Grading to Encourage Effort

The wisest thing I have ever heard a person say about grading came from my friend and sometimes co-worker Barb Scholtz. A long-time teacher of math and English and life, she taught my son in middle school at Clark Montessori.  It was years later, in her role as a teacher educator, that she worked with a team of teachers who were doing an independent PD on differentiation at Gamble. (Read more about that here.) Here she asked the basic question that shook my thinking about failing grades. “If a child is learning, how can they be failing?”

This is more than a question. It is a revelation. We have to move past thinking of a grade in a gradebook as immutable truth, an unswayable bedrock fact which must be reported.

images-1This article assumes you are in a situation where you are required to report a single letter grade, and perhaps a percentage, to sum up 10 weeks’ worth of effort, practice, improvement, success and failure on a multitude of social and academic skills. I’m sorry about your situation. I’m here to help.

There appear to be two philosophies among teachers when discussing grading. One camp asserts that grading is a time-consuming but relatively simple process – you set up your gradebook, assign different point totals for different types of assignments, set up weighting or assign more points to emphasize the more important work, and average it all out at the end of the quarter. The other camp suggests that grading is a laborious and challenging activity, where you try to find ways for students who are improving to demonstrate that growth without becoming discouraged or complacent, and the rules seem arbitrary so you change them relatively often to try and better match the growth you see in your students.

It is a fair bet that those of you who read this blog are not in the “grading is easy” camp.

I am not here to convince you that it is, though my message is simple: The best thing you can accomplish with a grade is to keep a student invested in her education. But how?

Nancy Flanagan, a writer and consultant at Education Week, states the problem well in her article “Grading as an Opportunity to Encourage Students” (emphasis hers):

You’d like to think that a low grade would be construed as a warning, a spur toward greater effort and focus. You’d like to think that–but not so much, at least for some kids. For them, a low grade feels like proof there’s no reason to even try. … How do you reconcile that with points gained, percentages achieved, assignments completed and comparatively evaluated–the traditional tools of grading? There’s no such thing as a completely objective grade. Compiling, weighting and averaging numbers often leaves a good teacher with a grade that doesn’t reflect what he understands about the child in question–what that child actually knows and can do.

“First, do no harm,” becomes the directive to those of us doing academic grading. But here is the call to understand the individual student. Flanagan notes that her statement is true “for some kids.” This implies, accurately, that there are some students who see poor grades as motivational, just as there are some students who see them as defeating.  So our first piece of advice is to understand each child’s relationship with grading – what will spur greater effort?

You can do this by asking students about their grades in the past and what that shows about them, perhaps with a simple survey.

Tell me about a grade you got in the past that you are proud of:

Tell me about a grade in the past that made you frustrated:

What do your past grades reveal about you, if anything?:

With these questions, which could be asked at the start of the year about past classes or in the middle of the year about your own class, you can get a sense of the student’s feelings about grading, and whether these grades are motivational or defeating.

It is when you know the student well that you can really judge progress.

Alfie Kohn has written extensively about grading, and he has pointed out the wrong-headed thinking about how grades motivate. He challenges the common concept that bad grades are motivational in an article published at his website entitled “Grading”:

The trouble lies with the implicit assumption that there exists a single entity called “motivation” that students have to a greater or lesser degree. In reality, a critical and qualitative difference exists between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — between an interest in what one is learning for its own sake, and a mindset in which learning is viewed as a means to an end, the end being to escape a punishment or snag a reward. Not only are these two orientations distinct, but they also often pull in opposite directions.

So if we are to adhere to the concept of first doing no harm, we must escape from our conviction that bad grades will motivate a student.

And we must stand firm against the idea that missed work should be punished with a “0” and then we move on.

Success is dependent on effort.
Success is dependent on effort.

Seriously. Where did that concept originate? It is hard to imagine a work scenario where everything is predicated on the timeliness of the work. Do we walk away from an unfinished hotel or brake job? As educators, if an IEP or a 90 day plan falls past a deadline, do we simply drop the work and move on to other things? No and no. Even in timebound work, time is treated as a variable. If your package arrives late, do you reject it? No.

If the work we give in the classroom is truly valuable, we must ourselves treat it that way. We cannot tell a student the work is crucial, and then tell them to take the “0” and move on. (Later, in a different article, we will discuss the relative merits of various points structures and the widespread adoption of the “No Zeros” philosophy, where missing work is given a 50%. In fact, there are many ways to construct a gradebook – standards based grading, grading with rubrics, “on a curve”, etc. Whichever you choose needs to have student growth in mind.)

Josh Vogt and I wrestled with the challenges of finding a fair grading practice idea at Gamble in my first year as principal. Specifically, we were discussing ways to increase student motivation. He was unhappy with the number of students who did not complete the homework and who, consequently, were failing his class. Characteristically, I selected a sports metaphor selected from an article I had read years before. The article had asked, “What if grading at school was more like sports?” Both of us were videogamers, and played Madden football specifically, so we knew we were pretty much experts on football, and that was where our conversation focused.

Me: “Where do you get graded in football?”

Josh: “On the scoreboard Friday night.”

Me: “And if you mess up at practice?”

Josh: “You practice it again.” He shrugged. “And maybe get yelled at.”

Me: “I’m not a fan of yelling in the classroom.”

Josh: “It would get things going, though.”

He’s not really a yeller, so I think he’s just being the devil’s advocate now.

Shaking my head: “Just, no.” And I kept shaking my head through, “How about sprints? Push ups?”

Me: “Really, you just keep practicing, right? And how do you get graded Friday night?”

Josh: “The score. The score is your grade. It is real, it counts.”

Me: “So what was it you did all week? Does it count? Like, if you practice hard, do you get extra points?”

Josh: “No, you just improve your chances of getting extra points.”

Me: “And if you don’t practice?”

Josh: “Well, you play terribly.”

Me: “Yes, but I don’t know a coach who lets you play if you didn’t practice.”

Josh: “Fair point.”

It went on like that for a while longer, but we worked out a somewhat research-based and somewhat metaphorically-bound new grading policy. Students had to practice in order to play. That is, they had to do the classwork and homework in order to take the quizzes or complete the projects that would determine their final grade. Done is done. Not done practicing means they are not yet ready to “play”.

Josh’s new policy included the provision that you could not even sit for the test until you had completed the work that covered on the test. The first week of implementation, one of our long-time parents and biggest supporters was upset when her son could not take an exam. She had grown up through a traditional system, and insisted that Rich be allowed to take the zero on his homework, and proceed to take the test. She was unsatisfied after talking with Josh, and her call next came to me. Fortunately, her son (as well as her husband) was an athlete. When I provided the rationale, using very little teacher jargon and relying heavily on the sports comparison, she relented a bit. Once she came to understand that Josh was giving extended time and that there were multiple chances for Rich to take the test after he completed the “practice”, she agreed to give the policy a chance.

When Rich completed the work, a couple weeks after the original due date, he sat for the test at his lunch time. He did well: his grade on the test was better than his typical social studies score. He and his mother attributed the improved score to the fact that he completed the work. He played better because he had practiced, and they became supporters of the policy.

If a child is learning, how can they be failing?

Carol Dweck, whose Mindset work has deeply impacted this generation’s approach to education, reminds us that grading that is linked to ability, rather than to effort, can prevent a student from working to his potential. In her Scientific American article “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” she asserts, “In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame.” Her admonition is clear: grading should be linked directly to effort. We must do everything in our power to help kids stop thinking about grades as a reflection of their ability. Phrases like “she is not that good at math,” or “her writing is average” should be avoided. If some summative statement like that must be made, perhaps in response to a standardized test score, it should be paired with a statement of encouragement or of the impermanence of a score at a given point in time.

Dweck’s largely universally accepted advocacy for nurturing effort takes us back to our point. We must think of every aspect of our classroom when encouraging students to see learning as a process. We are quick to devise lessons, and teach students the language of effort. However, we undo this work when we then subject this motivated student to the effects of the traditional gradebook. To complete the work of creating the student who says “I can’t get this … yet,” we must have a grading system that says the same thing.

So here are the steps to creating a grade system that encourages effort:

  • Understand each child’s relationship with grading – what will spur greater effort?
  • Create a policy that promotes greater effort – consider a “practice to play” policy that emphasizes work completion (like Josh’s policy) and effort as a gateway to credit
  • Never – not in conversation, or during conferences, or in your grade policy – associate grades with a student’s ability
  • Be willing to accept your gradebook average as a suggestion, and give students the benefit of any doubt
  • Explain grades as a snapshot in time, not a conclusion

How do you use grades to encourage effort and growth? Add a comment below to share an idea.