Ask Yourself, Why Am I Grading This?

“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.

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22 Responses to Ask Yourself, Why Am I Grading This?

  1. Pingback: Ask Yourself, Why Am I Grading This? | – Education Article – Education Blog

  2. John Bennett says:

    I applaud your efforts!!! How about this further change??? Treat the assessment or (of???) finished product be treated the same as work toward a product – feedback, no grade? Then in YOUR (always the teacher) assignment of the course grade gets input from each student’s ‘proposal’ of a course grade – justified by their work and your feedback – that gives their thinking of how well they did / what they did TOGETHER with a meeting of you with each student to get your questions answered about / your clarifications provided for the student’s proposal (along of course with your significant evidence gathered on the student’s attaining of Effective Learning – learning that’s useable for addressing MEANINGFUL situations, NOT scores on tests, quizzes, standardized tests, …).

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  4. Phil says:

    AMEN! Preach it sister! I have practiced this for the last 4 years & I wholeheartedly agree with everything stated. My students have no issues in trying (& making mistakes) on work and activities.

    I would add to your article that the bigger element here is teaching and practicing intrinsic motivation. When you aren’t forcing something, they have to start making those decisions for themselves, which, when poorly made, provide for wonderful learning opportunities that will traditionally stick with them much longer. I hope teachers will take what you have suggested to heart.

  5. Jerry R. Koestner says:

    I began to question myself and assignments. Was I trying to assess the students of their knowledge or trying to defend myself that I was working. I started thinking back to my coaching. Was I running drills for the sake of running drills or to teach. You can over burden everyone with grading.

    This mentioned rubrics. Rubrics gives everyone a direction and end result. However, too many are vague and still gives ne measurement value.

    • I totally agree with your comment about rubrics, Jerry. I like to keep my rubrics clear and concise. I encourage teachers to include language describing what the skills they are assessing look like at each level (1-4). I also caution teachers not to include too many criteria on their rubrics as it can overwhelm students.

      Catlin

  6. Valorie says:

    My philosophy has been to have two grades for each project or assessment. One is for all the work leading up to the final report or test and one is the final report or test itself.

    The lead-up work includes some required elements (say two homework problems or thesis/support scaffolding) plus extra work students can choose to do for better understanding. The grade for the lead-up work is based on how well the student scheduled the work and for responding to concerns or corrections. I don’t expect this work to be perfect the first time (or even the second or third) but I do expect them to learn from their mistakes and correct them. This grade covers more soft skills -organization, working with others, trying assignments without full clarity, accepting praise and critique- and is less of a letter grade than a discussion of how well prepared they are for the final project or exam.

    The second grade is for the final project or exam. There’s a clear rubric that allows everyone to get a passing grade with reasonable effort but to do better than padding, they’ll need to have done some of the lead-up work to clarify things. For instance, a rubric might include an art requirement but the lead-up work clarified what would, and would not, be sufficient.

    Kids liked it because those who understood quickly didn’t have busy work, and those who needed practice were rewarded for their efforts even if they went astray as long as they got back on the road before the end. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at what kids will try to accomplish when we take grades out of the equation.

    • Malcolm McLean says:

      I really like this a lot.

      In fact, I wish I had read your comment before making my own comment on the article. Yours is a much better “scheme” than the simplistic one I’ve been considering as a result of reading the article.

  7. Christy McGuire says:

    I would love to know what you think about Jim Davies’ TEDx Carleton talk “Don’t Waste Student Work” — in a similar vein! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7GdDp19AfQ

  8. Malcolm McLean says:

    Definitely something to think about.

    I teach in an adult program for high-school dropouts, ranging from 17 to 62, who are working towards a grade-12 equivalent certificate.

    Because I give my students at least 2 bites at every cherry, I never know if a first submission of an assessment or a “final product” is actually final, or if the student may ask for the opportunity to redo part or all of the item.

    However, this article has me wondering if I should change some items that are currently graded into strictly practice or developmental items.
    e.g., in some math modules there are several unit reviews and tests – the review being, in effect, a practice test, and the only difference between the review and the test being (literally) that the numbers are changed. However, both the review and the test are currently graded.

    I wonder if it may be better to grade only the tests, and to allow do-overs only for the reviews.

  9. Sara Pohl says:

    When you have a rubric of three points or so, do you also have expectations? Such as basic grammar, previously learned formats, or terminology? We have a behemoth of a rubric and I was wondering how to trim it, but still have basics for writing standards.

    • Hi Sara,

      My rubrics tend to have ~5 criteria that are standards aligned. My writing rubrics all include a mechanics category. Despite having ~5 criteria, I just select 2-3 to focus on for each assessment. I don’t feel the need to grade every element every time. Teachers always ask if students push back because I didn’t grade it all. The answer is “no.” I honestly think they are relieved. It’s easier to focus on 2 or 3 skills at a time as we discuss how to improve those select skills. That said, everyone approaches grading differently and I know plenty of teachers who feel like they have to grade every aspect of every assignment. I just don’t think that strategy served me or my students that well when I did it early on in my career.

      Catlin

  10. Jane Bloodworth says:

    I believe that the first step in making this a common teaching practice is to convice school boards and district officials that requiring their teaching staff to provide X grades per term is NOT a useful way to determine if the teacher is teaching or the student is learning. When I moved from teaching science and math to the computer applications classroom I found the freedom to work WITH my students as they attained new skills without the pressure of achieving a grade. I made it clear to parents that my students would only be graded on about 4 final products each term because we needed time to acquire the skills to produce something meaningful. I can’t imagine ever going back to an envirnoment where I would be required to endlessly assign grades to bits of practice and performance.

  11. Snehalatha Tolasati says:

    It is a true fact that teachers in India too give assignments correction of all these hampers their productive time.They use practice work sheets before they can actually grade them.As Valorie said, we have two grades one for concept and another for presentation/written work.
    This is in our Primary section of Cambridge/National curriculum.

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  13. Mikki Miller says:

    This:

    “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.”

  14. Thanks for this article. I really like your 3-tiered diagram for the purpose of letting students see WHY they are doing it and what the grading scheme is for each type. We are an independent school with a long history of over-achievers grade-grubbing. We have been transitioning to SBG. I am obligated by school-wide policy to define (on a rubric) every level of every standard we’re monitoring: Beginning, Developing, Meeting, and Extending. We do not add formatives to the final determination of the students’ level but we have to report all the formatives in the grade book anyway. We have a lot of students making the decision to skip practices and formative work because they know the grade will not be in their final average. Yes, we’ve shown them how this hurts their summative performance but it continues. My hope is that next year when we no longer have percent report cards but truly standards-based report cards, this might improve. What are other people doing to address kids devaluing formative practice? Thanks again.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      One strategy I’ve used and found extremely effective at encouraging students to do the practice leading up to assessments is requiring that all practice be completed prior to requesting a re-assessment. So, a student might not complete or skip a practice activity initially because “it doesn’t count” in the traditional sense. I also emphasize the importance of practicing skills to develop mastery, but there are some students who make the choice not to complete a particular practice activity. However, if that student completes an assessment and is not happy with his/her score, they cannot request to reassess on that skill until they’ve completed ALL of the practice/formative assessment work. Once a student has had to double-back and complete work they chose not to do initially in order to qualify for a reassessment opportunity, they start to get it and my numbers for incomplete or missing assignments went down significantly.

      I hope that helps! I am writing about this in the book I’m currently working on about partnering with students to achieve balance. It will be out in late fall, so that might be a helpful resource if your teachers are using blended learning models/strategies and trying to find ways to get students actively engaged in their learning.

      Catlin

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