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


Help students become better learners with metacognition

It takes courage . . . to endure the sharp pains of self-discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.



EVEN THOUGH GRADES are commonly used to communicate learning, at times students still don’t understand why they receive the grades they do. Some believe that the test scores or report card grades aren’t representative of what they actually know because they haven’t had ample time to display their growth. In most cases, students fail to grasp the specifics of their knowledge and skill set.

Since assessing learning has traditionally been the responsibility of the educator, students aren’t always clear on the criteria for mastery. They don’t know what level of proficiency they’ve achieved because they haven’t been provided with specific information about what they’ve done well and what needs continued effort.

·                   Students are notoriously left out of the assessment process.

·                   Despite getting test scores or comments on projects, kids don’t always know why they earned the grade they did.

·                   Students are often left without a voice in the process of learning.

·                   What students know isn’t always communicated accurately in a final project alone.


When students learn to reflect meaningfully about their learning, they can participate in a dialogue with the teacher that allows them to work together to determine the actual level of mastery. No longer working in isolation, the teacher can now adequately discuss depth of learning, thereby helping students to communicate particular knowledge that is too often absent from their final products. After students provide the teacher with thorough information about their process, the teacher is in a better position to assess student learning.

Ask students to consider the following:

·                   What was my understanding of the task in my own words?

·                   What did I do to achieve success on the task?

·                   What challenges did I face and how did I overcome them?

·                   Which standards did I meet and what evidence from my work supports that assessment?

·                   What goals did I set and meet? Which do I still need to work on?

·                   If I had the opportunity to do it again, what would I do differently?

A way of providing excellent feedback is to read the student’s reflection and review the data you collected while the student was working before you assess the work. The teacher will have a clearer idea of what he or she is looking at, and will thus be able to provide every child with accurate individualized feedback.

In short, teachers cannot look at all student work the same way because every student starts in a different place. To ensure maximum progress to mastery we need to give every child feedback tailored to his or her specific needs.

Self-reflection also resolves the challenge of assessing group work. When every child presents a personal reflection, the teacher has a much better idea of what each child gained from working in the group. Consider what role the child played and how he or she grew. Remind students not to complain about other group members in their reflections, as the reflections should illustrate their own work, not their peers’ work. Each student therefore receives fair assessment on the merits of his or her work and growth during the group project. In addition, the whole group should receive feedback on the project, focusing on how well they were able to meet standards. You can do this with a group email or short conference.


Teaching students to reflect takes time, but it’s well worth the commitment. There are things you can do right away to prime the learning:

·                   Find out what they already know about reflection. Ask students what their understanding of reflection is by engaging in a conversation about it. Have they done it before? What does it look like? What should it include?

·                   Co-construct a list of items to be included in a reflection. Take time in class to do a brainstorm with students, allowing them to contribute to the checklist.

·                   Show them an example of a reflection that exhibits mastery. Nothing works better than showing a child what the expectation is, so allow students to read a good reflection and discuss what they notice with their groups. (See the sample in Hack 1.)

·                   Ask students to reflect at the end of class. To get students into the habit of reflecting—and it is a habit that requires practice—ask them to consider what they have learned at the end of every class. This will also facilitate writing across content areas.


Step 1: Plan a lesson that shows students what reflection is.

Gather a few samples of good evidence-based reflections. Put students into groups and ask them to read and compare the reflections. What do they notice? How do the reflections compare? Ask them to generate a list of things they learned about reflections. In a full-class discussion, have students share why reflection can help their learning.

Step 2: Have students make a poster for the classroom that inspires reflection.

Once students grasp what reflection is about, have them synthesize what they’ve learned to present as a visual reminder for the class. Encourage them to consider these inquiries:

·                   What essential questions must be answered in a reflection?

·                   How can a student use reflection at the end of an assignment to communicate learning?

Hang the posters on the wall as an important resource throughout the year.

Students will see their own work and words about reflection and have a renewed understanding of why they are doing it. Share posters with colleagues so that all students are receiving a similar message.

Step 3: Teach the standards and skills.

If reflection is to be effective, students must understand the standards they aim to master. Help students understand why they are working on specific projects:

·                   What are they supposed to be learning?

·                   How do these skills align with content and standards?

·                   How does the work connect with other learning?

Devote class time to reviewing the standards that apply to each project/assignment/unit before you get started and then refer to them throughout. Make sure students have internalized the expectations and are able to talk about them in their own terms.

Step 4: Make reflection routine.

Reflection is most effective when it happens regularly. As with any skill, constant practice will improve the process and generate deeper understanding. Students should reflect during the last five minutes of class: Just ask them to write about something they learned and something they need to work on. Students should specify their goals and the strategies they used and present evidence from their work. They can also connect topics to what’s being studied in different classes.

Step 5: Provide feedback on reflections regularly.

If we want students to improve the quality of reflection, we need to give them specific, immediate feedback when they reflect. Keep explanations simple:

·                   “You have provided an effective summary of the task, but you need to share more evidence of understanding.”

·                   “This reflection does not discuss any standards.”

·                   “Focus your reflection on your role in the group assignment and not on the work or lack of work of others.”

·                   “Expand your discussion in this area to talk about what you learned or what you would do differently.”

As students improve, make sure to acknowledge that you have noticed. Tell them you see specific improvement: “I noticed that you used standards this time with more evidence from your own work. Please make this a habit.”


Students will not like reflection at first; they will see it as additional work that doesn’t feel like it’s helping. Like most new things, students won’t appreciate it until they see the growth later on. Be prepared for various complaints.

Why do I need to do this? Because reflection is the most important part of learning. Remind students that seeing how they reflect helps you provide useful feedback that will help them grow as learners. You’ll need to exhibit the same patience you used when you convinced them to shift their mindsets.

This might be good for English but will it work for other subjects? Yes, reflection is valuable in English class, but it is also necessary in every other subject. I can’t think of a subject area where students would not benefit from thinking about their learning, writing down what they have learned, and showing how they know that they learned it. Even more valuable is having students express what they struggle with and ask for the kind of help they’d like to receive to make it better. I’m sure a math student could talk about growth in proofs or challenges in trigonometry. Physical education students can reflect on their progress mastering lay-ups in basketball or on the challenges in maintaining a fitness regime. It is this reflection that encourages learners to set goals for improvement. Content should not dictate whether or not students reflect.


Once you convince students that you expect reflection and provide time for them to practice, reflection will increase learning. A perfect example is how math teacher Jim Cordery uses reflection with his students. Cordery emphasizes the power of reflection in his class.

I have always tried to get my students to think differently about math, encouraging them to spend time thinking of their method to solving the problem over getting the actual answer. I spend time—my students probably think too much time—asking them to share their thinking behind their answers. To me, what is most important is that they are thinking about math.

Over the last few years, I have thought about how I can increase participation in my classroom. Without a doubt, the addition of student reflections has been the answer I was looking for. I started including these reflections on every project and activity we completed. These are the benefits that resulted from giving my students a chance to reflect on a project or activity:

1.            It makes them think about how the activity connects to the real world.

2.            Reflecting has allowed me to communicate with everyone in class, not just the outspoken students.

3.            I have them writing about how they are learning, not just finding an answer.

4.            Reflection turns struggles into learning opportunities because I ask students to elaborate on what they struggled with.

5.            They think about how the activity’s objective could be used in their future profession or job.

6.            I also get a chance to modify the activity for future use after analyzing my students’ views on what they just completed.

Getting the students through this part of the journey is a challenge. I am constantly battling the phrase: “But this is math class. Why do we need to write?” I have attempted to counter this by initiating a conversation with my students. During this conversation, we discuss what is expected in the reflection. I point out that I am very interested in hearing about the process, but I am more interested in them sharing what struggles they overcame, both personally and as a group. I have taken the time to show past students’ work (with names removed) where we discuss the pros and cons of each piece of work. I am conscious never to interject too much of my own reactions to the writing, because experience has shown I just get carbon copies of that exact piece.

Here is one example of a student’s reflection:

Out of all of the projects and classwork papers I have completed throughout the school year, this project seemed to stand out. The project consisted of picking 5 destinations (cities) in the U.S that you wanted to visit; however, those cities also had to intertwine with U.S. history. After you have chosen your preferred destinations, you have to figure out how many miles it would take to go round trip. Starting and finishing at Philadelphia, the stops I made along the way included: Austin, Texas; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Los Angeles, California; Portland, Oregon; and Charleston, South Carolina. This trip was a sightseeing trip and like you would in a realistic situation, you had to figure out how much it would cost to eat, stay at the hotels, fuel your car, and rent a car.

This entire project was at each individual’s pace, which worked out extremely well for me. I can go as fast as I wanted without having to wait, while I also could take time on specific parts of the project I might have been confused about. While this project tied in with U.S. history, it not only taught me pre-algebra, math, and setting proportions, it also included a life lesson that I will know for a lifetime. Time management and being wise with your money are crucial understandings that I will need to know in the future. For example, I didn’t want my trip to be year-long, and I also didn’t want to pick the Jeep (the most expensive car available to drive my 7,650 mile journey) because it was a cool car.

The math needed to finish this project is tedious and hard. The fact that this project had multiple steps really encouraged me to try and get one step done each day and to strive for two. The pleasure I received during this project was from part 2. In this section you had to figure out how many miles per gallon your car could go. The reason why is because I feel as if I worked the hardest on this part over all of the others. The math needed to complete this portion was meticulous and I was intrigued even more each car I completed. Before the completion of this project, I was forced to face rough patches along the way. The hardest part might seem silly to you; nevertheless, it was pretty difficult for me. Sometimes choices are good and they allow you to do what you want; however, a bit more boundaries might have helped me finish this task a bit faster. Being able to pick your own cities was actually the hardest part for me because I am not very quick at picking choices. With over thousands and thousands of cities all over the United States, to only pick five was a bit arduous.

Overall, this project broadened my horizons and helped me learn about math, social studies, and daily life situations. To be able to do projects similar to this one would be great because I really enjoyed everything involved with it. From the Civil War to the Battle of Fort Sumter, the cities I chose tied in perfectly with U.S. history, while they also were cities that I would want to visit in real life.

The traditional structure of education doesn’t really allow for formal written reflection. We must spend time teaching students to think about their learning and the process they completed to get there. As students become better at reflection, they will be better able to ask for specific help to move forward. This gift can’t be underestimated. Consider if or when you take time to teach kids to think about their processes. When would reflection be appropriate in your classes? How might this process support work you’re already doing?