Planning to “Grade Less” this September

Tote that says "Does this bag make my assignments look marked?"

It’s the first week of July, and perhaps a little early for our teachers to begin planning for September.

But, before the planning for September begins, I am hoping that I can plant a few seeds to help teachers move away from grades and marks, and towards a model of feedback-based assessment. Here are a few suggestions to prepare for this process:

Design “Backwards”

Begin with the curriculum documents, and list all of the main standards, or overall expectations.

Rewrite in Student-Friendly Language

This is a task that will be most valuable if done with your students, so begin be re-writing a few as models to use in September. You may choose to re-write all of the standards or expectations, but your students will buy in more fully if they have a voice in the process. These could be printed, and then cut into sections. Or you might put them on “post-its”: either physical, or within Jamboard.


Re-arrange your standards or expectations, grouping them in to related clusters. You may be able to label your groupings, and perhaps even write an over-arching expectation or goal. Prepare to facilitate this same process with your students; don’t assume that their groupings will be the same as yours. Remember, your goal is to have them invested in their learning, so try this process out for yourself, but leave the real work for your class in September.

Determine Evidence of Learning

For each group, decide what might be used as evidence of successful achievement of the expectation, standard, or goal. And then list both the task criteria (what will need to be done) and the achievement criteria (what knowledge, understanding and skills will be demonstrated). These criteria can then be used as the basis for feedback, single-point rubrics, or four-point rubrics.

Plan the Flow

Order your groupings in such a way that one leads to the next, and supports the skills and knowledge necessary for progress. Consider reporting periods, and ensure that you have paced your groupings and built in conferencing time so that you will have a mark to put on report cards, if required in your jurisdiction.

Bonus: Connect it all with a Theme

When I was in grade 11, our English teacher structured our course around the theme of “Love”. She was able to connect our study of “that Scottish play” to a poetry unit on ballads, and tease out references to “Love” in almost all of our readings. I still remember how eager we were to talk about “Love” (and then, of course, “Sex”) and make connections between our readings and our current, teenaged lives.

As I designed our first semester of “Introduction to Information and Communications Technology”, which was offered within the Ontario Business Studies curriculum I looked for a unifying theme that would inspire our grade 9 students to continue within the business program. So, we took a course that was heavy on technical skills, and united all the units through the creation of a “Business Plan”. Our students did Internet research to decide on a business. They built an Access database of computer equipment to equip their new business. They designed a style sheet, and then implemented their style in both Word and Publisher. A company logo was developed in a graphics application, and then converted to work both in print and on the web. Their financial projections were developed in Excel. They developed business websites, to promote their new business. And they created PowerPoint presentations to convince their class VCs to invest in their new business.

You may have a theme in mind, or your students may be able to see new themes as they work through the process of rewriting the expectations and standards in the first few days of class. Be prepared to (happily) throw all of your planning and hard work out the window if your students come up with something better. You never know what they might create, and how it might make your semester much more fun for all of you.