On Creating Student Listening Forums and Piloting a Competency-Grading System

Doing a SWOT analysis of our schedule

The other week at The White Mountain School, we launched the year’s first student Academic Listening Session. What is an Academic Listening Session and why did we do one? They are optional in-person feedback opportunities for students to engage with a number of the faculty program leaders, in which the role of the faculty is simply to listen. What will we do with what we heard? It will help us inform tweaks or changes to our programs and/or opportunities to better clarify what and why we are doing certain things. In other words, it is a mechanism for doing our work better. Culturally, these sessions tie directly to our commitment to student-driven inquiry. In terms of student-driven inquiry, we know students learn better when they are motivated through a sense of purpose, curiosity, and relevance; and, secondly and absolutely connected, we believe that students are highly capable and curious, and thus we need to create channels to hear them. With great vulnerability I shared with our families, students and faculty an under-the-hood look at the feedback we heard from our students. Everything below written in italics are things our students shared.


When asked what students want their relationship to grades to be, they largely agreed: A basis on which to know how to improve. Yes, precisely! That is what we hope our teaching, learning and grading system will do: provide students with information on how to improve.

In practice, however, students reported the following about their personal relationship to grades. Grades:

Determine my self-worth

Create a fear of failure

Good grades = good college

Allow me to compete with others and see how I measure up.

Make me feel guilty when I do well, and others do not.

Motivate me. I am motivated to get good grades

Let me compare myself to others

Students shared their actual and desired relationships to grades

Developing a Competency Grading Pilot to Shift the Culture on Grades

The pilot grading program we developed this year specifically focuses on improving some of the behaviors/relationships associated with traditional grading. By assessing students on clear and relevant skills (compared to assessing students against one another), we hope to shift the culture of grades in the following way. Let’s look at the cultural shift by focusing on their specific experiences.

Shifting the culture and conversation around grading

Strengths of the Competency Pilot — Students shared the following strengths of the competency pilot grading system:

  • The idea behind it is great!
  • Thorough and meaningful feedback
  • Potential to learn more by knowing what you need to learn
  • I value the very specific feedback because it helps me get to where I want to go.
  • I like having a decaying average because you can have a bigger impact on your grade. Having just an average made it harder to improve your grade if you had one mistake. — You can come back from failure.
  • Works well for humanities. I see a clear connection.
  • I actually like this way of grading better because it shows where you are doing well and where you could be doing better.

Opportunities for improvement of the Competency Pilot — Students shared the following strengths of the competency pilot grading system:

  • Students who have been here multiple years have had to adjust to different grading systems.
  • This is a huge cultural shift
  • While the idea is good, I am frustrated with the implementation.
  • Wording in the competencies can be confusing.
  • Hard as a student to manage multiple courses when some use the traditional grading system, and some use the competency grading system.
  • Lack of real-time access to grades / We don’t know our grades
  • Some lack of consistency from class to class about what Proficient means
  • We are being graded on too many competencies.
Examining strengths of the schedule during a SWOT analysis