Over the last two years, I’ve moved further and further away from traditional grading. I’ve blogged about grading for mastery of skills instead of the accumulation of points and ditching my traditional grade book in favor of an ongoing assessment document.

Each grading period I identify target skills and assess those skills. Instead of spending hours grading assignments designed to help students develop these skills, I limit my energy to providing feedback in class as they work and grading the actual assessments–exam, essay, performance task.

Students are given class time each week to look through their body of work and reflect on their developing skill sets. They determine what the quality of their work reveals about their journey towards mastering those skills. This reflective activity encourages them to think metacognitively about their learning.

Grade Interviews

Then as grade reporting approaches, I sit down with every single student for a grade interview. Students come to these grade interviews prepared with a formal argument. I’ve structured the grade interviews so they mirror our argumentative writing process.

They begin with a claim. “I deserve a B in English because I 1)_______, 2._______, and 3.______.”

Once they’ve presented their claim, they must support it with three pieces of evidence from their body of work for that grading period. Students have 3 minutes to explain how the evidence supports their claim. They must have all of their online work bookmarked and pulled up in advance of our conversation to save time. Because my students keep their work in digital notebooks, this process is quick and painless.

I also come to the conversation with a grade that I generate based on each student’s performance on the assessments. If my grade is different from the grade the student feels they deserve, then I counter. My counter argument usually sounds like this: “I have a grade of a C for you in English because of …”.

If I counter, then the student gets a rebuttal. The rebuttal is their opportunity to highlight edits, revisions, and improvements they’ve made to previous work. For example, a student may return to a formal essay or lab report to improve it after I’ve formally assessed it. Alternatively, students might do additional practice or work to master a skill that I have not assigned or assessed. This is the incentive my students have to continually edit and improve their work to demonstrate their growth and developing mastery. However, I may not always have time to return to a previous piece and reassess it prior to this conversation, so this gives us time to chat about their hard work.

Some teachers have asked, “How do you have time for this?” It’s a fair question. These interviews take between 3-5 minutes per student. I typically spend two full days during the grading period interviewing students. That is a substantial time investment, but it is worth it on a few different levels:

  1. Students have to build a formal argument and present it to an adult, which is a nerve wracking experience but an important life skill.
  2. It encourages students to think about what the quality of their work reveals about their skills. Instead of getting a grade because they did all of the work, they receive a grade that reflects their skill set.
  3. This approach also means that grades don’t happen to students. They can look at the rubric, read the description of what a 1, 2, 3, and 4 look like for each skill. This removes the mystery that’s often associated with grading.

While I’m meeting with students, the rest of the class is moving through a station rotation lesson or working on a project. This process is easier to do because I teach on a block schedule and work with a co-teacher. That said, I would conduct grade interviews regardless. These conversations are invaluable. Students walk away knowing exactly what they need to work on or what they are doing well. Also, I feel like I know my students so much better because we sit down and chat about their learning every 5-6 weeks!

20 Responses

  1. In a much better future, all (home)work will be graded by crowdfunding. Your system might be better than the standard system, but at the end of the day it’s still one person determining/judging the quality/relevance/importance of another person’s work. How many publishers (experts) failed to correctly perceive the true quality/relevance/importance of J.K. Rowling’s work?

    If you’re interested in a glimpse of a much better future, just google “Classtopia”.

    • It’s funny that you say that, Epiphyte. One of my goals this year is to bring parents, community members, and experts into the classroom (physically and virtually) to assess student work. I cannot (and should not) be their only audience or even their primary audience.


      • That’s great to hear. In programming there’s an expression… given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow (Linus’s Law). “Bugs” (problems in the code) are quite often very difficult to find. When there are more people looking for bugs, the more rapidly they’ll be found. This is equally true for Easter Eggs (treasure). Finding an Easter Egg is only half the fun. The other half is endeavoring to bring it to the attention of others.

        Next month my epiphyte society is going to have a small show. Usually plant shows are judged by a small handful of experts. They use ribbons to indicate which plants deserve the most attention. But for the epiphyte show, all the members of the society are going to have the chance to use their own money to help determine the attention worthiness of the entries. All the money that’s raised will be used to promote a webpage that showcases the entries sorted by the members’ valuations.

        Schools are known for their fundraisers. But has any of the raised money ever been spent to draw the public’s attention to the most valuable treasures created by the students? I’ve sure seen a lot of ads, but I can’t recall ever seeing any that promoted essays, stories, drawings, paintings, songs, projects or anything else produced by students. Nothing that students produce deserves more attention? Students are incapable of producing valuable work? They never have any good, or interesting, ideas?

        I’m pretty sure that we really need to reimagine schools!

      • Caitlyn,

        I am really enjoying your posts. I often find myself nodding and exclaiming, “Yes!”when I read them.

        In response to your desire to create a more authentic atmosphere for grading work, I want to share two projects by two teachers whom I have the honor of coaching. I blogged about them here (http://cultivatingthelearning.com/authentic-learning-hs-english/) and here(http://cultivatingthelearning.com/the-evolution-of-an-authentic-activity/)

        I’d love to see y’all collaborate.


  2. Hi Caitlin,

    Are the grade interviews one of the stations in a station rotation lesson, or do you pull each student out of the rotation when it is their turn to be interviewed? Any advice for someone willing to try this for the first time this year? Thank you!


    • Hi Brad,

      No worries about my name! Happens all of the time.

      My students rotate through a series of offline and online stations, and I pull them individually for grade interviews.

      My advice would be to give them time to prepare their presentations (15-30 min) in class so they are prepared for the conversations. I also set a timer on my phone to keep them to a 3-minute explanation or they will go over.

      I hope you enjoy this experience! I really love this time with kids.


  3. Catlin,

    I implemented station rotations at the end of last year, and are doing them again in my Honors World History course. Another teacher on my team and myself are set to do grade interviews at the end of our marking period. Do you have a guideline or explanation for students and parents? I’m excited about doing this, but nervous because it is so different than what students and parents are used to.

    Thank you so much!


    • Hi Jillian,

      I do not have this written out. We talk students through the process and provide time in class to prepare for interviews. Students have 3 minutes to make an argument for the grade they believe they deserve with a clear claim, 3 examples from their body of work, and an explanation. If the grade they present is different from the grade I have based on the average of their assessment scores, they get to present a “rebuttal” to show what work they’ve revised, edited and improved.

      Good luck!


  4. I love this concept. The thing I’m struggling with is the students who just don’t do work at all. The internal motivation of a, sadly, large number of students isn’t where it needs to be. So the external motivation of traditional grades is the gauge they have to see and the thing I have to show parents I need their support in accountability. As a teacher, my job is really to help build that internal motivation, but with so many ideas you present that I love and really aligns with my philosophy, I think of this group of students and wonder how this would ever work for them. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Alexis,

      I’ll be honest that I have WAY fewer students who don’t do work now using this approach. There is something powerful about this face-to-face conversations. It makes learning real and personal. Kids realize I care about their learning. There will always be a few that don’t do work, but I think focusing on skills and growth is much more effective than giving points.


  5. Hi Catlin, How do you see this working in a proficiency-based system? If you have students who are operating below the proficiency standard (reading on a 4th grade level in a 6th grade class, for instance), how would you recommend they determine their grade? Can students earn an “A,” without meeting the proficiency standard? If they can, what would be their incentive for trying to reach proficiency? Thanks for your posts, your ideas are very refreshing!

    • Hi Mark,

      Yes, I use a proficiency/mastery-based grading system. I provide instruction, practice, and feedback, but focus my energy assessing on their actual assessments. These assessment scores (0-4) go into my grade book aligned with specific standards. At the end of the grading period, students have an average score that aligns to a grade. That is the grade I walk into the grade interviews with. However, my students are welcome to return to anything I have assessed and improve it. If they make edits and show improvement, they bring those work samples to our interview to show that they have improved and deserve a higher grade than the initial assessments show. This creates an incentive to go back and improve their past work.

      They also have a set of academic and soft skill rubrics at the start of the year, so they know exactly how I will be assessing key skills. There is complete transparency about what a 3 looks like or what a 4 looks like.

      I hope that explanation helps!

  6. […] Grade Interviews. Over the last two years, I’ve moved further and further away from traditional grading. I’ve blogged about grading for mastery of skills instead of the accumulation of points and ditching my traditional grade book in favor of an ongoing assessment document. I identify target skills and assess these critical skills over the course of the grading period. […]

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