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What I Learned When I Gave Every Student an A

What happens when there are no grades and every student has an A?

After years of fielding questions from students about grades instead of content and noticing struggling students demoralized by the numbers, I saw how grades distracted students from learning.

So, when I discovered that going gradeless was an option, I decided to throw out grades in the most extreme way possible: giving every student an A from day 1.

Why I chose to give every student an A

“Going gradeless” is a spectrum. Some teachers reduce the impact of traditional grades through systems like standards-based grading. Other teachers don’t assign any grades, and students negotiate their grade with their teacher at the end of every grading period.

After re-reading Benjamin and Rosamund Zander’s The Art of Possibility, in which they have a chapter called “Giving an A,” I decided to go gradeless and give each student an outright A for a few reasons:
  1. Giving an A communicates that I believe in each student and their potential. In my eyes, they are all A students already. I’m working with them as their coach to help them reach their goals.
  2. Eliminating grades focuses them on the signals that do matter. I tested this "A" policy in a class where students create startups. An academic letter grade is meaningless in most contexts, especially the startup space. Instead of grades, students need to seek validation from the people that did matter - their users, their customers, and the experts in the field.
  3. Finally, giving students an A opens them to taking risks. Starting a startup is already fraught with fear of failure without having to worry about academic failure. Teaching at an academically intense school, I needed to give students the only grade they’d be satisfied with so they could feel free to fail.
Of course, there were skeptics. When I explained my A policy to others, they asked: How would I motivate my students? What motivates students if not grades? How can I make sure all students are engaged and stop teammates from freeloading? It wasn’t just other people - it was my inner pessimist as well.

But, I loved how the policy of Giving an A comes from a place of optimism and hope. I was curious about how this policy would impact my classroom culture. And, I knew that if I was going to pull this off, I needed to believe in this policy with absolute conviction. As Benjamin Zander said in his TED talk,
"It’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming. Imagine if Martin Luther King had said, "I have a dream!--of course, I’m not sure if they’ll be up for it."
So, I decided to embrace my inner optimist and go for it: During the first week of school, I told my students that I was giving them an A for the year. Their only required assignment was to write me a letter. And then, for the entire year, I didn’t put a grade on anything.

How I supported my gradeless classroom

My gradeless classroom was in most ways identical to my graded classroom. Students still worked in teams, completed assignments, engaged in lessons, set goals, gave each other feedback, and presented in front of their class.

However, I did make some changes to better accommodate and support a gradeless environment:
  • I put much more thought into designing a comprehensive feedback system so that students received feedback from me as well as their users/customers, mentors, peers, and themselves.
  • I created clear checkpoints with clear consequences. Checkpoints were major assignments, such as their Lean Canvas, that served as progress markers. I learned that if the consequence for missing work wasn’t a grade, there had to be another consequence. I tied checkpoints to other ways of holding students accountable, such as doing a peer feedback session or having them report to the class.
  • I planned high-stake experiences for absolute deadlines. These took the form of pitch days or showcases in front of external audiences which happened every 4-6 weeks.
  • I made sure struggling teams had more personalized support either from me or another mentor.
  • Toward the end of the year, I had 1:1 conversations with students about their goals and how their progress toward them.

What went well with Giving an A

So, how did it actually go? A sample of students across teams submitted an end-of-year survey. The prompts along the bottom of the graph are: “Take a risk (get out of your comfort zone socially or mentally),” “Work hard in class,” “Work hard outside of class,” “Trust Ms. Kong,” “Care about your performance or achievement,” and “Accept feedback on your work.”
Screenshot 2018-07-29 08.06.51

What jumped out as being positively impacted by this policy were the same for both students and me: trust, feedback, and risk-taking.

Established a culture of mutual trust

Giving an A put me in the mindset of assuming the best of every student. I trusted that every student was an A student, and most students saw themselves as such as well.

In this culture of trust, I noticed unprecedented levels of student honesty and vulnerability. Students shared their dreams but also their fears. For example, a number of students, whether they appeared shy or outgoing, discussed their social anxiety and subsequent goal to practice meeting more people.

Because students were willing to open up to me, I could dig into their deeper motivations for doing work. More than before, I could personalize their work based on their interests.

Focused students on feedback, not grades

Giving an A put students and me squarely on the same team. I felt like their coach instead of their referee or evaluator. Because of this relationship, every conversation was an opportunity for feedback, whether it was for their product, process, or teamwork. Then, students' practice of accepting and applying feedback carried over for their mentors and peers.

Increased students’ willingness to take risks

Most students reported that they were more likely to take social or mental risks because of the “A” policy. Some of the biggest risks that students had to take were about their ideas. Students had to be courageous enough to have an idea, ask people about it, and then throw it out if it failed. One student said that “having an assignment based system would promote sticking to a failing startup since it would be nearly impossible to catch up if you were to pivot in your idea.”

Supported what matters most: learning

I interviewed every student at the end of the course. Their takeaways from the course were aligned with what I hoped they’d learn: “what it’s like to work in a startup,” “how to talk to people and ask questions that get to what they really think,” “how to make presentations that trim the fat,” “how to work productively with a team,” “finding something that excites and motivates me,” “feeling confident and taking risks.”

So, regardless of grades, students still learned.

What didn’t go well with Giving an A

Of course, this policy wasn’t all roses. Here are some of the struggles I had with Giving an A:

Fighting a culture of grades

The culture of grades at my school runs deep. Every other teacher assigns grades for everything, from exams to homework; every parent expects their students to get straight As; and every student compares their test scores with each other.

In this larger school (and societal) culture, other classes became more important than mine. Most students at some point did work for other classes during my class. And then,  external mentors felt like they didn’t have the tools to encourage accountability for their teams without grades.

Giving an A might work extremely well in a situation where students can focus on their passion (like an advanced music performance class for music majors, in the original inspiration for this policy), but in a high school environment, my class is still 1 of 6 classes, not including extracurriculars.

Motivating students to work hard

Most of my students worked hard all year. 80% of my students were focused on their startup or personal growth goals almost every class period and did additional work outside of class.

For the other 20% of my students, it was a slog to get them to make movement. I would coach them into identifying their next steps, help them break down their tasks, and set daily deadlines. Every day they needed reminders to get to work. One team admitted that their automatic A, whether consciously or subconsciously, did impact their work ethic.

Toward the end of the year, I realized my biggest failure with these disengaged students was not helping them find their passions. For some of my students, I was able to bring them back into the fold by connecting their existing interests to their startup needs, like encouraging a student who enjoyed video editing to create an advertisement for his team. One team trashed and restarted their idea 6 weeks before the end of the school year. During their exit interview, they said the only thing blocking them was "ourselves - we picked an idea we weren't motivated about, so we weren't motivated to learn."

Managing assignments

Grades are often tied to assignments, and I didn’t realize how useful grades are as record-keeping until I threw them out. Although I had checklists, it was hard for me to track student submissions and then communicate the status of these submissions to parents without grades.

What I’m thinking about next

Right now, I’m trying to decide between two policies next year: Giving an A and Contract Grading.

As I learned this year, Giving an A sets a foundation of trust in the classroom. It puts me in the role of coach and opens up really meaningful conversations about students’ dreams and fears. However, Giving an A is so aspirational that it’s hard to manage when students do disengage. When I reflected on this year with a mentor who was originally skeptical about this "A" policy, he suggested: Maybe it’s okay to give every student an A, but they need to be relentless about finding their passion.

Contract Grading involves student and teacher agreeing on a contract on how the student will achieve a grade. I believe Contract Grading would provide incentive for the students who need the grade motivator while not really impacting kids who would buy into the "A" policy anyway. On the flip side, I'd be put back into the role of the evaluator, and learning would feel more transactional.

A final consideration is how my grading policy impacts expectations of students entering the class. Because this was the first year I ran this class, students had no idea what to expect when it came to grades. We were all on the same team experimenting with this crazy idea. But now, students have talked, and next year will be different. One student advised me, “Try to keep out students who want to join the class only for the ‘A’ policy. It'll make it really hard to find good teammates that way.”

My big takeaways in any grading system

Regardless of what grading system I decide to adopt this year, here’s what I learned from this experiment that will apply to any class:
  1. Make goals and accountability authentic. Students need to drive the process of setting and achieving goals for themselves and their projects. Then, the more authentic consequences and rewards are, the less I need to rely on grades. Receiving a bad grade on an assignment isn't a "real world" consequence, but missing out on your only chance to get feedback before a major presentation is.
  2. Focus on relationships. When I establish that I'm on the same team as my students and that I care about each student's interests, motivating students becomes so much easier. In my startups class, I will have 1:1 interviews with each student at least 3 times over the course of the year: beginning, middle, and end.

Other resources on reducing grades

If you're interested in learning more from other teachers reducing grades in their classrooms (including less extreme examples than mine), here are some more links for you to check out:
Do you struggle with your grading policy in your classes? What grading system are you thinking about doing next year? And, what is the craziest experiment you've done as a teacher?


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