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Canada At an Ontario high school, a mark-less math class is challenging how students engage in learning

Teacher Erin Marsella, centre, speaks with students in her grade 9 advanced math class at Richmond Hill High School.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

None of the students ever pass math quizzes in Erin Marsella’s high-school class, and none of them ever fail. They never get their results in the form of a percentage mark at the top of the page, but rather with a series of check marks, X’s and dots.

It is an unusual approach, but one that is challenging the intense focus on marks and how teachers and students think about learning and achievement.

“I really, really believe this is where education should be going,” said Ms. Marsella, from her classroom at Richmond Hill High School in Ontario. She added: “This method of assessment meets students where they are. It supports them to have courage and take risks in their learning.”

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Other than a midterm mark and a final grade, which are provincial reporting requirements, Ms. Marsella gives her Grade 9 gifted students a tracking sheet after a quiz or test, where each question is given a check mark or an X, which means it was answered correctly or incorrectly, or a dot, meaning the student used the correct approach but made errors in calculations. It shows them whether they have mastered certain expectations, and if they don’t have consistent check marks, they can meet with her where they will have another chance to master the concept.

When she first proposed the idea of a virtually mark-less classroom this fall to parents and students in her gifted math classes, she was met with little resistance. Although parents wanted to be sure they could still track how their children were faring, and some students wished they could see a mark, they all understood that mastering the math was more important, she said.

Schools in many parts of the country have tried eliminating letter grades from report cards in favour of more detailed feedback that identifies area of strength and where students could improve, but that usually happens in elementary schools. Final marks are required in high school because students need them for postsecondary applications and scholarships.

But there is concern among educators, including Ms. Marsella, that too many students are so focused on those marks that they are not fully engaged in what they are learning.

Peter Liljedahl, a professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University, has conducted research in building what are known as thinking classrooms, that include the formation of random groups to learn together and understand problems through activity and discussion. Prof. Liljedahl – whose work sparked Ms. Marsella’s changes – said it is important to get students to think in deep and meaningful ways about, for example, mathematical concepts. In Ms. Marsella’s classroom, teaching is an active process and teams of students worked on whiteboards to solve problems, instead of in notebooks. The idea was that they collaborate openly and take more risks because they could erase mistakes along the way.

Prof. Liljedahl said building a thinking classroom is effective not just in math, but for engaging students in a wide range of courses.

“What my research is showing, among other things, is that if we place focus on making sure the students know what they know and what they don’t know, their engagement in their learning and performance in the course will increase,” he said.

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The reviews from students in Ms. Marsella’s classroom are mixed. Ms. Marsella had started the virtually mark-less classroom with her two Grade 9 gifted classes last semester, and is doing it again with another Grade 9 gifted class for the second semester, which began in February.

Aimee Li, 15, said she was slightly anxious because the concept was unfamiliar to her. “I can see why it works. But for me, it gives me a little more anxiety. I’m better at knowing what I have than dealing with the stress of not knowing,” she said.

Another student, 14-year-old Alan Tang, said his parents have high expectations of him when it comes to his marks, “so I was surprised that I wasn’t going to have [a mark] to show them after a test or a quiz.”

“I think it’s very interesting. It gives me a slightly deeper understanding of what I need to work on. It takes off more stress from me,” he added.

Ms. Marsella acknowledged that going mark-less in Grade 9 is much easier than doing it in higher grades.

Deborah Linkewich, the school principal, said other teachers in the school have shown an interest in it, especially because Ms. Marsella has found that once students understand how it works, it helps with their mental health, especially those that suffer from anxiety or depression.

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“I think once students get over the transition, it actually validates that intrinsic part of learning for learning’s sake, as opposed to learning for marks,” Ms. Linkewich said. “I think part of the challenge is once you get to the senior levels, Grades 11 and 12, where postsecondary is so competitive, it gets a little more challenging.”

Ms. Marsella has been teaching students in a gifted class for eight years. She said that the average marks have gone up about five percentage points since she moved to a mark-less classroom in the fall. Her expectations, she said, are just as high.

Even more important, she said that through surveys and conversations with her students, she noticed that they are less anxious.

“When students are less stressed, their performance is going to go up,” she said. “I can’t imagine going back now.”

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