“If I don’t grade it, students won’t do it.” This reasoning leaves teachers with piles of work to grade, but I wonder how much of that time spent assigning points to student work results in improved student performance.
I fell into this trap at the start of my teaching career. I gave points for completing annotations, bringing books to class, and completing homework. By the end of the semester, I had over a hundred assignments in my grade book. I was exhausted by the neverending pile of paperwork that cast a shadow on my life beyond school.
A few years ago, I hit a breaking point. My grades didn’t feel like an accurate reflection of my students’ skills, and I was spending hours wading through paperwork instead of designing dynamic learning experiences for my students. Now, when I work with teachers, I encourage them to ask these questions: What is the purpose of this work? Why am I grading this?
Below is a simple flowchart to help teachers think about the purpose of student work.
Too often students are penalized for making mistakes on assignments that are designed to help them develop and refine their skills before an assessment. If teachers assign homework or in-class assignments with the goal of helping students to practice, I don’t think that work should receive a grade that goes into a grade book. Instead, the goal of that work should be to help the student learn the material. Mistakes during practice should be celebrated as part of the learning process. If we penalize students who make mistakes while practicing a skill, we create an environment where mistakes are scary. This negatively impacts student motivation and can cause students unnecessary anxiety.
When students are working toward a finished product that will be assessed for a grade, they need feedback and support. If teachers create time in class to provide feedback, they shift the focus from the product to the process. Too often, students do not receive feedback until they have submitted a finished product and receive a grade. Feedback on a finished product is not useful to students. I’d like to see more teachers design blended lessons that allow them the time and space to provide feedback as students work. This feedback pays dividends because the final products will be stronger.
Assessments and finished products need a grade, but many teachers either grade holistically so students are unsure why they received the grade they got or they use monster rubrics composed of so many criteria that grading a finished product takes weeks. I suggest teachers downsize and keep grading more manageable for themselves and their students. Use a simple rubric and select 2-3 specific skills to grade. For example, if students complete a research paper, teachers can limit their focus to three elements, 1) evidence, 2) analysis, and 3) organization. If teachers narrow their focus to a few elements and enter those as separate scores in the grade book, students and parents will have a better sense of what to work on in the future.
The longer I spend in education, the more I have come to embrace the mantra “less is more.” By grading less, we may actually give our students and ourselves more. The more time we spend grading work that doesn’t fall into the category of assessment or finished product, the less time we have to provide feedback, design engaging lessons, and recharge physically, mentally, and emotionally at home.