Grading: A Duct-Taped System? Students Weigh In.

This post is the second in a series of posts challenging the traditional 100-point grading system and exploring alternatives. In my last post, I discussed some event leading me to deeply question the role of grades in my classroom. In the week since then, a vibrant conversation has ensued both in the comments section as well as in blog posts from fellow colleagues who I list below.

Don’t Give a Pass to Failed Grading Systems by David Cohen

We Have No Grades! by Bill Ivey

Jesse Pinkman’s Wooden Box and Dear A+ Student by Sandy Mertz

Image Credit: CC license, adapted from CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr.

Asking Our Students

As I committed to blogging about this topic with some colleagues, I also decided that part of my writing process should be to include my students in the discussion. This was partially due to a colleague sharing her frustration on Facebook about the lack of student voice in our “teacher discussions.” So want to thank her for that challenge and the direction it inspired me to take with this blog series.

Using a tech tool called Padlet, I posed the following three questions to my freshman and junior students:

  1. What’s the purpose of grading?
  2. Is it a positive or negative influence on learning?
  3. What should change?

This assignment was NOT graded, and was completely optional. But I found my students jumped in without hesitation. Even students who seem to drag their feet at the simplest request, seemed eager to share their ideas.

Here are a sampling of their responses. (You can see all of the original responses by visiting here.)

High school freshman Rachel writes simply:

The purpose of grading is for colleges to see how intelligent you are

Her classmate Alex agrees: “the purpose of grading is […] to have colleges look for a specific grade to have specifications if you can get in.”

This view echoes Sir Ken Robinson’s famous speech from the TED stage where he outlines the current state of our Western education system:

“I think you’d have to conclude, if you look at the output [of public education] who gets all the brownie points, who are the winners — I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors […] If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance.” (Transcript 9:22)

He goes on to point out that this structure is disastrous for our current world:

“And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.”

I think Rachel and Alex might agree with him.

Many of my students pointed out the negative effects of grades on a student’s mental and emotional health. Lauryn shares that “grading can create this feeling of anxiety because a student has to find a way to raise a bad grade to feel accomplished.”

Kathy mounts a scathing rebuke in her response:

I feel like grading has a negative effect. It labels people by how their [sic] doing in a number. Students don’t care about whether we understand the material or not. As long as we have a good grade is all that matters. It’s more about how much information do we remember, not how well we understand it in some subjects. Grades make students more competitive about the grade rather than the actual knowledge.

Notice how much our letter-grade labels affect our students’ emerging identities? Lauryn and Kathy both note that a letter grade is a badge of honor or dishonor, a label that indicates their worth to a group or to themselves. If grades have this kind of impact on students’ identities, perhaps we should rethink what messages we are sending them with our A’s, B’s, C’s and F’s.

The Flip Side

But not all students felt that the system of grading was negative. In fact, many had a nuanced view of how grading affected their learning.

Amod explains that “[grading] gives feedback in a form that reflects on how you did. It should change by giving a guide on how to improve and get better for future assignments.” Dan agrees adding that grades motivate him to learn: “Grading gives me the drive to learn that I don’t think I would have if my classwork was not graded. When I know that there is a graded assignment, I want to learn the material so I do well on the assignment. It is has a positive influence on my learning.”

Here, Dan and Amod speak to the how grading provides them with a crucial feedback loop(for a more academic perspective on feedback loops, click here). They also note that grades seem to motivate them to meet their potential. I don’t think Dan and Amod are the only students with this view of grades.

But I question if grades are the best vehicle for feedback or the best motivator for keeping students engaged in the challenge of learning. Dan’s statement implies that an extrinsic motivator is the most important factor in his willingness to learn. Yet, humans innately curious and have an intrinsic desire to learn. If the 100 point system were removed and a more equitable system were in place (perhaps like the ones suggested herehere, or here), would Dan and students like him focus more on their personal interests, passions, and curiosities? I’m not sure yet, but it’s a question I’ll keep asking in this quest.

One of the most interesting responses came from Bobby who highlights how a student’s mindset affects his/her grade:

The purpose of grading always depends on the person that’s being graded. Students with a fixed mind set use the grading system as an opportunity to achieve perfection on one test. Students with a fixed mind set use grades to either prove accomplishment or failure. Students with a growth mind set use the grading system as an opportunity to improve themselves and their work. Whether it’s a positive or negative influence completely relies on the student.

Next Steps

So I’ve heard from a teacher who felt the same frustration as me and essentially rejected a traditional grading system in his class. Now I’ve heard a mixed response from my own students about how grading impact their motivation and learning. Bobby and Dan’s comments push me to consider how I could help students make better use of the current system while Kathy, Lauryn, and many other student’s comments challenge me to try something new.

I’ll hope to dig into what research tells us about student motivation and the philosophical purpose for grading. Fortunately, I also found some really practical advice on how educators can begin to reimagine the system and role of grading.

Let’s grapple with these questions:

  • What would happen if students were allowed to try a new system of feedback and accountability for learning?
  • How do we define “success” when evaluating a system of grading or evaluation?
  • How many students find success within our current system vs. how many are disenfranchised by it?
This post was originally published on my blog at CTQ.

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