We Should Be Grading for Learning, Not Just Grading

Posted on: Thu, 10/05/2017 - 09:00

A guest blog by Peter Cincotta, President of the Maryland Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and Curriculum Specialist for Secondary Mathematics for FCPS

Parents send their children to school to learn to read and write and understand mathematics, science, and history. We want our children to learn to work with others, share, wait their turn, and contribute to their school’s micro-society in the hope that they’ll (later) contribute to larger adult society.

But there’s an obstacle built into our schools that limits and (sometimes) stops learning. The very procedure we use to measure learning often inhibits learning itself. The Grading Process is really the Grading Monster. Too often, students strive to get a certain grade rather than to learn. Schooling becomes a competition; we rank students against each other and award the prize – and the praise – to the person with the highest grade. Eventually, most students learn how to “play school,” how to earn high grades without necessarily “learning” underlying content.

This happens when we grade courses using factors that have nothing to do with learning (think attendance, on-time assignments, and good behavior). Grading policies that reflect these factors foster students who do poorly on tests and quizzes, but still “earn” a B in classes because they do their work and have “good participation.” Their grades misrepresent their content knowledge. In the end, such policies lead to high school graduates who lack the skills and abilities to complete college or keep a job.

So how can we create a grading process that promotes learning without harmful (and hurtful) rankings? Such a system would teach students to better understand how they learn and think, and would generate a culture that promotes personal achievement rather than peer competition. Such a system – with or without traditional grades – is possible. In fact, it’s been a subject of significant interest among educators for a while (look here and here for examples).

I suggest a system of grading for learning centered around three core principles:

  1. An engaging learning environment
  2. Continuous and productive feedback
  3. A clear understanding of expectations

First, student engagement is the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, and passion students show when they learn. It extends to their level of motivation to learn. Student engagement rests on the beliefs that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and it suffers when they’re bored or dispassionate.

But learning takes effort. Sometimes we have to use knowledge we learned previously to understand something new. Sometimes we have little or no previous knowledge! Different students face this challenge differently. Some give up; some seek help; some keep trying. Whatever their method, students are more likely to continue trying when they’re engaged. Teachers can build an engaging environment with simple strategies like:

  • Respecting students’ ideas. This makes students more likely to speak up and share.
  • Establishing that mistakes are part of learning. When there’s no penalty for wrong answers, students are more likely to “guess and check” and try new hypotheses.
  • Encouraging student-to-student discourse and discussion. Nobody wants to be in a class where the teacher does all the talking!
  • Planning activities to get students out of their seats. When we sit for too long, we tune out.
  • Calling on every student at least twice in every class. When students know they’re going to be called on, they’re more likely to pay attention and be prepared to respond.

There are other similar strategies. But none of them references grades. The learning process – especially when we first attempt new knowledge – requires discussion, understanding, trial and error, questioning, and making and learning from mistakes. Grades aren’t part of it.

The next principle is continuous and productive feedback. Ten years ago, researcher John Hattie found that productive feedback to students leads to higher achievement. This makes sense; when a teacher points out a student’s mistake, the student becomes aware of the error and doesn’t repeat it. However, productive feedback implies a more specific and nuanced role for the teacher.

For example, when students learn to write persuasive essays, their mistakes are less about “right” or “wrong” and more about “good” and “better.” Skilled teachers guide students to the “better” through productive feedback. Here’s a useful article on how that works. The purpose of productive feedback is perfectly aligned to the primary objective of schooling: to learn new things and get better at using new concepts.

Keep in mind that a simple grade isn’t productive feedback. Grades don’t tell students what they got wrong (or “less than better”) and they don’t tell students how to improve. Research  further shows that when teachers grade an assignment and also provide written feedback, students only look at the grade, not the feedback.

The last principle is a clear understanding of expectations. Fortunately, most teachers already use this principle in their classrooms. Every school subject is broken down into small pieces of content called standards – concise, written descriptions of what we expect students to know and be able to do at specific educational stages (like the end of a course, grade level, or grade span).

When students understand standards and it’s clear what they need to do to show their understanding, they’re more likely to achieve at higher levels. When students understand expectations and understand how current assignments lead to stronger skills for future assignments, they’re more likely to try harder. When students can see the finish line, they’re more likely to cross it. This seems obvious. But too often, we ask students to complete assignments without explaining why.

When students are in an engaging environment, when they’ve received productive feedback, and when they understand expectations, teachers can then say whether they’ve met learning objectives. At this point in the learning process, we can measure learning with some sort of “grade.” However, this “grade” isn’t necessarily the end of the learning process. Students should have chances to improve; we should only consider their best work for their “final grade.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if they only had a partial understanding of a standard at some point in the school year. If at the end of the school year (or the end of a unit or marking period) they have shown a better understanding, then that’s what their final grade should reflect.

Using these three core principles, grading for learning emphasizes understanding expectations and content rather than actual grades. Grades are an endpoint of learning. Grading for learning is about the journey.