No grades, Comments only, please.

All of them bent their heads intently over their papers.  They were furiously writing and responding to the colored marks on the pages – and I hadn’t even asked them to!  I almost didn’t know how to proceed, as I hadn’t expected this reception.  So I just waited and observed their productivity.  One student asks, “What do you mean by this comment?”  I explain and then he replies, “Oh! I get it!” and proceeds to write.  Another girl seeks clarification in understanding.  Another ponders a deeper response to one of the questions she had already written on.

What is going on?  Students are responding to comments-only feedback I had written on their lab write-ups.

In the Dylan Wiliam conference I attended a month ago, we were advised that feedback should “move learning on” and should “put learning in the hands of the learner”.  We were told that this type of feedback is best in the form of comment-only marking.  Dylan further shared with us a somewhat controlled study in which the same teachers working in several different classrooms in several different schools administered assessments with three different kinds of feedback: 1) Comments only, 2) Grades only, 3) Comments + grades.  Only the students receiving comments-only feedback demonstrated improvement in achievement.

So, I decided to try it.

Last week my students had completed a series of reflective questions on a global warming lab activity we had carried out in class.  I wrote only comments on the reports with no grade indicated anywhere.  I must admit, it took some restraint to not tally the incorrect answers and put some kind of total on their papers.  Today I handed the students their lab papers and asked them to look through the comments to make sure they understood what I had written.  I was so surprised by the immediate reaction that ensued as they began pouring over their papers and my comments.  I was even more amazed when they picked up their pencils and began replying to the comments, without even being told to do so!  I think I stood there rather stunned for a few seconds as I processed what was happening. Then I thought, “Dylan Wiliam was right” and here is the evidence, the comments-only feedback put the learning in the hands of the learner and it moved learning on.  Oh, and not one student asked what the grade was.  

So, does this mean I’m on a track of developing a “no grades” policy?  Umm, No.  However, I do see myself using comments-only feedback in the beginning of a unit when students are developing understanding and then giving grades on assessments that are given later in the unit when mastery of the content and skills is expected.