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


Confer inside and outside of class

Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.



TIME IS ALWAYS at a premium in classrooms and in most schools classes are much larger than they should be. Meeting students’ needs in these situations is extremely challenging and often students fall through the cracks. Despite our best efforts to make class time meaningful, most teachers struggle even to check in with students daily, so the idea of in-class conferring seems impossible.

·                   Class sizes are too big to personalize learning.

·                   Mandated curriculum seems to require teacher-centered teaching.

·                   Too much content to cover makes it impossible to take “time off” to work with students independently.

·                   There isn’t enough time during a normal class period.


How we spend our time in class is indicative of what we prioritize in education, so if we want to meet student needs, we must learn to use class time more. There are ways to prepare students for in-class conferences that can leverage the limited time we share. Time is better spent when we ask students to complete conference forms that we create to help them organize their ideas before they meet with us.

The teacher must be organized too. Having information from the students before you sit with them increases the flow and efficiency of class time. Generating a schedule and collecting data also helps. When class time isn’t enough, remember that technology is also useful as a support. Use the devices that are available to you and the students to continue the conversation outside of class.


Once we realize that students can have their needs met and teachers can maximize the use of shared class time, there is nothing holding us back.

·                   Download an app like Voxer. Ask your students to do the same. Voice apps or walkie-talkie apps will allow you to have a conversation that extends over a period of time when people can’t meet in person, and these tools have functions that help facilitate ongoing dialogue, while enhancing communication skills. Best of all, an app like Voxer can be used with any age child. For elementary students, the teacher can share a message or ask a question and individuals can reply by recording feedback on the notes feature, contained in the teacher’s account. Alternatively, most smart phones and tablets have built-in voice recording applications, which may suffice for recording feedback from younger students.

·                   Create a short form to enhance conversation. To help students prepare for in-class conferences, you will want them to be thinking about something specific before they are in front of you. Give them questions to answer that will help focus the three to five minutes you have together.

·                   Make a schedule. Being organized will be essential to helping the class flow during classroom conferences. If students know the time of their conferences and can be prepared for them, conferences will move along efficiently.

·                   Use your student experts to help streamline issues in class. Since students are already trained as experts, empower those leaders to take the status of the class on a piece of paper and report back at the end of class. It may help to maintain a notebook with all of the data for future reference.

·                   Implement project time during conferences. If students are working on a project, you won’t have to be in front of the room or circulate when it comes time for conferences. Whether students are working in groups or independently, they need to be engaged in some activity, so they do not interfere with your individual assessment conferences.


Step 1: Prepare for conferences by reviewing student feedback before meeting with individuals.

Since you have asked students to fill out the form in advance, take the time to read what they wrote so that you can maximize the conference. Asking them to set goals or establish what they are interested in talking about will give you a chance to prepare and avoid resorting to your own agenda. At the minimum, make sure to read the student’s notes on the day of the conference.

Step 2: Instruct students to write specific questions they want answered during assessment conferences.

In addition to responses to the pre-assessment form, students should arrive at assessment conferences with specific questions about their progress. This will help in their reflection process and keep the discussion focused on each individual’s progress and goals. You’ll be less likely to waste time talking about issues unrelated to learning when a student is well prepared.

Step 3: Set conferences for 3-5 minutes and adhere to the schedule.

Maintaining a schedule is the key to keeping your conferences flowing smoothly. Have a hard copy of the schedule for the week on your desk at all times. Although flexibility will be necessary in the event of absent or unprepared students, the closer you stick to the plan, the more efficient your conferences will be.

Step 4: Follow up with students electronically.

Develop a strategy to follow up with students within a week of the conference. You’ll want to make sure that students are working as planned or see if there is any additional troubleshooting that needs to be done. Having technology that you and the students agree on improves this process. You can easily message students on Voxer, Google Drive, or another application, from outside of class at your leisure. Fill down time (sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, for example) with quick digital messages to students, continuing the conversation about learning.

Step 5: If more time is needed, plan a conference outside of class time.

Some students will require more time than you can provide in class and that’s okay—just make sure to set time aside. Personally, I like to meet before school starts for 10-15 minutes where possible; otherwise, we make a lunch meeting. If your school sets aside time for extra help, students may prefer to come then or after school. Sometimes it’s hard to accommodate busy students; this is where technology can be useful—have a virtual conference. Today’s digital natives love communicating virtually.

Step 6: Teach students to use technology to get their questions answered.

With social media, other students can be resources even when they are not physically present. If you have a class Twitter hashtag, students can answer their peers’ questions there. They can also add resources that can later be curated in a different online space to help everyone. For example, if one of my students is having a challenge with writing introductory paragraphs, I might post a link to the class hashtag that provides additional tips. Other students and teachers on Twitter can provide help too. Students might open the linked website or document and save it to a separate application, like Diigo—a web-based bookmarking tool and digital archive. When students review archived content, they might return to Voxer, Twitter, or a class website and ask a follow-up question. This is one more way teachers continue the conversation while maximizing time.

Step 7: Employ a routine or protocol that will keep work moving forward.

As with almost anything in education, routines facilitate success. The first time you try to do in-class conferences they may not go as planned, but this doesn’t mean the process is a failure. Consider your mistakes, which may involve the structure of your form, pre-conference questions, your attitude toward particular students, the class environment, or other factors, and adjust as needed for future conferences.

Consider using different kinds of conferences throughout a term, but always meet with every child in formal, prepared meetings at least twice. In high school, I like to meet with students at midterm before progress reports and at the end of the term before the report card grades are due since they will be working with me to establish those grades. Small-group meetings are useful during collaborative projects. Individual conferences could be available during set office hours, or by appointment to fit in with your own schedule.


Since time is at a premium in class, teachers are always reluctant to change the way class time runs. Also, many teachers have a hard time giving up enough control to allow students to work independently, which is required for this method to work. Here are some tips for some common challenges you might face when implementing class conferences with students:

There are too many students in this class for this to work. Assessment conferences can work even in large classes, but it requires having a protocol in place so the other students know what they are doing while the teacher is conferring with students. It also requires a schedule. It may be impossible to get to every student in one or two days, depending on the size of the class, so setting aside about a week’s time may be useful. It may also be a good idea to give students with higher needs appointments outside of class or use technology to ease the flow.

Regardless of the size of your class, every child will want a turn having the teacher’s undivided attention, so it is important to remind students that when you’re with someone, you aren’t to be interrupted. The time is special to that person and should be sacrosanct unless there is an emergency.

What will the other students do while I’m working with one student? When classrooms are student-centered and project-based, students are accustomed to working independently—they don’t need the teacher in front of the room to function effectively. If we encourage this kind of environment consistently, the way the teacher spends his or her time in class won’t be an issue. Just be sure to prompt students prior to meetings that they must be prepared to work independently or collaboratively in a quiet setting, during assessment conferences.

What could possibly be achieved in 3-5 minutes with each child? If students are well prepared for the conferences, it’s certainly possible to address specific challenges. If we stick to the prepared topics and avoid generalizations about the student’s work or the class learning, it’s surprising how much can be accomplished in a relatively short span of time. To ensure the time is used most effectively, work first with students who have come prepared. Address students with different challenges later. They will likely require more time; these are cases where continuing the conversation in the cloud may be necessary.


Garnet Hillman, former high school Spanish teacher, shares her story of successful classroom conferences.

Throughout fifteen years as a high school Spanish teacher, my classroom transformed from a traditional setting and practice to a student-centered, learning-focused environment. This culture shift not only supported student growth and achievement, but also fostered significant gains once changes were in place. Assessment practice as an entity separate from instruction was revised to a process that was infused seamlessly into class on a daily basis. Fluidity in assessment and feedback allowed my students to learn at the highest levels, yet at their own pace to honor that natural learning process.

Student conferences were a cornerstone in assessing my students. To me, the most powerful feedback for students derives from conversation. Meaningful dialogue provides a clear path forward while concurrently giving the instructor valuable insight on the learning progression for each student. Conferring gives students the ability to move forward immediately, while other methods of feedback may take a little longer to be processed and internalized to advance.

In my classroom, conferences with students happened both informally and formally. I regularly made a concerted effort to talk with all of my students (although with 150 students I couldn’t get to each one every day!). My students worked at their own pace, charting a course through language learning with me in the role of facilitator. Daily journaling led to efficient and effective conversations.

Rather than spending my time lecturing to the whole group, I frequently worked with small groups of students and met with individuals. Chatting with them throughout the class periods elicited better results than I had previously seen. I spoke with them about their ongoing work, asking more questions than giving strong directives. Students owned their learning and mapped out varied journeys. When the kids owned the process, engagement rose. When they knew the instructor was on their side, supporting them every step of the way, hope blossomed and success was on the horizon.

Formal conferring happened at the end of each marking period. Students had an individual time slot allotted for them to sit down with me and have a conversation. Although it took two to three days for this process, it was well worth the time. To assist with flow, productivity, and efficiency, students completed a written reflection prior to the conference. Topics for discussion included achievement, strengths, areas for growth, and goal setting. I made sure to ask the students about a moment when they felt proud in class. The impact of this question was significant. Students can be very hard on themselves and this granted an opportunity to reflect on a positive, inspirational moment.

In my current role as an instructional coach, I support teachers in the implementation of student conferences. They realize the powerful and successful outcomes far outweigh the class time spent in dialogue. Students are engaged, involved, and take leadership roles in their classes. A collaborative environment forms and students don’t feel uneasy about the word “assessment.” They are simply accustomed to how class runs and seek out meaningful conversations with instructors and classmates to further their learning.

With daily informal conversations and formal conferences, assessment and feedback loops naturally develop. These loops continually support students and bolster their confidence with regard to their progress and achievement. They become increasingly more proficient to self-monitor and provide peer assessment and feedback.

The most compelling outcome of student conferences is the relationships that form with students. Relationships unlock the door to student learning. I had many students tell me that they didn’t love Spanish (of course some of them did), but they loved my class. They enjoyed the environment because they knew I cared about their learning and more important, about them as individuals. If I hadn’t spent so much time talking with them, this would not have been possible.

The relationships would have been at a surface level and insubstantial. With these connections in place, self-advocacy skyrocketed. Students understood this environment was a safe place to ask questions, take risks, and create meaningful goals. Achievement levels soared—we celebrated success and built upon it. Looking forward, I hope to help more teachers see the cogent effect of student conferencing on learning.

We can all agree on the value of conferring with students regularly, but many of us struggle with balancing the time and needs of our many students while we do it. In order to truly make the no-grades classroom possible, conferences must become as important as other non-negotiables. Consider how you provide feedback to students now. How often do you meet with them one-on-one to talk about their growth and progress? Where would it make sense to fit more of it in?