Monday, April 16, 2012

Grades just don't make the grade

I've been fighting a lot with grades recently. I find it unlikely that a student is able to separate him/herself from her work and say "That paper received a D, but that is a reflection of my effort on the paper and not me as a person." In actuality, my students see the D, flip out, and give up. I've had a redo policy since the very first day of class and still, they throw in the towel instead of working harder.

Fixed versus growth mindset
I've come up with just three theoretical solutions:

1. We MUST help our students (and ourselves!) change from the fixed mindset to a growth mindset. We're not going to get anywhere in relationships, jobs, personal goals, etc unless we learn to accept setbacks as an opportunity instead of an insuperable restraint. 

2. We've got to give our kids something that THEY want to work on. It's true, we all have to do things in life that we don't particularly enjoy but that's not a good enough reason to make students suffer through years of unpleasant activities. The point is to teach them to learn and help them like it. Let's be real, they're not going to remember the year that Tariq ibn-Ziyad conquered Spain (711 AD) and frankly, they don't need to. If some one wants to know when the Moors conquered the Iberian peninsula, they'll just go to Wikipedia anyway. 

3. In the majority of cases, grades are hierarchical, demeaning and ineffective. They are also quite possibly the single largest motivator in our students everyday lives. Even if it is the student's parent that is pushing them, the parent sees their growth in terms of numbers (or letters, as the case may be). They are not inspired to gain knowledge or skills for the joy of learning, but instead they do so with the hopes of being placed favorably in a scale that generally values output over effort. 

So I think that it's clear that I don't find grades a favorable way to rate student improvement. How, then, can I function in a system that lives by them? I'm not allowed to give all my students 100% and I don't really think that that would be the most effective (mis)use of grades, anyway. 
What ways have you found to use grades to your students' learning advantage?

Author's postscript:

After I wrote this I wanted to do a wee bit more reading on alternative perspectives of grading. Moral of the story is I am writing nothing new, so why aren't we doing something about it? Anyways, more resources here:

-- The Free Child project is all about students advocating for alternative assessment. Here is their post "The End of Grades" containing many interesting links and examples of grade-free schools.

-- You might also consider Joe Bower's website or twitter which is alllll about changing assessment.

-- This Freakonomics entry lays out the problematic nuances of the question "Do grades determine success?"

-- Alfie Kohn talks about this a good bit. Here's an interview with him that focuses on the effects of grades on learning.

I found this entry by Nathan Gilmour on the Christian Humanist blog to be an interesting philosophical view of grading. This specific passage is looking at the ethics of cheating in the traditional grading system through the lens of Plato's definition of democracy. 


  1. Standards based grading has been my semi-fix to the problem. When students receive 'levels' instead of letters, I find that they are better able to understand that they are on a continuum and that the score is not the end. An "F" becomes "Beginning", and they know that they are at the beginning of the process, not the failure at the end.

    1. What a great idea! Amazing how changing a few words can make a big difference. I think that this might be an important addition for me next year, since in order to be with the kids I have to work in a grade-based environment. Thank you so much for your comment!