Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School (2015)


Work smarter, not harder

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.



WHEN THERE IS only one person in the room capable of providing useful feedback, there is no way every child will get what he or she needs all of the time. When a teacher is the only one giving feedback, students miss opportunities for growth. Teaching what you know demonstrates a high level of mastery, one we hope that all students attain. If teachers maintain control of this element of learning, too many students miss out. Serious educational consequences result when teachers dominate the feedback loop.

·                   The imbalanced ratio of one teacher to many learners makes it challenging to meet all student needs.

·                   Limiting control by placing it solely in the hands of the teacher causes students to become dependent, rather than independent, learners.

·                   It is impossible to capitalize on all of the expertise in the room, and therefore valuable resources are wasted.


Students want to be involved in the process—they just don’t realize that they can be. By the time most students get to high school, they are so used to being told what is right and wrong that they don’t know they are allowed to have an opinion. It’s time we change this.

Teachers can invest class time for teaching students how to be feedback experts in specialized areas and excellent peer conference leaders. This process can take time, but the payoff is worth every second. Considering other peoples’ work and giving guidance for improvement is challenging for everyone, including adults. So, we must support students until they feel confident in their ability to help others.

Having students champion each other’s work benefits both the learner and the teacher. When students help others they become better, keener learners themselves, and the teacher is freed up to work with students who need more help than a peer can offer. Plus, student partnerships alleviate many of the time constraints that accompany project creation and ongoing assessment.


The process of training students in this way can start tomorrow. Once a first draft or the beginning phases of a project are in the works, the teacher can set up stations to start training students.

·                   Show students how it’s done. Modeling the behaviors we expect is always essential, so show students what it means to provide meaningful feedback. For example, take a piece of work, highlight one specific element of it and then share what you observe in the work that meets assignment guidelines. It’s always good to lead with positive feedback and then address an area that needs improvement. If you are giving feedback on a science lab, for example, you can say the lab efficiently restates the steps, but the conclusion does not yet fully explore the findings. Feedback will be different, depending on the student’s age and the sophistication of the content. Regardless of what you teach, feedback should always be specific and offer strategies for improvement.

·                   Divide students into groups of three or four to become experts in a particular area. Group students purposefully, in order to maximize their abilities. Consider mixed levels of learners to make the groups most useful. Anticipate any problems individuals may have when it comes to providing or receiving feedback.

·                   Teach a mini-lesson in a particular area of expertise. Prepare a mini-lesson on the process of giving feedback and introduce the idea of expert groups to the students. Make sure they understand that they are all learning how to be experts and why a feedback loop is important. Give them time to reflect and ask questions about providing feedback to their peers; they will have plenty.

·                   Teach students how to put comments on documents if they are using technology. Google Docs is a useful tool for this activity—students can share ideas in real time whether they use Macs or PCs. Add comments by highlighting text and either using the pull-down menu or command + option + M on a Mac
or command + M on a PC. Remind students always to hit “comment” when they are done or the feedback won’t save.


Step 1: Put students in their expert groups and let them get to know each other.

Before you can allow groups to set out on their own, group members must be acquainted with each other. Providing students time to work together will help them learn each member’s learning style. Who will take the lead? What role will each person play? How will they collaborate? Roles can vary based on the content and task: A leader keeps the group on task, someone else keeps time, and the others will offer suggestions on how best to work together.

If we offer a variety of opportunities, they find hidden aptitudes or new challenges.

Step 2: Review how to use the technology.

Although feedback can be done on paper, it is much more efficient when using a platform like the Google Educational Suite. Google Docs allows for easy sharing and commenting. There are also many Chromebook extensions that may enhance the feedback process. No matter what platform you’re using for feedback, it’s important to review the process periodically; never assume students fully understand the technology.

Step 3: Work with individual groups to hone expertise in a particular area.

Once groups are established, you will want to work with them individually, walking them through the specific feedback area they will be using. Help them identify common challenges as a starting point and then develop a bank of good feedback phrases and strategies that will help guide other students.

Another good activity is to work with students to develop rubrics. This will help them understand success criteria and phrasing to use for specific feedback. As they put the feedback on the documents, they should make specific reference to the standards language that the rubric uses.

Step 4: Provide class time for students to work together to norm the feedback.

Students need ample time to practice in class so that they can work effectively at home. Allow students to work together in teams during class time so you can oversee their feedback at first and answer questions as they arise. Encourage them to ask questions if they are unsure, or even to question the person for whom they are providing the feedback. You’ll want to strengthen the confidence of the student experts by giving specific praise for their efforts or helping them to readjust as quickly as possible to ensure they don’t convey wrong information.

Step 5: Practice frequently.

This is the kind of activity that requires practice, so give students opportunities to offer feedback frequently over a period of time. It may not work completely the first few times you try it. Even more advanced learners will struggle early because providing legitimate feedback will be an unknown for most. Encourage students to continue the dialogue. Remind them of the value of their partnerships. Tell them that doubt is okay and that it’s okay to miss things. Assure them that you’ll have their backs. As the year progresses, all students will become better at assessing peers and themselves.

Step 6: Rotate groups to ensure many opportunities.

It’s important to offer students opportunities to try out different roles in each area of expertise. Although we start students in one area, we must offer new challenges once they master particular roles during the process. Sometimes students won’t know they have an aptitude for something until they try it. Often students learn too late that they can be good at many things because they’ve been given the chance to work only in one area. If we offer a variety of opportunities, they find hidden aptitudes or new challenges.

Step 7: Make peer feedback a class routine.

Routines solve many problems because students can rely on their consistency. When a routine or protocol is in place, students will learn to navigate the system and eventually they will not come to the teacher for every question. They learn to rely on each other, knowing that the teacher is there for emergencies and for those cases when other students can’t help.

Step 8: Empower students to perpetuate the routine.

Almost more important than establishing the routine is allowing students to be in charge of it moving forward. Empower leaders in the class to be your “go to” students and support them as they help other students in the class. These learning opportunities will help them grow and allow for differentiation to happen organically.

Step 9: Adjust as needed.

With every plan there must be some adjustment, so be vigilant and make sure to fine-tune as needed. Continue to monitor the status of the class to ensure that routines are accomplishing the desired task. Make small adjustments with mini-lessons, small-group conversations, or one-on-one corrections. One great way to test if things are working is to check in with each student and follow up with a reflection exit ticket. Make sure students know that their voices are being heard. Consider asking, “How is it going? What problems are you experiencing?” A tool like Socrative makes this a painless task that provides amazing feedback to teachers, while taking very little time.


Understanding mindset will help you to see where some of the pushback originates. Many teachers are reluctant to give up control. They may have complaints, as will the students and parents. Here are a few examples and possibilities for dealing with the issues.

Students aren’t qualified to provide feedback. True. At first, many teachers aren’t qualified to provide expert feedback because they are stuck in the grades world. Like teachers, students are learning and practicing together, and expertise will take time. The more helpers we have in the room, the better the learning environment will be. We are leveraging the gifts that some students have naturally, enhancing them, and putting them to work so that every child gets what he or she needs. Students may not start out “qualified,” but they do learn quickly.

My peers don’t give feedback as well as the teacher. Students may complain that their peers don’t do a good enough job or won’t work outside of class. If this happens, you must talk to students and ensure that the work gets done. By providing class time, you can make sure that all students are doing their parts and doing them well. Some students’ feedback may not be as effective as the teacher’s or other peers’ at first, but with more practice, they become proficient at specific skills. Remind students of the value of peer assessment, and explain that it is okay to struggle; it’s part of the learning process. Tell them that your goal is for them to be as good as you at assessing how well students learn. They will love hearing this, and their confidence will grow.

Only teachers should be helping students. Some may say that teachers are the ones who get paid to do this job, so they shouldn’t foist their responsibility on students. However, in the 21st century, teaching isn’t limited to the teacher; this is an old way of thinking. Real learning happens while doing, so we must provide students every opportunity to take command of their learning. Learners move forward through a cycle of empowerment, practice, failure, and more practice. Think of how many learning opportunities we’d be stealing from kids if we kept all of this important work in the teacher’s hands. Plus, teaching kids to provide feedback doesn’t mean teachers are shirking their duties. In fact, most good educators will argue that teaching students to effectively discuss learning is a teacher’s greatest responsibility.

This can only work in ELA classrooms. Allowing students to take the reins doesn’t have to be the norm only in language arts classes; it can work for every content area. Let students be explorers and experts, freeing the teacher to facilitate specific differentiation as needed. A good first step in a math or science class might be teaching peer evaluators to ask, “Why did you do it this way?” or “If you try this, how does the solution change?” For creative-minded educators, student partnerships offer limitless paths to learning.


My journalism class runs an effective student media outlet, which would not be possible if the students were not empowered to be in charge. If our goal is to help students become responsible, independent thinkers and doers, we must trust the process and them.

In our newsroom, student leaders are in charge of everything. The editor-in-chief oversees it all. The section editors supervise their areas of expertise, the web team maintains the website, and the managers ensure that everyone is productive. They all report to me to let me know what is going on. Meanwhile, I work with struggling students who need help with the writing.

Once routines are established, which takes time and practice, student editorial leaders must be trained. The WJPSnews.com staff knows the necessity of good, balanced reporting and accurate writing for an audience. In the beginning, I had my hands in everything, which really stunted the learning process, but it was necessary to establish the routine. Once leaders were trained to give good feedback, answer questions, and use the technology, staff reporters became confident reporting to who was in charge, and it wasn’t me.

An average day at WJPSnews.com probably looks like organized chaos. Students work on independent, self-paced, and self-chosen tasks to benefit the health of the newspaper. First they visit the Google Spreadsheet where we collaborate and inform each other on what is being reported. They select a topic (either one the teacher generates or one they generate themselves) and assign themselves a deadline, which is usually one week from the start date. If a topic isn’t appropriate (although this happens infrequently), the editor from the section will flag it and confer with the reporter after checking with me.

From there, the students research, interview, and draft their articles in and out of class. They have access to laptops and their cell phones most every day, and they are allowed to leave the classroom with a press pass as needed. Once a draft is started, it is shared with the section editor and the teacher, who review it and provide feedback as appropriate within the timeline. First draft feedback is always about content. Are things clear? Does the writer answer all of the questions? Are there varied voices from the student body? We avoid correctness feedback on the first pass. That comes later at the copyediting level.

After content feedback, the reporter goes back to work, gathers more research and interviews, hyperlinks all necessary information and re-sends the document, ensuring that the editor’s concerns have been answered. When the section editor deems the article complete, it is sent to fresh eyes with the editor-in-chief. If no further changes are necessary it travels to the fact checker, the copy editor, and finally to the web team for posting.

As the teacher, I oversee this process, but I’m not actively involved in it. I’m in the business of “putting out fires,” always reminding students that a free and open press requires their responsibility and commitment. During class time, I circulate and check in with students, confer, or troubleshoot. The more control students have, the more time the teacher has to work with students who need specific help.

Because the class functions so well under student leadership, we have been able to sustain momentum from one year to the next. With my help, the current leaders train the next year’s editors midway through the year. This sets the new students up for success, since they understand the responsibility and the amount of self-discipline that running a newspaper will entail. They see students in roles of power, and know that they must be as reliable if the paper is to continue operating effectively.

It’s important to remember that school is about our students, not us, so the more we can empower them to be in control of their learning, the better. By making them partners in the feedback process we give them the valuable experience of helping and collaborating with others.

Consider who has the control of the feedback in your classroom. Where can students be more empowered to take control? What first steps could be put in place to begin a trusting partnership? How will your role change in this student-driven environment?