What Do Grades Mean?
With so many changes in the classroom over the last year, it’s understandable that some teachers might not be excited to dive into the debate of how we grade students. For many, it’s a process that they have developed over years of trial and error, and asking them to reexamine their grading system can come across as a personal attack. After all, no one likes to admit that they’ve been doing something wrong, perhaps for decades.
But framing the debate on grading in that manner is a mistake.
If we’re going to do a better job of producing students with the critical thinking skills they need to thrive, it means not only reexamining what is taught in our classrooms but creating a better system to evaluate those skills.
The current way of doing things too often emphasizes the process, rather than focusing on the mastery of the skill. You can understand how this developed, as from one point of view, it’s a fair way to let students know your expectations from the start. Quizzes count for 20 percent, homework 20 percent, class participation 20 percent, tests 40 percent, and everyone has three chances for extra credit. At the end of the semester, you add up all the points and end up with a grade.
But if the goal of a grade is to determine the mastery of the subject (and encourage the students to reach that goal), this system has several flaws. First, it emphasized the tools rather than the results. Yes, homework may be helpful toward learning a skill, but completing it is not the objective. Points in a basketball game aren’t awarded during practice.
Grading things like class participation may hurt introverted students who understand the concepts just fine but may not enjoy raising their hand. Extra credit may sound like a way to help students nudge their grade up, but does it contribute to actually learning the skill you’re trying to teach?
More importantly, many of these concepts that we’ve taken for granted ignore that students come from vastly different backgrounds, many without the ability to work on assignments beyond the classroom. Giving extra credit for trips to a museum or special event may seem harmless, but how does that affect the student who doesn’t have the resources to make that trip?
Many students have family commitments and part-time jobs. They all start with different skill sets, meaning that some students have to put in a lot more work to get to the same endpoint.
Current Research on Grades
Current research, from scholars like Ken Bain (who wrote the excellent book What the Best College Teachers Do), contends that grades can interfere with a student’s natural curiosity. He encourages teachers to let students find success through trial and error rather than motivating them through a grade. In today’s educational system, students too often lean on a surface or strategic approach, which doesn’t facilitate deep learning.
In an ideal world, I’d contend it makes sense to eliminate grades completely and create a classroom environment that encourages students to focus on learning instead. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that point right now, and grades are a necessary evil. But as long we’re obligated to assign them, let’s at least make them reflect something that matters.
New Ways To Grade?
Creating new grading methods won’t be easy. But if we’re going to find new ways to teach students complex skills, we need a better way to understand their progress. That means examining our tried-and-true grading systems and asking some difficult questions.
It’s the best way to ensure that all students are getting the education they need to succeed in this world.