March 2018

Alternative Approaches to Assessment: An Excerpt from Ungrading

In this excerpt from How To Ungrade used with permission of its author, Jesse Stommel provocatively suggests alternative assessment strategies that leave more room for dialogue between students and teachers than numerical grading. Stommel writes from a higher education context but the examples can be very useful in K-12 spaces. Edcampers, we suggest you check out these examples and think about how they can be applied to your classroom. 

The work of teaching shouldn't be reduced to the mechanical act of grading or marking. Our talk of grading shouldn't be reduced to our complaining about the continuing necessity of it.

But, if grades are going to control so many of the conversations we have in education, at the very least can we be more creative in how we approach them?

Alternate Approaches to Assessment

As I've said, there is no single approach that will work for every teacher, with every student, or at every institution. I find that ungrading works better when a teacher feels they can fully own their pedagogical approach (which requires administrators and institutions to defend the academic freedom of teachers, especially adjuncts). There are lots of different possible paths toward ungrading, and smaller experiments can be just as fruitful as larger ones.

  • Grade Free Zones

Sometimes, it's hard to imagine diving right into the deep end of ungrading, so try having the first 1/3 of the term be ungraded, a sandbox for students to experiment inside before moving on to the more formal activities of a course. Or decide to grade only a few major assignments.

  • Self-assessment

I've already talked at length about how I use self-assessment. What I'll add is that this work is both part of my approach to the problem of grades and also an end goal in and of itself. Ann Berthoff writes “Learning to look carefully, to see what you're looking at, is perenially acclaimed as the essential skill for both artist and scientist.” Metacognition is a practical skill that cuts across disciplines.

  • Process Letters

If you're only grading a few assignments, you may not feel like you have enough information to determine a final grade at the end of a course. I have students write process letters, describing their learning and how their work evolves over the term. This can be text, including (or linking to) representative examples of work they don't otherwise turn in. You might also ask students to take pictures of their work as it evolves, add voiceover to a screencast, or I've had students shoot video for a film documenting their learning (a sort of behind the scenes reel for the class).

  • Minimal grading

In “Grading Student Writing: Making it Simpler, Fairer, Clearer,” Peter Elbow describes what he calls “minimal grading,” using a scale with only one, two, or three levels instead of giving students (admittedly bizarre) grades like 97%, 18/20, or A-/B+. Scales like these with too many gradations make it difficult for teachers to determine grades and even more difficult for students to interpret them. Elbow recommends scales with fewer gradations: [one] turned in, [two] pass/fail, [three] strong/satisfactory/weak. He also describes a “zero scale,” in which some work is assigned but not collected at all. This frees the teacher from feeling they have to respond to, evaluate, or even read every bit of work students do. And this last, moving away from student work as a thing to be “collected,” might actually prove best at creating intrinsic motivation to do the work of a course.

  • Authentic Assessment

In my film courses, I often ask students to organize a film festival or premiere in order to share their work for the class. These usually include talk-backs with the audience. Increasingly, I don't ask students to turn any assignments into me (aside from their self-reflections). The community of the class (including me but not just me) becomes their audience. In a service learning course, this community expands even further beyond the boundaries of the class. In short, how can we create reasons more meaningful than points for students to do the work of a course?

  • Contract grading

Grading contracts convey expectations about what is required for each potential grade. In “A Grade-less Writing Course that Focuses on Labor and Assessing,” Asao B. Inoue argues for “calculating course grades by labor completed and [dispensing] almost completely with judgments of quality.” Students work toward the grade they want to achieve, and goal posts don't unexpectedly shift. These contracts can also be negotiated with the class. Either way, contract grading pushes against the relegating of people into categories, “A student,” “B student,” by keeping the focus on the work rather than the student. They can be humane in a way standardized teacher-centered rubrics usually are not. Contracts run the risk of centering grades even more than traditional grading, but at their best, the negotiating around the contract becomes a way for a group of students to collectively worry the edges of grading as a system.

  • Portfolios

Increasingly, many corporate e-portfolio platforms are walled gardens, giving students a regimented way of gathering together their work for the purposes of assessment. I prefer more authentic portfolios that have use value beyond the needs of individual, course, programatic, or institutional assessment. University of Mary Washington's Domain of One's Own project offers a space for students to do this kind of work, choosing a domain name, carving out space for themselves on the Web, and crafting a digital identity that exists outside (but also in conversation with) their coursework. It's a metacognitive space, but also one with immediate practical value (as a way to share their work with potential collaborators, employers, grad. schools, etc.).

  • Peer-Assessment

Peer-assessment can be formal (having students evaluate each other's work) or informal (just having students actively engage with one another's work). It can be particularly useful when having students work in large groups. I frequently have students work on projects that have an entire class (of 25 or more) collaborating. When I do this, I ask every student to write a process letter that addresses their own contributions as well as the functionality and dynamic of the team they're working with. With large group projects, it's hard for me to see what and how each student contributes, but these letters help me get a view into a process I might not otherwise be able to see. If it's a project students work on across the entire term, doing multiple process letters also allows me to get the information I need to step in and help when and where I'm needed.

  • Student-made Rubrics

I'm really not a fan of rubrics. Alfie Kohn, in “The Trouble with Rubrics,” describes them as an “attempt to deny the subjectivity of human judgment.” Rubrics are often recommended as a way to make standards for evaluation transparent, but for me, a 5x5 grid filled with copious text is bewildering and inscrutable. Rubrics have never helped me make sense of grading or being graded. Peter Elbow encourages making rubrics plainer and more direct, a 3x3 or smaller grid. The rubrics I find most exciting are ones crafted by students—so that the making of the rubric becomes an act of learning itself rather than a mechanism (or set of assumptions) created entirely in advance of students arriving to a course.

Jesse Stommel is Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington. He is also Co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab and Hybrid Pedagogy: an open-access journal of learning, teaching, and technology. He’s online at and on Twitter @Jessifer.

Making Student Feedback Matter: Moonpies are Changing My Classroom

In this article from EduMatch, middle school teacher Jennifer Hawkins talks about how she incentivizes student feedback and encourages risk-taking in the classroom.  In student recognition, the WHY is overwhelmingly important. How do you recognize student efforts in your classroom? 

I was talking to a coworker the other day about how they are struggling to connect with their students.

“Moonpies are changing my whole class dynamic,” I said in reply. She looked at me like I had nine heads.

Now, if you are not from the South and you are reading this, we may have two VERY different ideas on what a moonpie is. (I am from NJ, I used to have no idea either.) It is graham cracker flavored cookies, with marshmallow fluff in the middle, all covered in chocolate. AKA a middle schooler’s dream.

I recently read an article about the impact that writing individualized notes to students had in one teacher’s classroom. I sent the article to my principal right away and begged for school stationary. I was going to take this teacher’s challenge and see if note writing could have the same effect on my students, but I needed to do it in a way that was comfortable and unique to me.

I knew my personality, and I knew that there was no way I could keep up with a letter a day, but writing 5 on Thursday night for Friday was doable for me. I also wanted to come up with a theme for these letters, something that the kids could call them and refer to them by.

As I traveled through the grocery store, I landed upon the cookie aisle. There was where I spotted them, the glorious moon pies. So sugary, so chocolatey, so perfect for middle schoolers. I know that I could create a pun to attach to the cookies while writing my students’ notes.

That night I picked my 5 kids who worked super hard that week. They might not have gotten the best grades or been a model of perfect behavior, but they tackled a challenge unique to them. I started each letter with, “This week, you performed out of this world!”

Each child got a personalized note about how impressed I was with their actions and their ability to take risks that better themselves. I made sure each child knew how their triumphs impacted me.

“You taught me the power of making the most out of a second chance.” 
“You taught me to see challenges as a puzzle, not a road block.”
“You taught me that one mistake doesn’t define me.” 

I took each of their notes and taped it to a fresh Moonpie and delivered it to their homeroom. I can’t lie to you, I haven’t seen genuine smiles like that in a long time. Quickly, other kids took notice….

“WOAH! Mrs. H, how do I get one of those??”
“Dude, what did you do special to get one of those?”
“What does taking risks mean?”

I didn’t waste this moment. I quickly explained that these students went above and beyond to improve themselves as students last week and that the Moonpie awards are for those who are willing to take risks to better themselves.

While the snacks have given life and a name to the new movement, it is the notes that are having the biggest impact. Students don’t realize that we see them trying, even if it doesn’t show in the grade book. We need to take a moment to encourage those first steps, so our students have the confidence to leap when taking risks in the future.

It doesn’t matter if it’s moonpies or lollipops. Maybe it’s outdoor lunch passes or computer time. Whatever the motivator is for your students, use it to celebrate the first steps. Encourage them to embrace the moment. And take the time to tell them WHY. Don’t just hand them an award, make sure that you tell them why you are taking the time to recognize them. I promise it will impact them in ways you can’t imagine.

Jen Hawkins is a 6th grade math and language arts teacher in Apex, NC. Visit her blog “My Three Cents” for more posts

Taking Assessments Deeper: Authentic and Project-Based Assessments

In this article, Desiree Alexander speaks to the power of authentic and project-based assessments in the classroom, with a special example of job readiness community interviews. Read more of her perspectives on teaching at

Common assessments. We all know them and use them in the classroom. However, in order to bring innovation to the classroom, we also need to be innovative in our assessments. Using authentic and project-based assessments is a way to assess students’ level of learning while also teaching skills through those assessments. 

In our classrooms, we have the power to take assessments deeper by allowing the student to show they know the content while also learning skills as they are performing the assessment.

Gone are the days of the skill and drill. Students bubbling in answers through memorization should be a thing of the past. Even our standardized tests are now asking students to think and support their answers. In our classrooms, we have the power to take assessments deeper by allowing the student to show they know the content while also learning skills as they are performing the assessment. For instance, using authentic assessments helps students connect content to real life skills by asking them to perform tasks to show their learning. For example, an authentic assessment that engages student voice while gauging if the student learned content would be to use Flipgrid to allow the student to record a timed video answering how a historical event affected the lives of survivors and using 2 resources to support their argument. Then, have students respond to each other’s arguments in a timed video by supporting or arguing against their peers while using resources as support. This not only assess the content while using resources to support arguments, but this assessment also teaches technology usage, oral presentation skills, digital citizenship, debating skills, editing to stay on topic, etc. 

Similarly, using project-based assessments helps students use an extended amount of time to work on a project to prove their learning.  For example, for a unit on job readiness, the final exam wasn’t an exam at all. It was an actual interview. Students had to take what was learned about business dress, interview skills, and what to do before and after an interview to actually set up an interview with teachers at the school. Each teacher was given a fake company. Students had to look through the company’s profiles to decide which company to apply for. They then had to apply and make contact with the company (the teacher). An interview was set and the student had a formal interview with the company in the cafeteria or library during the teacher’s planning period or as someone monitored the teacher’s class. The teacher was given everything they needed (including their company’s profile, interview questions and a rubric to grade the student with specific feedback on why they would or would not hire the student). The student would then self-assess themselves to evaluate how they think they did. The student would receive all of the feedback and the assigning teacher would give the final grade based on the overall project rubric. Think of all of the skills that the students learned from this assessment while proving they learned the content in the lesson!

A tip to learning more about practical examples of authentic and project-based assessments is to attend an EdCamp. EdCamps can help because of the structure of the teacher-led events. Attend an EdCamp and tell them you want to learn about these topics or that you would like to share your own experiences! If enough educators want to learn about this topic, it will be scheduled. If enough teachers did not ask for that topic, make your own impromptu learning group about it. Ask around to see who would like to discuss and then duck away together in a space and make your own discussion group. That is the unique difference of an EdCamp; you actually learn what you really want to learn! 

So give authentic and project based assessments a try in your classroom and witness your students work harder than you may have seen them work before while they show you they learned the content, but continue to learn so much more during the assessment!

Ms. Desiree Alexander, Ed.S. is an award-winning, multi-degreed educator who has been in the educational field since 2002. She is currently the Regional Director of North Louisiana for the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana. She is the Founder CEO of Educator Alexander Consulting, LLC. She consults with members of several schools/businesses and presents at conferences nationwide.

Edcamp #StayInTeaching, AR

In a report on the 2017 work of the Northwest Arkansas Writing Project, they covered the merits of Edcamp #StayInTeaching, which took place in March 2017. They write: 

"EdCamp #StayinTeaching is specifically intended to provide a space for teachers in their first five years of teaching, but all are welcome. Providing opportunities for early-career teachers is important because, in Arkansas, 35 percent of teachers leave the profession during their first five years. This creates a revolving door of less-experienced educators teaching Arkansas students.  Giving early-career teachers opportunities to share their knowledge and learn together at an experience such as EdCamp supports teacher retention. 

Vicki Collet, who helped organize the event, said EdCamp is an experience that appeals to early-career teachers. Collet is associate director of Northwest Arkansas Writing Project and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational and Health Professions. “EdCamp is interactive, needs-driven, and technology rich,” Collet said. “This EdCamp was planned primarily by early-career teachers, giving them leadership experience and a chance to share their insight. We hope this EdCamp gave educators across the region the opportunity to discuss effective teaching strategies and work collaboratively,” she said. Below are the results of a quick exit survey we asked participants to complete. As demonstrated in the survey, 73% of participants felt that Edcamp was awesome, and about 91% felt sure they would use something they learned that day. These positive evaluations suggest that the structure of Edcamps is beneficial for EC teachers."

Edcamp Rome, GA

The Rome News-Tribune was on hand to cover the 2018 Edcamp Rome in Rome, GA. Please read the full story at The Rome News-Tribune site. 

"Both Ellison and Stover said educators in their system have taken what they’ve learned at Edcamp and put it into practice, from fully utilizing the Google apps of G Suite to using YouTube Live to share lesson plans with homebound students to implementing innovative classroom management techniques.

Coosa Middle School teacher Melissa Martin was one example Ellison gave. Two years ago she sat in on a presentation about gamified learning — turning traditional lessons into game format — from an out-of-district educator. She got absorbed in the idea and has completely gamified her classroom to increase student engagement. She then became a presenter at Edcamp to share her experiment with others."

Now Shipping! Maker Kits from MakerPromise

Furthering the partnership with MakerPromise that began in 2017, all Edcamp organizers will have the opportunity to add making activities to their event. Edcamp organizers will receive resources from Maker Promise to provide maker learning activities for their attendees. These will include a resource guide with tips on how to set up a station for participants to create their own circuit tile kits from cardboard and office supplies, and a social game that asks participants to collaboratively redesign a class project incorporating core values of maker learning – agency, authenticity and audience – into their designs.



PBS + Edcamp Partnership Updates

In October 2017, PBS and Edcamp announced a first-of-its-kind national partnership for early childhood educators across the country to engage in peer-to-peer learning. Through this innovative effort, Edcamp and PBS member stations bring together teachers in communities across the country to elevate their voices and empower them professionally. In more than a dozen Edcamps that have been scheduled so far, here’s some updates on what’s been happening with a few quotes from participants and photos.

“I loved the fact that everything was real-time and that we were able to really get what we needed out of it. The collaboration was priceless. There hasn’t been one wasted minute.”

“Being a first year aide, I was most excited about learning about different teaching strategies and ideas to help with the kids.”

“I think the early childhood educators felt very empowered. They also felt special in a sense that made them proud. They were so excited! So many came up to thank all of us. I know everyone left with something they can use and most certainly they all felt more connected. My heart was overjoyed!”

Cindy's Instructional Videos for Edcamp Organizers

Submitted by Cindy Leatherwood, Edcamp Foundation Outreach Manager. Please click the links to get to the videos. Here's the full playlist

"Here are some short videos that are on our website for Edcamp organizers to use. They are on topics that we receive the most questions about from our organizers. The first is a video explaining, How to Facilitate a Session; Edcamp Style. It offers strategies for setting up the room, starting conversations, including all guests, and what to do if the room is just learning about a topic. The next video is Creating a Digital Session Board. It is a step by step guide for creating live Google Docs for each room. The digital session board is vital to an Edcamp. This board keeps the conversations going long after your Edcamp has ended. It is also a key component to growing your professional learning network and a platform to share best practices. The final video is on Creating an Agenda for a 1/2 Day Edcamp. It is filled with tips on starting off the day, allowing time for session building and other helpful suggestions."