Laura Gibbs

Let's Talk about Grading (4): Visible Learning / Invisible Grading

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Jan 13, 2019

At the end of my last post on grading, Microassignments and Completion-Based Grading, I shared some thoughts from a student in real-time; just as I was writing my blog post here, she happened to be writing a blog for class with her thoughts about grading, so I snagged a screenshot of her blog post to include in my post. I've been teaching this way, with a student blog network, for about 15 years, since back in the days of Bloglines (remember the Bloglines plumber?), and it's probably safe to say that my approach to grading and my approach to course design are interdependent:


VISIBLE LEARNING: I teach online, so all the class activity happens through the students' blogs and websites where we can all share and connect


INVISIBLE GRADING: I do not put grades on anything ever, and the students take their letter grade only at the end of the semester (see previous posts for details)


One of the most inspiring writers on the subject of visible learning is Silvia Tolisano (she blogs at, so I'll start off here with a great graphic of hers: Blogging for Learning.


blogging for learning graphic



In a traditional classroom, the grade is usually the visible things that students see (and even obsess about), while the learning itself is invisible. After work has been graded, it ends up in the garbage can, analog or digital as the case may be. At the end of the course, all that is left is the grade on the transcript; the LMS course is inaccessible, and all traces of student work have disappeared.


So, here's a suggestion: even if you are not ready to go gradeless, you could start by finding ways to make the work your students do more visible. Then, if/when you decide to go gradeless, you will already have "visible learning" practices in place that will support your un-grading experiment!


For me, the visible learning happens through the student blogs and websites:


Blogs. After logging in at Canvas to see how that works, the first assignment my students complete is setting up their blog, and every assignment during the Orientation week results in a new blog post. For most students, blogging is new, but by the end of the week, they are feeling confident about that. The posts show up automatically in the class blog stream in Canvas (for example: Myth-Folklore class), and I also feature items from the blogs each day in the class announcements. I use Inoreader to manage my blog network; details here. By starting off the Orientation week with a series of gradually more complex posts, the students get used to the process easily, and then students who are interested in learning more about blogging can explore those options if they want, using the class tech tips. Some students like to learn to do more with their blogs, other students take a basic approach to blogging; it's all good.


Websites. As students start setting up their class projects in Week 4 of the semester (here's that timeline), they create a website for that project. I provide detailed how-tos for Google Sites, but students can opt for other web publishing platforms if they want (students who have prior experience with WordPress, Wix, Tumblr, etc. often go that route). One of the first Orientation week assignments is to look at the websites of students from previous semesters; that way students have a sense of what's ahead, and they use those past websites as resources while they are brainstorming and planning their own projects. Almost all the students leave the projects online after the end of the semester (that's their choice of course), and I keep a link repository here: eStorybook Central. I feature a past student project each day in the daily announcements,  and past projects appear at random in the blog sidebar. Students are very aware that as they write, they are writing for their fellow classmates, but also for their future classmates, so to speak.


The point of all the blogs and websites is not just to "use technology" — instead, the point is to make the work visible for sharing and feedback.


Feedback. Starting in Week 2, students are commenting on each other's blogs every week, and when the projects are up and running, they leave detailed feedback about the projects too. Overall, their work in the class is roughly divided between an equal amount of reading, writing, and feedback, approximately 2 hours of each activity every week. During the weeks while students are setting up their projects (Weeks 2-5), instead of giving feedback to others, they are learning about both how to give and receive feedback via a series of "Feedback Bootcamp" assignments. Students have years and years of experience being graded, but they often do not have a lot of experience with giving and receiving feedback. What I have found, though, is that they are eager to learn more about feedback. They realize that, unlike grades, feedback can be really useful: it can help them improve their writing, and they can also help others in that same process. It appeals to their social sense of altruism in a way that grading does not.


Feedback moves us forward! That cycle of reading-writing-feedback and then more reading, more writing, and more feedback, is the engine that drives my classes forward. Students are not chasing a good-grade carrot or fleeing a bad-grade stick; instead, they are involved in a workflow based on creating and sharing so that everyone in the class (including me!) can grow as writers. All writers, even professional writers, need to keep on growing. Some students start off the class with huge gaps in their writing skills, while other students start off as sophisticated, confident writers. That's great! The point is that we all need to keep on growing and improving as writers, and we also need to learn how to give feedback to others to help them as they move forward.


In fact, for many students, the feedback lessons they learn in class are even more valuable than the writing lessons. In their future careers, they might not be doing a lot of writing, but they will probably be working with others and maybe supervising others, and they need to learn how to give productive feedback in the workplace. After all, in the workplace, it's not multiple-choice exams and ABCDF grades: it's all about feedback and workflow, and many of my best feedback resources come from publications like Harvard Business Review online. In my next post, I'll get more into the vocabulary of feedback and how that contrasts with the Tarzanesque ABCDF vocabulary of grading.


Meanwhile, my classes start officially on Monday (this past week was "Week Zero" for students who wanted to get a head start)... and if your classes also are starting on Monday, I wish you a happy new semester!