While they feel inextricably linked with school, grades are actually a relatively new invention, with the first known grades appearing at Yale in 1785 and widespread grade usage (and the current A through F system) only beginning a little over 100 years ago.
While it is hard to imagine a time before report cards, that was exactly the case for thousands of years and in millions of schools, ranging from the School of Athens to Harvard’s early days. In the place of grades in most schools was feedback, with the idea being that school was meant for building knowledge, not sorting students into categories. Of course, before waxing too nostalgic for it being a wiser time, it is important to note that most people (women, non-white, non-wealthy) were generally not welcomed into the halls of education during these times and feedback largely came in the unnecessarily harsh form of critiques delivered by stern-faced professors in front of the entire class. But in the ungraded spirit of those early pre-grade days lies an important point that has been consistently backed up by modern research: teaching someone and rating someone are distinctly different practices that weaken each other when put together.
Now, before moving on it is important to state that this is not a post about how we should ditch grades. Grades have a purpose–they were created to communicate a student’s performance to both the student and those who are interested in the student, ranging from parents to principals to prospective colleges–and whether we should keep using them is a topic beyond the scope of this piece.
What this piece is about is that study after study over the last 30 years has found that when grades are present on a paper/assignment, learning from that paper/assignment often grinds to a halt. Potential reasons for this are…
- When there is a grade, student attention and mental energy generally focuses on it, limiting the attention and energy paid to any other feedback present.
- For many students a grade serves as an indicator that an assignment and the associated learning is done.
- When students are ashamed by a low grade, they often avoid the feedback as a defensive mechanism against further embarrassment. When students get good grades, they often to see the comments as unnecessary because they know the information well enough to get the grades they want.
Further, other research has found that even the knowledge that a grade is coming on an assignment has the potential to slow learning in the following ways:
- When students know a grade is coming, they often grow less willing to take risks and try new things–both of which are essential to serious learning.
- A constant stream of either low and high grades can reinforce the fixed mindset in a student that he/she/they is a “good” or “bad” writer.
- Over time, intrinsic motivation to learn something tends to lessen if a grade is always attached to it. The reason for this is something I discussed in my last post, which is the presence of a regular external carrot or stick (and grades are both) can train students that schoolwork is about getting the carrot or avoiding the stick; students who have this mindset tend to do only the bare minimum to get what they want or avoid the punishment they don’t.
So with all that we know about grades, the big question is what should we do about them? My district requires grades, my students’ parents expect them, and colleges and post-secondary programs need them, and in the world of 2018, I concede that it is important to have some variety of communication with all of these groups.
My answer is that I will assign grades, but I plan to silo them off from teaching as much as possible. This means I won’t attach them to choice reading, writer’s workbooks, or other areas of practice (I often tell my students these things are too important for grades). I also plan to give my feedback in the formative stages of papers and my grades in the summative stage (for more on how I do that, click here).
And lastly, I don’t plan to “grade” anything until well into October. This is a notion that I adapted from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers when he said, “If we are going to require students to write complex essays, we need to give them necessary time to develop their writing skills.” For me, September and often well into October is that “necessary time to develop,” and during those critical weeks I focus all of my attention on giving my students lots of practice with writing, lots of feedback, lots of revision time, and lots of instruction aimed at helping students to build growth-oriented, yes-I-can-write-if-I-give-the-effort mindsets. During this time, I do put grades in the gradebook, but they are all based on effort/completion, so they don’t interfere with the skill-building going on.
Of course, eventually October and the need for “graded” grades does come, but I find that the negative impacts of grades are significantly minimized–largely because the importance of grades themselves are minimized–when students spend the first part of the fall getting to play and practice in the blissful tranquility of non-graded waters.
Thanks as always for reading.
Yours in teaching,
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