Thursday, September 25, 2014

How grades fail to send the right message

In Curriclum21, Heidi Hayes Jacobs shares the story of Mabry Middle School in Georgia. The school surveyed students to learn more about their attitudes toward learning. On the survey, students reported that they rarely did their best on academic work, but they did enough to earn a grade that would please their teachers or their parents. As you can imagine, this information was very concerning to the teachers of Mabry. They wanted more for their students than a culture where students did just enough to get the grades.

So I recently had a spirited conversation about grading with @audhilly on Twitter. I think we actually agreed for the most part, but there were some differences. In examining the shortcomings of traditional grading, @audhilly indicated that the problem with traditional grades is not what they do but what they fail to do.
I completely agree traditional grades do not effectively communicate what has been learned. Instead, old fashioned grades simply lump all assignments together without providing information on specific learning targets. In the end, the grade is determined by averaging all of these varied assignments together to arrive at a grade that reflects a general, but imprecise, assessment of learning. So traditional grades do not communicate precisely toward progress on learning goals.

But I also believe grades do harm beyond this basic failure. They condition students to expect a grade for every assignment they do. Students begin to think if there isn't a grade attached, it must not be that important. Instead of drawing on passion, curiosity, and empowerment for motivation, students work the system to earn enough points (a grade) to satisfy the demands of the important people in their life (teachers and parents). Students become passive participants where they follow directions, comply, and ultimately remember enough to get the grade.

So grades fail on multiple levels. Foremost, they do not communicate precisely the progress toward learning goals so students can understand how to grow and improve. And, grades cause motivation to become increasingly dependent on external factors rather than encouraging students to strive for personal best.

When Mabry Middle School was faced with the realization of how passive students had become in the learning process, they developed strategies to make learning more engaging for students. Students were encouraged to bring personal passions and creativity into the learning process. Student work was celebrated and showcased to various audiences. These changes helped students see ways the time and effort of learning was meaningful beyond simply getting a grade.

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