TAG: Thinking About Grades

Grades and feedback are two different things, yet we often treat them as synonyms. By Jeff Gerlach.

The elephant in the classroom.

As an educator, I got used to negotiating my practice around the elephants that sat in my classroom. One of the biggest of these obstacles were grades.

I really wanted to personalize learning goals for my students. Seeing learning as a continuous journey, self propelled by the simple pursuit of knowing, I became troubled by grades being positioned as the objective rather than the measure. I noticed students tailoring their learning toward getting a certain grade, regardless of what they were actually learning.

It is not the fault of parents and students that they approach school as a game to get grades. This grade centric culture is well ingrained in all of our psyche, and I believe it has become especially prominent because of one size fits all instruction. Students are often prematurely halted in their learning because of rigid timelines to complete lessons and lack of student customization options. When students know that their time is up to complete an activity, they often give up once the grade is given. Continuity between activities is difficult to establish because when students receive a grade, they feel like they can no longer revisit the things they have already been graded on.

For these reasons grades are an obstacle, but they are indeed an obvious reality of our system. So I ask; what is the place of grades in education? What purpose are they intended to serve? When is the correct time and method to assign them to student performance?

These questions are big ones, so big in fact that they will need several posts to explore. So below you will find the first installment and I will continue to think about grades (TAG) in a few more posts over the coming weeks.

Differing Purposes: Grades v. Formative Feedback

A grade in itself is a compressed unit of data that represents the overall performance of a student on a given task. That task could be as small as an exit slip on a single date, or all the tasks that make up a full course. By aggregating an individual student’s performance data across many courses we can get a glimpse of a person’s academic aptitude, a transcript. By aggregating several students’ performance data on an assessment, teacher effectiveness can be measured. The intended purpose of grades are to inform outsiders of a students’ performance in a quick digestible format.

Grades are good at measuring how a student performed, yet not particularly useful in inspiring improvement and growth. They belong at the end of a process as a measurement and when they are given they bring complete closure to a particular chapter in learning, for both the student and the teacher. Students have been appropriately conditioned to accept grades and move on, not to question them and keep working to improve.

Yet despite the finality of grades teachers often use them in place or in tandem with quality feedback to learners. Mistakenly believing that it will motivate or reaffirm efforts on future classroom endeavors. In practice, this puts an end to learning for the student and teacher.

My suggestion, wait. How long? Until that student has completed whatever it is that you are measuring. Feedback and guidance is infinitely more valuable to the intimate members of the classroom. Encourage growth, don’t cap it. Providing customized feedback makes the incentive for learning… learning. When you are in the middle of learning you don’t need alphabet soup, you need guidance on how to improve.

But this is no easy task. Teachers plates are already quite full and to fit these kinds of personalized elements into the daily schedule it will mean freeing up some of the teacher’s pre-existing responsibilities. What can be done to allow teachers to teach less to the class as a whole, and focus more on individualized instruction? What would that class look like and what tools would I need to build it?

Jeff Gerlach (@JGer1) is a blended learning coach at Michigan Virtual University. Originally published on February 17, 2014 at myblend.org.

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