How One Weird Finding Changed My Perspective on Grades

Now that I know, there’s no going back

photo credit

Several years ago, I encountered the work of Dylan Wiliam, who researched the effect of teacher feedback on student improvement. In his book, Embedded Formative Assessment, he cites a study by Ruth Butler (1988) wherein she examined the three types of feedback teachers give:

  • Grades alone
  • Both grades and comments
  • Comments alone

The results of Butler’s research might seem counterintuitive: the students who showed the most growth were those who received comments alone. Even grades paired with comments — which at face value would seem to be the richest form of feedback — was just as ineffective as giving grades alone.

Wiliam concludes: “That most students virtually ignore…painstaking correction, advice, and praise is one of public education’s best-kept secrets.”

Not only do grades not encourage growth, they inhibit it. Grades take the focus off feedback. As a teacher of English language arts who prides himself on providing quality feedback, this finding is particularly disturbing.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. — Ken Blanchard

But it doesn’t surprise me: frequently a student who receives an assignment back glances at the letter grade and then stows it away without ever reading the comments. This remains true even though, for most of my career, I have allowed students to revise and improve their scores on assessments.

Dylan Wiliam at LISE (Leadership Initiative in Science Education)

Something about the letter grade causes learning to stop.

So finally, after much more reading and reflection, as well as help from wise educators like Joy Kirr, I have decided to use feedback and revisions only, without entering a letter grade until the end of each term. It just makes sense.

Much of Wiliam’s research confirms the findings of other researchers like Carol Dweck, whose book Mindset introduced the world to growth mindset, and Daniel Pink, whose book Drive argued that extrinsic rewards and punishments actually stifle creativity, higher-order thinking, and intrinsic motivation.

In short, the grade becomes a false currency that, over time, seems to override the student’s intrinsic desire for mastery and personal sense of purpose. Students find themselves trapped in the Sisyphean task of continually laboring for a letter or number.

There is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. — Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

One might argue that these letters and numbers still represent something. But due to grade inflation and idiosyncratic grading policies, that “something” has no consistent or reliable meaning. As Robert Marzano writes, “grades are so imprecise, they are almost meaningless.”

Furthermore, like printed currency unmoored from the gold standard, scores, grades, GPA, and class rankings decreasingly possess any guaranteed exchange value. Students may still be able to exchange these “currencies” for college admission, scholarships and, in turn, well paying jobs, but these foregone conclusions are becoming less certain. Google’s Laslo Bock stated:

One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless…We found that they don’t predict anything.

“Getting in” to college is not enough. In order to avoid an adulthood driven by debt on a par with indentured servitude, students almost always need major scholarship help. Society has to be concerned when generations of graduates will need to adopt a near-mercenary mindset to pay back crippling debt. Who will be our teachers, social workers, musicians, poets, dancers?

The question arises: will I truly be able to exchange this letter grade, this GPA, or this class rank for anything of value? Perhaps at one time I could, regardless of the underlying quality of the education. But the answer is increasingly no, that these empty distinctions guarantee you little if anything in life.

Why spend your money for what is not bread;
your wages for what does not satisfy?
 — Isaiah 55:2

Since the significance and value of grades has steadily declined, it makes even less sense to let them do us a double disservice by hobbling learning in the classroom.

Since I hope to engender dispositions of growth mindset and intrinsic motivation in my students, I want to eliminate practices and policies that prevent these perspectives from flourishing.

That includes letter grades.

To this end, students will only receive written and verbal feedback about what they did well and what they can improve. With Google Classroom, it is relatively easy to document student progress toward meeting learning targets because all the work can be found in the student’s class folders. Students can upload pictures or create links to work found elsewhere.

Throughout the term, students evaluate their own and other students’ work, make improvements in response to feedback from their teacher and peers, and elicit and receive new feedback — all of which has been shown to aid students in becoming more engaged and effective learners.

This feedback cycle is not unlike the process used by coaches to prepare players for an upcoming game or meet. Coaches don’t put a score on the scoreboard during practices; that only happens during the game. Up until that “moment of truth,” coaches do everything they can to develop players in the skills and concepts they will need to succeed. To grade or rate them sends the subtle message that their current achievement is fixed. This is the exact opposite mentality needed to sustain growth and improvement. The goal is to “keep the conversation going” as long as possible.

At the end of each term, each student and I will peruse the evidence together and agree on an appropriate letter grade describing the student’s most consistent level of performance. Emphasis is always placed on more recent levels of performance, rather than focusing on earlier attempts where students were still learning the skill or concept. Following our conference, I enter this grade into the grade book as the student’s summary grade for the term.

To facilitate this process, I’ve created a Google Sheets portfolio for students to maintain throughout the term (see sample). Once students share this document with parents and guardians, they can check it at any time and ask me questions through it using the “File→Email Collaborators…” feature.

My hope is that this approach will allow students to have greater awareness and ownership of their learning. They will know what they need to improve and how to improve it.

Now is the time to shift the focus of schools from grades back to learning, creating an environment in which students can thrive and grow.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you like what you’ve read, please share and click the heart so more people get to see it.

This post is also crossposted at my website.

3 Assessment and Grading Practices that Need to be Obliterated

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