Grades are a Crutch

Living in Northern New Hampshire, I often feel as though my teaching philosophy leaves me stranded on an island.

I am the only educator I know that uses an iPad to teach.  I am the only educator I know locally that not only believes that grades are punitive and as such am abolishing grades.  I am also the only educator I know that will not be using traditional 3-5 question “reading checks” in my literature course.

In my twitter PLN and conversations I’ve been having with a few people in my PLN (Mark Barnes and Joe Bower) they have helped to guide me that this way of thinking is what’s not only right for me, but right for my students.

My History with Grading

The way my courses are structured are that at least three (3) drafts of each larger paper is created, discussed, revised, edited.  I have 70+ students,  and six larger papers a semester for each student.  Along with these larger papers, my students have weekly writings.  My first semester of teaching, i quickly discovered that the traditional grading scheme was not going to work for me and my students.  I had too many arguments with myself over just what to assign for a grade.  I spent more time over the letter grade than I did reading and writing narrative feedback.  I did this for the first year.

The second year of teaching, I did away with points, percentages and just graded the “final” product.  My dissonance with grading still existed, now it was just more focused.  I hated grading.  Hated placing a B or C on a paper and watching students flip past comments for the grade, look at it and shove their paper in their bags.  It felt as if all my hard work, effort and struggle was negated by that silly letter at the end.

How can I change the motivation of the students?

I don’t think students should “earn” a grade.  I don’t believe grades should be used, as they are often done, TO students without their input.  Grades are punitive and fester competition.  If students are competing with each other, their parents and the system, then when does that leave time for actual learning?  When I take the competitive nature out of the classroom by removing the grades I also take away the external motivation of the students. I no longer am saying to them, complete all areas of this checklist/rubric/etc., tally them up and there is your grade.  Grades are no longer done “to” them.

The motivation is now intrinsic.  I ask my students, “What would you do with more time?” and then give it to them.  This switch in approach triggers the students to want to make their writing better.   This leads to more collaboration between students and teacher and more student ownership.  This student ownership also fosters the change in motivation from outward to intrinsic.

Don’t we all want our students to want to do better because they know they can without being motivated by grades?

Think of how we are “graded” in real world.  Through narrative feedback and conversation with our bosses and peers.  The bank manager doesn’t give their tellers a “C”, why should we in education? Authentic and meaningful feedback is the prefered method of grading post schooling, why not match it in school?

I like to state that education today uses the act of grading as a crutch.  

Teachers, school districts and even the Federal Government assign grades because it looks nice and neat.  Oh, this school is a C school, this one fails.  Teachers manipulate grades in an effort to extort some power and control.  We hear teachers talk about not being able to “do” that activity as their students would go crazy.  The teachers are afraid to lose control or better yet, to transfer that control to the students.  Teachers who stress upon “classroom management” and expect students to sit in the desks, listen attentively and absorb all the education the teachers are pouring into the brains are often frustrated with the structure of school (even though many may not see anything inherently wrong with it).  Teachers rely on the act of grading as their last push for ultimate control of their class.  Hardly ever are students allowed any feedback for the grades they receive or are they allowed to offer their own feedback into what they feel their grades should be.

Losing the Crutch

I have looked at my grading scheme that I thought I had settled on a mere month ago; however, after attending #RSCON3 I am ready (and more than willing) to relinquish full control of my class.  I will not be assigning grades to my students come this fall.  Students will be grading themselves (I predict that they will be harder than I would have been anyways).  My plan to implement this is as follows:

  1. Discuss with students on Day 1 my expectations and what I want them to learn for the course.
  2. Create the courses essential questions together.
  3. Brainstorm a list of ways throughout the semester and with our books on how we can demonstrate not only learning, but mastery too.
  4. Sign students up for days when they lead the classroom discussion.
  5. Conference with the students at least every 2-3 weeks (or as needed) on their progress.
  6. Offer narrative feedback on all assignments and stay away from empty praise.  Note what works, what intrigued me, and question students next steps with the piece.
  7. Sit with the students and watch their work come rolling in.
Okay with Living on an Island…For Now…
I will not mind being an educational island of one come this fall.  I have my PLN that will support me.  I am looking forward to finally being able to teach without the crutch that has slowed me down for the last two years.  I am already imagining what I could do without the stress and the time of grading.
My hope is that one by one I can start to show my fellow educators that they are relying on a crutch while teaching and hope that they can then lose it.  One at a time.

4 responses to “Grades are a Crutch

  1. Though I haven’t started teaching just yet, I can at least say from a student perspective that this is the type of teaching philosophy I prefer in classes I take.

    I actually never experienced the freedom of a student-driven, gradeless classroom until I took my first graduate-level writing course last semester. (Well, it wasn’t entirely gradeless — my prof would give us a projected letter grade for the course after each paper as just another way of letting us know how we were progressing through the course.)

    We had two peer review group meetings and plenty of feedback from the prof for each paper throughout the semester. The way the class was structured helped my writing process immensely, and it really helped me fully grasp the concept of writing as a process, not a single act or two in isolation. None of my undergrad English courses taught me that.

    • @labegley– I wish I had a class like this. Grades are so competitive and I remember just doing work for the grade, not for the learning/knowledge. I hope to move my students beyond that feeling.

      I know that they will be very unsure when I introduce it, but I think that they will really embrace it; once they are used to it!


  2. Pingback: Why 3P Grading? | Musings of One Educator

  3. Pingback: » Why 3P Grading? Musings of One Educator

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