom. I was tired of students always asking me about points and grades, instead of asking me about how they could improve their skills.

I wanted feedback and assessment to be an ongoing conversation. Too often students complete work at home in isolation. Then the teacher collects that work, takes it home, and grades it in isolation. This traditional workflow does not encourage face-to-face conversations about where each student is at in terms of his/her journey towards mastery.

Too often the time a teacher spends leaving comments and edits on student work is never used to improve those pieces. Students are often unsure of their own strengths and weaknesses. And many do not know how to improve on the skills they are struggling with. This is where conversations can be more powerful than grading.

For the last 3 class periods, my students have been engaged in either a Station Rotation lesson or independent work on their digital portfolios. As they work, I have conferenced with each individual student to discuss their most recent argumentative essays. Prior to these conversations, I synchronously edited their work on a shared Google Document. I provided detailed feedback and comments on their writing throughout the writing process. Then when they submitted their final drafts, I did not add any additional comments to their documents. Instead, I completed a simple rubric for each essay. The time I normally would have spent adding another round of comments to accompany the rubric was spent conferencing with my students.

During our face-to-face conversations, we discussed their specific areas of growth and I highlighted areas where they needed to continue to develop. I pointed students to videos and online resources I thought would support them in improving in these areas. I also ended every conversation by asking, “Is there anything you want to ask me?” It was interesting to watch their expressions as they contemplated this question. It was clear this isn’t a question they are asked very often. Many of my students asked about an aspect of writing they were confused about. Some asked about a comment I had previously made that they didn’t understand. I realized that many of my students will never ask these questions unless I create the time and space for them to do so.

As I conclude this year and reflect on what worked and what didn’t, I believe spending less time grading and more time having conversations with students about their progress has been one of the most rewarding shifts for me. Next year, I am determined to move assessment back into the classroom where it belongs!

37 Responses

  1. I found your blog on Twitter and I feel that I have also been moving in this direction in assessment. I have been avoiding giving students grades on their work and instead provide comments on what they have done well and where they can improve or revise. It is much more useful for the students but it has been a battle to change their mindset from years of schooling where they have been so focused on their grade. Also, the grade seems to be set more against a standard and not reflecting the students’s growth. I have used Google Docs and Sites in my class a lot this year, leaving comments to provide feedback on student work. It’s slowly taking effect and I am starting to get more and more student buy-in rather than battling to know their grade.

  2. Wow, I definitely say Amen! I found your blog on FB. In this 3rd and last trimester, I shifted grading to no point/letter grades. I still have to put it into the official gradebook. Our conversations have dramatically changed for the better. My students appreciate the feedback of how they are growing and learning. Everyone is so much more happier.

  3. In Singapore, a teacher teaches a class of 40 students. Based on your experience, how can a teacher go about having conversations with each student while they are doing their writing assignment? Need some tips on how your “conversations instead of grades” can be implemented in the classroom. I am very keen to try out this strategy.

    Thank you.

    • I went to a session at a conference where they teacher used stations to teach writing. 2 weeks were spent with each group while the rest of the class worked on either a group project or independent work. This might be something to try?

  4. glad to know another educator is doing one-one conferencing. i do this with my students a lot too. they are now on argumentative essays and it has been a pleasant experience over all. i love one-one time w them. thanks for sharing this. (excuse my lower casing…)

  5. Implementing technology in education system ,help educator to engage learners active and positive ,blended learning has significant place now ,so grading learners must complies the new learning skills not eliminates grades.

  6. For my Thesis i am currently designing a model that measures the learning of students from reflection. The most important aspect i found with my data is that a dialoge is very important, just like this article says, to implement in education. Do you, the writer, or other readers of this article have any good ideas of what to implement in my instrument?

    The result will be an instrument that measures improvement instead of grading a reflection.

  7. […] January's Featured Learning Commons: Debbie Thompson at Dousman Elementary. Why You Should Add Twitter Analytics To Your Library Statistical Reports. The Five Tenets of Personalized Learning. Conversations Instead of Grades. […]

  8. Hi
    It’s definitely a great thing to try especially when a child is still young enough to be more receptive towards new ideas. Even I used to keep at least one period regularly when I used to be a home teacher when we used to discuss the strengths and the scope of improvement of each child. They used to enjoy it immensely and actually used to follow those advices more often. This collective as well as one to one discussion had been really helpful and proved to be a great success. But I had also noticed that they also used to eagerly wait for their grades. Merely discussing didn’t satiate the modern generation children. ? But yes definitely I would like to agree on the fact that active and blended learning always render a better scope for improvement.

  9. Great ideas here! I love the ability to converse in Google docs and interact with kids outside of the classroom. I have not incorporated math conferencing this year, but I have been doing more math journaling and have found that extremely helpful too (in different ways).

  10. “I wanted feedback and assessment to be an ongoing conversation.” This is exactly what I want! Caitlin — Have you heard of Kiddom? It’s apparently a standards/mastery-based platform that also integrates with Khan, CK-12, Google Drive, and others. I found out about it on Cult of Pedagogy ( Haven’t tried it myself but wondering what your thoughts about it were. Thinking about switching up to a platform to that can get my students to think deeper about how to, as you said, “improve their skills.”

  11. I love the idea of face-to-face conferencing with students on their work in order to help them improve, this is so important! I think the comments you make before the conference make so much sense to give students the opportunity to ask questions. My concern would be that the ‘involved’ parent is left out of the discussion, rightfully so. Is there a document you use during these conversations that the students can refer to, when they are at home and working on the assignment? The conversation is only as good as the student’s take away and implementation of the advice given during these conferences. Would love to know your thoughts.

    • Hi Lisa,

      Yes, parents can see the complete rubric and have access to the directions for each assignment which I post on a viewable Google Document.

      You could always record the conversations and archive those to share with parents. Comments can always be added to a Google Document using either Goobric or Kaizena.


  12. I enjoyed reading all of the comments and I want to embrace this new concept on “Less Grading and More Conversations.” I like the immediate feedback to the student. The updated information is communicated to the parent on their student’s progress on a frequent basis rather than at a later time. I look foward this summer as I educate myself on Google docs and Google Drive.

  13. This is fantastic! As I approach co-teaching this fall, this will be a valuable resource. Thank you!

  14. […] Conversations Instead of Grades. At the start of this year, I wrote a blog titled “Grading for Mastery and Redesigning My Gradebook,” which detailed my desire to rethink assessment in my classroom. I was tired of students always asking me about points and grades, instead of asking me about how they could improve their skills. […]

  15. I have tried this over and over, but it just has not been successful in my classroom. My students are primarily reluctant readers with a large number of repeaters at the high school level. Not getting “graded” for things is completely infuriating for them, and by extension, for me. I’ve had every discussion I can think of with them about cognitive growth, working memory, growth mindset, etc but if they aren’t getting a number in the gradebook, they won’t complete the work. I almost never manage to get drafts from them and I end up drowning in practice assignment grading just so they’ll actually practice. I have good relationships with them, and they’re honest with me about their disinterest in doing more than just skirting through as best they can. How do you do it?

    • Hi Anna,

      It can be hard to escape the grading game. Shifting from a gradebook to an ongoing assessment document where students are responsible for tracking and reflecting on their own work has made the biggest difference in student mindset. I also use the Station Rotation Model to create more time for me to provide my students with real-time feedback in the teacher-led station. I use that teacher-led station to sit with small groups of kids and talk about their work. This creates a level of accountability that motivates my most unmotivated students to do (at least) some of the work. I also do not grade/assess all of their practice. The practice assignments are there to help students develop skills that will help them be more successful on the assessments, which I do grade. I definitely would not try to assess everything.

      I know this is not an easy shift, but I do think there is a lot of value in trying to shift the focus from grades to learning.


  16. We have started to implement station rotation and meeting with students which has worked great with our writing workshop. Do you use this model outside of writing papers? If so, how do you keep up with creating engaging stations that are not just worksheets?

    • Hi Jeanne,

      Yes, I use this for several different types of assignments. If technology can give students immediate feedback on their progress mastering vocabulary or a grammar concept, then I don’t use our time for this. If it is something they need feedback on or that I am going to assess, then I use this model for most of that.

      I love curriculum design, so designing stations is something I enjoy. My stations are really varied. I take what would be an item on a traditional linear agenda and turn it into a station.


  17. […] Grades shouldn’t be a surprise. They should not happen to students. Grades and the development of skills should be an ongoing conversation between the teacher and student. (For more on this, check out my blog “Conversations Instead of Grades.”) […]

  18. Catlin-thoroughly enjoyed your classroom today–thanks to you and Marika for including us. Moving towards standards based grading seems undeniably essential as I go forward. In fact, I hope it will solve the problem of feeling that students’ grades are somehow arbitrary, no matter what I do! My conversations with students and those constant adjustments and adaptations as we move through the year always felt more meaningful, so I hope I can design a standards assessment system where the agency is with my students and one that reflects what they actually know and can do. Hope your exposition went well. You have a wonderful group of students in those rooms!

    • Thank you, Amy!

      I’m sorry I did not get to connect with you ladies more, but I am thrilled you were able to hear the students share their projects and get a glimpse into our unorthodox approach to grading. Good luck next year as you use blended learning to support the kids who need it most!


  19. I appreciate this information…it’s a total game changer for me. Quick question: Do I have to add to the “preference” section for each student’s paper, or is it possible to add the information to preferences just once?

    • Hi Mel,

      You only have to change preferences in ONE document in the account you use with students, and it will work for all documents associated with that account. It is magical! You can also change them at any time.


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