One of the fundamental issues with most teachers’ grading schemes is that they continue to treat each grade as a reward or a punishment, rather than simply as a measurement. It might seem like a trivial difference, but the way we look at grades (and use them) has big effects on our classrooms. Whether you seek to encourage work habits by praising high grades, or prevent laziness and lack of attention by criticizing low marks, you aren’t doing yourself or your students any favors.
Now, before I dive into this short list, an important point. We must teach and encourage resiliency, responsibility, and work ethic. The skills are critical to the success of our students. But, the key is to provide this instruction and reinforcement separate from grades.
#1: Losing Sight of Student Learning. Once we acknowledge that grades work best when they communicate student mastery, we are forced to admit that giving and taking points for reasons other than mastery is a bad practice. When we penalize students for late work or incorporate zeroes for non-submitted work into their average, we are saying that their grade represents what they know AND some other stuff. With this veil over the meaning of the number (or letter), it becomes much less useful for grouping, identifying weaknesses, and gauging improvement.
#2: Encouraging Cheating. I have seen firsthand the panic and desperation that sets in when students get stressed out about their performance on an assessment. Most teachers can recall a time when they were shocked to learn that a trusted student had cheated on a test. The driving force for this behavior is the importance that we (including teachers, administrators, parents, and students) put on marks that should be just as stressful as having your temperature taken at the doctor’s office. Assessments provide useful information. That’s it. Doing well on a test just shows that a student has mastered the curriculum. We need to lower the stakes.
#3: Mistaking Extrinsic Motivation for Intrinsic. All teachers recognize the value in helping our student develop internal reasons for wanting to succeed. We know that to become lifelong learners and to value the process of education, we need our students to want to learn. What we don’t realize is that when students work hard to earn a high grade, they are not exhibiting intrinsic motivation. Rather, the grade (and perhaps the rewards that come with it) is acting as the motivator. Those who criticize modern grading practices as not preparing students for the world outside school often fail to see this point. Teaching students to perform well when they are being graded does not make them ideal citizens or employees. We need to help them become more aware of the reason behind assessment, and help them develop self-assessment skills. That’s the path to truly intrinsic motivation.
Grades need to lose the high-stakes baggage that they have picked up over the years. We need to begin to see them as they really are, and encourage families and organizations to join us. A student’s grade needs to tell his family, his teachers, and himself how well he understands what he needs to. When we make “good grades” the goal in and of themselves, we muddy any usefulness that they have for improving learning.
What do you see as the problem with grades as they stand today?