# An Experiment: Swapping Numerical Grades for Skill-Levels and Emoji

I decided to try something different for my pre-Calculus class for the past three weeks. There was a mix of factors that led me to do this when I did:

- The quarter ended one week, with spring break beginning at the end of the next. Not a great time to start a full unit.
- I knew I wanted to include some conic sections content in the course since it appears on the SAT II, and since the graphs appear in IB and AP questions. Some familiarity might be useful. In addition, conic sections also appear as plus standards within CCSS.
- The topic provides a really interesting opportunity to connect the worlds of geometry and algebra. Much of this connection, historically, is wrapped up in algebraic derivations. I wanted to use technology to do much of the heavy lifting here.
- Students were exhibiting pretty high levels of stress around school in general, and I wanted to provide a bit of a break from that.
- We are not in a hurry in this class.

Before I share the details of what I did, I have to share the other side to this. A long time ago, I was intrigued by the conversation started around the Twitter hashtag #emojigrading, a conversational fire stoked by Jon Smith, among many others. I like the idea of using emoji to communicate, particularly given my frustrations over the past year on how communication of grades as numbers distort their meaning and imply precision that doesn’t exist. Emoji can be used communicate quickly, but can’t be averaged.

I was also very pleased to find out that PowerSchool comments can contain emoji, and will display them correctly based on the operating system being used.

So here’s the idea I pitched to students:

- Unit 7 standards on conic sections would not be assessed with numerical grades, ever. As a result, these grades would not affect their numerical average.
- We would still have standards quizzes and a unit exam, but instead of grades of 6, 8, and 10, there would be some other designation that students could help select. I would grade the quizzes and give feedback during the class, as with the rest of the units this year.
- Questions related to Unit 7 would still appear on the final exam for the semester, where scores will be point based.

I also let students submit some examples of an appropriate scale. Here’s what I settled on based on their recommendations:

I also asked them for their feedback before this all began. Here’s what they said:

- Positive Feedback:
- Fourteen students made some mention of a reduction in stress or pressure. Some also mentioned the benefits of the grade being less specific being a good thing.
- Three students talked about being able to focus more on learning as a result. Note that since I already use a standards based grading system, my students are pretty aware of how much I value learning being reflected in the grade book.

- Constructive Feedback:
- Students were concerned about their own motivation about studying or reassessing knowing that the grades would not be part of the numerical average.
- Some students were concerned about not having knowledge about where they are relative to the boundaries of the grades.
*Note: I don’t see this by itself as a bad thing, but perhaps as the start of a different conversation. Instead of how to raise my grade, it becomes how I develop the skills needed to reach a higher level.* - There were also mentions of ‘objectivity’ and how I would measure their performance relative to standards. I explained during class that I would probably do what I always do: calculate scores on individual standards, and use those scores to inform my decisions on standards levels. I was careful to explain that I wasn’t going to change how I generate the standards scores (which students have previously agreed are fair) but how I communicate them.

I asked an additional question about what their parents would think about the change. My plan was to send out an email to all parents informing them of the specifics of the change, and I wanted students to think proactively about how their parents would respond. Their response in general: “They won’t care much.” This was surprising to me.

So I proceeded with the unit. I used a mix of direct instruction, some Trello style lists of tasks from textbooks, websites, and Desmos, and lots of circulating and helping students individually where they needed it. I tried to keep the only major change to this unit to be the communication of the scores through the grade book using the emoji and verbal designation of beginner, intermediate, expert. As I also said earlier, I gave skills quizzes throughout.

The unit exam was a series of medium level questions that I wanted to use to gauge where students were when everything was together. As with my other units, I gave a review class after the spring break where students could work on their own and in groups, asking questions where they needed it. Anecdotally, the class was as focused and productive as for any other unit this year.

I was able to ask one group some questions about this after their unit test, and here’s how they responded:

The fact that the stress level was the same, if not less, was good to see. The effort level did drop in the case of a couple of students here, but for the most part, there isn’t any major change. This class as a whole values working independently, so I’m not surprised that none reported working __harder__ during this unit.

I also asked them to give me general feedback about the no-numerical-grades policy. Some of them deleted their responses before I could take a look, but here’s some of what they shared:

- Three students confirmed a lower stress level. One student explained that since there was no numerical grade, she “…couldn’t force/motivate [her]self to study.”
- Five students said the change made little to no difference to them. One student summed it up nicely: “It wasn’t much different than the numerical grades, but it definitely wasn’t worse.”
- One student said this: “The emojis seemed abstract so I wasn’t as sure of where I was within the unit compared to numbers.” This is one of a couple of the students that had concerns about knowing how to move from one level to the next, so the unit didn’t change this particular student’s mind.

- This was a really thought-provoking exercise. A move away from numerical grades is a compelling proposition, but a frequent argument against it is that grades motivate students. By no means have I disproven this fact in the results of my small case study. If a move like this can have a minimal effect on motivation, and students get the feedback they need to improve, it offers an opportunity for considering similar experiments in my other classes.
There are a couple questions I still have on this. Will students choose to reassess on the learning standards from unit 7, given that they won’t change the numerical average when we return to numerical grades for unit 8? The second involves the longer term retention of this material. How will students do on these questions when they appear on the final exam?

I’ll return to this when I have more answers.