Monday, May 23, 2011

Does Grading Impede Learning?

This morning, a colleague came to me for help.  She had an assignment for a graduate ed-tech course in which she needed to create a podcast that included background music using Audacity. 

I've worked with this teacher before on using technology in her classroom.  She took the 3-credit non-graded Ed-tech course that I offered in the winter.  I've seen her explore new technologies, experiment with sites in which she had no experience, and try new things in her classroom.

This morning, though, she was very nervous about using Audacity, even though she had been exposed to it before.  She even described to me her Friday afternoon, when her anxiety over creating the podcast brought her to tears.  I was wondering why she was having such a tough time until she made the following statement to me: 

"I always get this nervous when the assignment is graded."

How many of our students feel the same way? 

Sometimes, as educators, I think that we get confused into thinking our purpose is to evaluate our students rather than foster their learning.  It's a natural pitfall that's built into our educational system.  We evaluate students to determine who makes the honor roll.  We rank students' GPA for colleges and awards.  We assess children to the point of lunacy in order to measure the success of teachers, schools, and districts. 

I'm not advocating that we eliminate grades.  I'm just wondering if there's a way to take the focus off the grades and get it back on the learning. 

My son is finishing his last year of pre-school in a few weeks.  I'm amazed by how the majority of the kids in his pre-school class love to learn in that classroom.  Unfortunately, something happens between pre-school and high school which changes that.

When I think about some of the students in my class that are toughest to motivate, I can recall many times when they've come up to me with something they found interesting on the History Channel, or the internet, or something their father told them at his shop.  I'm forced to conclude that they haven't lost the motivation to learn.  They've lost the motivation to learn at school. 

There are probably many reasons for that loss of motivation.  How much of a factor is our current focus on grading?  How can we keep the natural wonder that most kids have in pre-school from vanishing as they progress through our schools?


  1. As a special education teacher for 4th and 5th graders I would definitely agree with Mike. Just the mention of a possible grade to a special education student can create an atmosphere of apprehension and dread. My students would start asking all kinds of questions about the grading and not about the assignment that they were given as an assessment of their learning.
    I had to come up with a possible solution to the grading system as I had students who had severe anxiety issues that were further increased by the mention of just the word test.
    I now do not use the word “test” or mark a grade on any of my students’ assessments. I use the word “review” and put a sticker on the paper so that I know that the assessment is complete. All grades are recorded and assessments are still completed in school. The environment is one of calm, relaxed atmosphere where I just tell my students that: let’s see what we can tell me about the topic? All the students love getting stickers, no one is comparing grades just stickers and learning is happening in a relaxed environment. Remember this is an elementary classroom setting. However, I really feel that my system of grading can be changed and adapted to meet any classroom from kindergarten to high school. You just need to be creative with the process and not be fixed on the standard method of obtaining grades.

  2. It's hardly just special needs kids who are hurt by grading. All children are.

  3. This rabbit hole is a labyrinth -watch your step. Step one is recognizing that grading is distracting.

    Step two is questioning how we can grade better so as not to sabotage our ultimate goals - life long learning.

    Step three is realizing that it's not how we can grade better but why we are doing so in the first place.

    Step four is where you try to figure out how to move from degrading to de-grading kids in a system that demands we grade. Step four can be treacherous. And if you're not careful, you'll get labelled a troublemaker and an outcast among your peers.

    The special momentum of the status quo around grading has very sharp teeth.