Teaching Opinion

Earning Good Grades Versus Learning

By Starr Sackstein — December 16, 2018 15 min read
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Guest post by Amanda Gaughan, a Rider University preservice teacher

As a high school student, I was so worried about meeting deadlines and getting good grades that if I did not have something finished or was not prepared for an assessment, I would just stay home from school for the entire day. Looking back on my experience, I can clearly see that I put too much pressure on myself to complete everything and earn good grades.

Recently, my 14-year-old sister had to complete a French project. The project, which was worth more than 100 points, required her to create a video of her describing her family. As she wrote and practiced her lines, she became more and more visibly upset. I think her stress was stemming partially from the fact that she was describing our family, which some may consider to be “nontraditional.” However, I believe a significant amount of stress was caused by the heavy weight of the assignment; she was worried her grade would suffer drastically if she did not do well on this assignment.

My field placement this semester is in Thomas R. Grover Middle School in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district in New Jersey. Like my own, this is a district in which there is significant pressure put on students by teachers, parents, and students to achieve. This is evident in the large number of students struggling to remain in honors algebra courses when they could be excelling in a regular-level algebra course. Furthermore, to alleviate some of the stress students feel from their parents, the district has opted to declare homework-free evenings, which sometimes fall on weekends. While this policy does help students on the nights it is enacted, it led me to wonder if more could be done to remove student stress from classroom environments.

The idea of a gradeless classroom seems exciting, as there is significant stress surrounding grades in many school districts on both ends of the spectrum. In the higher-achieving districts, students feel pressure from themselves and their parents to perform well, especially when the idea of college acceptances enters the equation. On the other hand, lower-achieving districts see their students stressed out about grades when assignments are missed, results of the other responsibilities students have such as caring for family members or working. Additionally, at home, these students do not receive the same academic support as students in higher-achieving districts. Students across the board should be focused on attaining knowledge of content and the learning process in general, rather than worrying about earning good grades.

Students should have the opportunity to delve into the topics which truly interest them. However, because of time constraints and curriculum requirements, reality has these opportunities far and few between. Unfortunately, many high schools are designed in a way that requires students to have a surface-level understanding of numerous topics, rarely allowing students to reach for deeper understanding. Some people say students will pursue their interests outside of school. While some may do so, students have a wide variety of interests, including sports, music, and art, which they often do not have the opportunity to do during school hours. The combination of the school-structure-induced limitations, extracurriculars, eating, and sleeping, leaves virtually no time in the day for students to explore academic interests. That being said, I decided to look further into the idea of gradeless classrooms as a way to not only alleviate student stress but also to engender a sense of lifelong learning in students.

Review of Research/Literature

The research process for gradeless classrooms proved to be limited. There has been very little research on the topic thus far. Rather than reading more formal academic journals and published work, I found myself searching blogs and Twitter to find information. I feel as though this reflects the reality of gradeless classrooms, as these classrooms are significantly less formal than traditional classrooms.

In Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional School, Sackstein expresses the frustration she often felt with traditional letter grades’ inability to reflect her students’ growth. The book continues to detail how she transformed her classroom into the gradeless classroom she knows and loves today. In her experience, the lower-level learners were most comfortable with the new model in the beginning, as they were not labeled as incapable and were empowered to become experts in different areas of the course content (Sackstein, 2015, p. 15). However, for those students who were comfortable and successful in traditional classrooms, there was greater difficulty getting them on board. “Most of the 12th-grade Advanced Placement class defined themselves as A students, and if I took this away from them, how would they know they were excelling?” (Sackstein, 2015, p. 16). This exemplifies that some students are ready to dive into this new learning model, while others are more hesitant. To combat this, the classes had discussions about the definitions of achievement and the meaning of an A letter grade, stressing the importance of actually learning information versus working for a specific score or grade. Sackstein then describes the grading process. The school where she teaches requires her to update an online grade book with students’ progress on the course standards. Before grades are due, she has students compile finished work and complete a self-reflection Google Form. She then meets with them to discuss their progress on the standards. Together, they determine a grade for their report cards, leaving no surprises for when grades go out to parents.

In “A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry,” Kyle Spencer details the changes a Brooklyn middle school made to improve student achievement. It details the origin of mastery-based learning in the 1960s with Benjamin Bloom, who “imagined a more holistic system that required students to demonstrate learning before moving ahead” (Spencer, 2017). To determine students’ readiness to move ahead, teachers used the New York state curriculum and the Common Core State Standards to develop a rubric with the skills students need to master in each grade level. Color coding is used to visually see student progress. Students have the duration of the school year to master their content as gradeless classrooms have less-strict time constraints than traditional classrooms. Implementing these policies was not automatic, but as time went on, students learned the importance of learning the material, and they began to do just that. Overall, the shift to the new classroom model improved student performance on standardized assessments and created a sense of ownership of learning for many students.

In a blog post entitled “I’m a Second Semester Senior,” an AP Environmental Science teacher describes the frustration he felt with his second-semester seniors working to earn grades instead of working to learn the material. He details his students’ grade-centered tendencies, which led him to take points off the table completely. These tendencies include students only completing the assignments they need to based on the desired grade, as well as students calculating the lowest grade they can get on an assessment to achieve their desired grade. He eventually makes the point that his students, by the time they are admitted to college and are thinking about prom and graduation, ask why they should care about grades. Rather than fighting them, he chose to join them by taking graded assignments away and supporting his students in learning the course content.

Andrew Burnett teaches 7th-grade math in a gradeless classroom. In his blog, he details the inner workings of his room and how he monitors student achievement. In his version of the gradeless classroom, he makes certain the students know the standards they are learning and practicing each day. Eight times per year, he has students self-assess and then conference with him about their progress to determine a grade. He also has students complete “Show Me What You Can Do” assignments, which serve as ungraded versions of traditional tests and show the standards reflected next to each question. To save student work while also having it available for students to learn from, Burnett uses Seesaw, an online portfolio. After students explain the correct procedure to solve the problem, he provides them the opportunity to redo similar questions on assessments if they feel they can perform better than they originally did. Additionally, Burnett changed his obligatory, graded homework to “learning opportunities.” This transforms grading time into time for him to plan more engaging lessons, and it gives students more ownership of their learning. They now get to decide if they need to do the additional practice or not. He says the number of students taking advantage of these learning opportunities is about the same as when they were required homework. Overall, Burnett feels the switch to a gradeless classroom has created a more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom and shifted focus away from grades and onto learning content, just as he had envisioned.

Research Questions:

How do gradeless classrooms promote lifelong learning for students?

Do certain types of learners benefit more from gradeless classrooms?


A combination of observing gradeless classrooms and interviewing students and teachers would be optimal to get a holistic view of the way these classrooms work, but this was not plausible for this small-scale project. Because gradeless classrooms are fairly new, there are not many environments with these policies. Therefore, the data for this study were collected through interviews with gradeless-classroom teachers about their experiences and the lasting impact they feel these environments have on students. I was able to find two of my interviewees through Twitter connections. There were three participants; S.S., who teaches English and newspaper courses in New York; A.S., who teaches science in Ontario; and A.B., who teaches mathematics in Massachusetts; who answered the following four questions:

  1. Which specific content areas lend themselves to gradeless classrooms more naturally than others? Why or why not?

  2. What types of learners benefit most from this new type of learning environment? In what ways?

  3. How does a gradeless-classroom environment promote lifelong learning for students?

  4. What policies/practices should educators implement in their gradeless classrooms to help develop their students as lifelong learners?


In examining the responses of the three interviewees, there were some similarities to each question.

  1. In subjects which are more fluid, there are more opportunities for gradeless classrooms. This includes S.S.'s English classroom, as well as many other social studies and language arts classrooms. However, A.S. and A.B. teach science and math, respectively, and said it is possible to create gradeless-classroom environments with some careful preparation and planning.

  2. The students who typically take longer to learn the material, students who truly care about learning content and not just passing assessments, and students who struggle to demonstrate their learning benefit most in gradeless classrooms. Additionally, A.B. pointed out that the students who lose points for not completing assignments once they understand a topic benefit in this new classroom model.

  3. When schools remove the fear of getting poor grades, students are more willing to take risks in their classes. This can also lead to a greater desire to learn and a greater enjoyment of learning and the desire to learn. Taking away grades eliminates questions such as, “How many points is this worth?” and instead produces questions like, “How do I do this?” the type of questions educators should spend time answering.

  4. Ultimately, when teachers focus on getting students to understand the material, more learning occurs in schools. In order for educators to develop lifelong learners, they should allot some class time for self-reflection. Additionally, time should be allotted for individual conferences with each student.


In combining the research and the collected data, two strong conclusions can be drawn. The first conclusion is that gradeless classrooms promote lifelong learning by shifting student focus from earning a grade to learning the course content. The second conclusion is that different types of learners can benefit from gradeless classrooms.

Gradeless classrooms promote lifelong learning in several ways. Beginning with Bloom’s original vision for mastery-based learning, students should master skills before advancing on to further topics. This reflects real life, as in most fields, the basics must be understood before higher-level work can be completed. In removing grades from classrooms, students become more willing to take risks. Rather than being focused on earning good grades, students can finally focus on learning the material. As A.B. shared, students’ questions change when grades are removed. In his experience, questions about the weight of an assignment were replaced with questions about math procedures themselves. The interviewees and literature also stressed the importance of incorporating opportunities for student self-reflection and student-teacher conferences. Self-reflection is critical, as it allows learners to assess their own understanding and progress. This reflection also helps learners see what information they still need to learn. Conferences give students the chance to showcase their work and progress over time, a skill required in a wide variety of fields. Some critics of the gradeless classroom believe students will not apply themselves and complete work. However, Burnett shared when he changed mandatory homework into available “learning opportunities,” he had nearly the same percentage of students completing them. Overall, gradeless classrooms create independent, lifelong learners by allowing students to take on some of the responsibility of their own educations.

The second conclusion is that different types of learners benefit from gradeless classrooms. Some people believe the gradeless -classroom model leaves students with too many decisions about which assignments to complete. However, as Sackstein described, she saw that students of all levels took some time to adjust, but they were eventually able to succeed in this new type of classroom. Some students catch on to new content easily and do not benefit from completing practice after practice as traditional classrooms require. Contrastingly, some students require more time to learn concepts, and they get that with the gradeless-classroom model. Students have multiple opportunities throughout the school year to demonstrate their understanding of content, not just one summative assessment as is common in many classrooms. Additionally, students who are normally written off in traditional classrooms benefit from gradeless classrooms. This model returns to them a sense of confidence and gives them the time they need to really excel. When there are grades to worry about, students’ brainpower is taken away from learning the content and is used to determine what they need to do for a certain grade. When this distraction is removed, students who truly want to learn the material have time to do exactly that. In general, when grades are removed from classrooms, all students can benefit.

Implications for Practice:

For the gradeless classroom: Any subject-area teacher can implement a gradeless classroom, so long as educators are strategic in choosing the classroom policies that will govern their rooms. Periodically, time should be allotted for students to reflect on their work and learning. Additionally, student-teacher conferences should be implemented to allow the student to discuss how they feel their learning is progressing. This will also allow time for teachers to share their observations and describe any changes they feel necessary to ensure student success in learning.

For the graded classroom: These practices are not exclusive to the gradeless classroom. The creation of a rubric of all the standards students need to learn is a good framework for ensuring assessments are accurate. Additionally, students need to be able to assess their understanding of topics as college students and as working individuals, so providing opportunities like questionnaires and conferences for students to self-reflect will benefit them tremendously. Educators should also reflect on their grading policies and their effect on student stress levels.

For myself as a future educator: Sackstein’s idea of discussing the meaning of achievement seems as though it is a good starting place to create a classroom culture focused on learning. Additionally, I know schools expect teachers to grade students based on their abilities to do each skill as described in the curriculum. To help me do this, I plan to keep a record of all the course standards and mark when each student achieves each standard. I think a color-coding system, like the one used in Brooklyn, would help myself and students monitor progress. Conferencing with students about their work in class would help us come to a mutual understanding of what comes next in their learning journey as well as a letter grade if required, which represents their learning up to that point. I believe viewing learning as a continuous journey, rather than a series of topics or chapters, will help students understand learning is not confined to the walls of their school or their youth.


Burnett, A. (2018, March 8). How to create a gradeless math classroom in a school that requires grades [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://burnettmath.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/how-to-create-a-gradeless-math-classroom-in-a-school-that-requires-grades/

I’m a second-semester senior [Blog post]. (2017, December 19). Retrieved from What’s the point? website: https://mrhallihan.blogspot.com/2017/12/im-second-semester-senior.html

Sackstein, S. (2015). Hack Learning: Hacking assessment. Cleveland Times 10.

Spencer, K. (2017, August 11). A new kind of classroom: No grades, no failing, no hurry. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/11/nyregion/mastery-based-learning-no-grades.html

Amanda Gaughan is a junior at Rider University double-majoring in secondary education and mathematics. She is a STEM Scholars recipient and expects to graduate in May 2020. While working as a tutor in a New Orleans charter school, she discovered her love for teaching. Amanda has been coaching competitive cheerleading for the past five years and has been a camp counselor for the past two summers. Working with children in these nonacademic capacities inspires her to create a stress-free classroom environment for her future students. Twitter: @msgaughanclass

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