Mark Barnes has discovered a big problem in education and believes he can solve it. That is the aim of the book Assessment 3.0 sub-titled Throw out your gradebook and inspire learning. The problem is that grades get in the way of learning and are not even very good at reporting on the amount of learning that has taken place when they are given.
If you have been following Barnes’ website, Brilliant or Insane, you will be familiar with the arguments, the statistics and the case studies, but it is nice to have that all together in one place with the argument set out in a logical manner. The book is an easy read but also contains everything you need to start out on the road of throwing out grades yourself.
So what is the argument? Barnes first shows us how our supposedly objective grading approaches are anything but. He also reminds us that schooling is not about grades but about learning and that what promotes learning is narrative feedback. This sounds like a lot of hard work: why write an essay when you could just make do with a letter grade? But in the end he shows us that the process of narrative feedback can be pretty much automated and that in fact it needs to err on the short side otherwise students won’t read it.
The key to success is motivating students to return to their work in order to improve it. This is something which very rarely happens when you give out letter grades. Barnes advocates the use of SE2R as a formula for producing your objective feedback.
S – Summarise (what you see)
E- Explain (what skills or concepts have been mastered)
R- Redirect (to resources to ensure mastery)
R- Resubmit (for further feedback)
Essentially this is mastery learning and Barnes measures his success by the proportion of students who are willing to resubmit their work. In standard classes this is a pretty high proportion and Barnes shows that he can even get lower achieving classes to reach a high resubmit percentage with perseverance. It is the high resubmit percentage which no doubt leads to the good grades on tests which Barnes’ students cannot avoid in the end. Just for calibration purposes Barnes estimates that if 60% of the work is not re-submitted then this leads to a D-F end of year grade.
This approach definitely values student work more by saying
„If you do X, Y and Z, this will show you have mastered a, b & c and I will be interested to see it when you have done so.“
Of course you cannot avoid grades altogether and schools tend to require an end of year grade, The solution to this is to let the students decide their grades based on their portfolio of work and its accompanying feedback in a conversation with their teacher. This gives the students agency that in Barnes‘ experience, they do not abuse.
Barnes does not shy in the book from addressing the concerns that teachers and other stakeholders may have about not giving grades and I for one, am convinced by his answers. However I am not in a situation where I can put this into practice so I don’t know how amenable my students or teacher colleagues would be in practice.
Barnes would like to convince you to ditch grades. I can see all sorts of reasons why you may not want to. However, the book is worth a look for what it has to say about learning, the motivation to learn, a drive towards mastery and agency and the benefits of thinking aloud about thinking.
When you’re convinced of the case for not grading, you will be needing to learn a great deal more about giving effective feedback and there is of course a great deal of help on Barnes‘ website Brilliant or Insane. See for example http://www.brilliant-insane.com/assessing-student-learning
This book comes out on February 3rd
You can hear Mark Barnes explain this approach himself at this TEDx talk
Full disclosure: I won a free pre-publication copy of the book