We’re rolling out a new community called Better Measures for Learning (BM4L), and we hope you’ll join us. The community is a free space for educators who want to rethink what, how, and why they teach and grade. If that sounds like a pretty big set of questions, it’s because it is.

To help us kick off this new community, we wanted to share some stories from educators whose lives were completely changed when they began thinking about better measures for learning.

Liz Beck: My Story

I was a traditional English teacher: we all read a book (or a poem, or a play), and then the kids took a reading quiz about it, then wrote essays about it. And sometimes, the kids did projects at the end of the unit, like making a video, or coloring a poster.

Grading papers was the bane of my existence. Every time I assigned an essay, that meant I would have to spend (I’m not even joking) about 10 hours grading them. It was awful, but that’s just part of being an English teacher, right?

Here’s what changed.

One day, when I went to a conference where I got to hear about one writing professor’s grading contract. I loved the concept, because it seemed like it would help me reduce the time I spent grading papers (I literally cried some silent tears once this realization hit me). So, I took his ideas and adapted them into this system…

“Grading papers was the bane of my existence. Every time I assigned an essay, that meant I would have to spend (I’m not even joking) about 10 hours grading them. It was awful, but that’s just part of being an English teacher, right?”

At the beginning of the year, all of my students wrote a 2-page paper. I identified one writing skill each individual student needed to work on and shared that goal with them. Over the course of the following week, each student would work on their individual goal, have a short conference with me, and then submit their writing at the end of the week. When it came time for me to grade their writing, I looked for only two things:

1. Did they meet their goal by developing that skill?
2. If so, what was the next thing the student needed to work on?

Then, we would repeat the process.

Many, many, many amazing things happened because of this change in my system.

1. Grading time

I reduced it to 1 minute per paper. I would give students audio feedback (check out Mote or Kaizena if you want to try this).

2. Conferences

I got to meet with every single student 1:1 every single week for these conferences. I would block out 16 minutes per day for conferencing, and I would set a timer for 2 minutes per conference. Because I got to have so much 1:1 time with students, I got a much deeper understanding of how they were progressing.

3. Responsibility

Students had to sign up for their conference time, and they had to come to that meeting prepared with their work and their questions.

4. Collaboration

Students were required to use each other for feedback and support, so the class became a family where everyone wanted each other to be successful.

This simplified other things as well.

While this system for writing was an amazing change to my classroom (and, let’s be real, my mental health), the changes extended to all other areas of my teaching practice. Once I began to see the incredible value and power in conferencing, a clear feedback loop, and personalized learning, I wanted to implement that in other ways.

1. I could give students freedom of choice

I began to give my students significantly more freedom of choice in what they read, wrote about, and talked about. As long as the students were improving in reading, writing, speaking and listening, I didn’t see any need to restrict them.

2. My test scores improved significantly

And for the record, if you’re interested in how the kids did on standardized tests, I got to experience both the old NC Writing Test and the English 2 EOC. My test scores improved significantly after I made these changes.

3. The A-F grading scale came into question

Once my kids had all of this freedom (and success!) in their learning, the A-F grading scale stopped making sense to me.

I learned about Standards Based Grading (shout out to the #SBGchat folks on Twitter for getting me started), and I revamped my gradebook. Everything in my class became labeled as Pass or Re-do.

4. Project-based learning evolved organically

Our class culture was one where everyone wanted each other to succeed, and everyone held each other accountable. Students wanted to collaborate, and they saw the value in mastering skills. Because I changed my grading system so dramatically, and collaboration was such an enormous component of my classroom, project based learning just kind of…happened.

And now I’ve come to believe that you can’t really have a great version of PBL without changing how you grade and give feedback; and you can’t really have an awesome standards-based (or competency-based) course without some authentic projects.

Reactions or thoughts? What’s your story? We’d love to hear.

Have you had a similar experience in the classroom? Leave a comment below and share your story. And we’d love to have your presence in our new Better Measures for Learning community, and you can also enroll in our Introduction to Mastery Learning course, if you are interested in beginning to implement mastery learning and standards-based grading in your classroom, school, or district.