Most likely you are teaching in a school that requires a report card grade at the end of each term. Administration might even require a minimum number of grades in the grade book to calculate the report card grade. You might also teach in a school where grades are published live for parents and students to see as soon as they are posted.
Students learn at a young age from their parents, teachers, and classmates that their intelligence, even their worth, is judged by a number or letter grade. Teachers can make small shifts in the classroom to help students avoid the association of self-worth and grades. But what can you do if you teach in a traditional-grades environment? What steps can you take within the four walls of your classroom to keep the focus on learning, and away from grades?
As a teacher who used to unknowingly exacerbate the emphasis on grades, it has taken me decades to make shifts in my behaviors to emphasize learning in my classroom. I am embarrassed to admit this—I displayed an A bulletin board in my classroom. When a student earned an A on a test, they received a cutout letter A to paste to the bulletin board. As a new teacher, I tried to motivate my middle school students to study for their tests through a visual competition between my class sections. While my intentions were pure, I didn’t realize I was telling my students, loud and clear, that I only recognize your learning if you score 90 percent or above on a test. Regardless of whether you typically earn Cs but work incredibly hard to earn a B—sorry, you don’t get a letter on the board because your grade didn’t meet the arbitrary A cutoff. I could rehash several of my grade-emphasizing missteps from early in my career, but to spare further embarrassment, I will cut to the chase. Over my two decades of teaching, here are the major shifts I have made in my behavior to redirect my students’ focus to learning—and away from grades.
1. Talk about learning—not grades: Reflect on the language you use with your students. Do you talk about grades with them often? Does your language praise the grade, or the learning demonstrated? Consider the following language swaps when discussing student progress.
- Instead of “This is a major grade, so be sure to study.” Try, “I am looking forward to seeing how well you know the material from tomorrow’s assessment.”
- Instead of “Wow, your average has gone up four points this term.” Try, “I have noticed in your class discussions and written work that you have a much stronger grasp of the material this term.”
- Instead of “You need to start turning in your homework to improve your grade.” Try, “You are expected to complete the assigned homework so that you are prepared for class and getting the practice you need with the material.”
Each example of language swaps communicates to the student what is really a priority in your class—learning. The kids and the parents will catch on to this eventually. You will notice a remarkable reduction in how much the kids talk about their grades and an increase in how much they talk about their learning.
2. Write feedback—not grades: If you are required by your school to give traditional assessments such as quizzes and tests, you can still comply with this mandate, but maybe you don’t have to actually write a grade on the paper. Return student work with plenty of written feedback but no displayed number or letter grade. Does a first grader really need to see an F or 52 percent displayed on their paper? Or rather, could the first grader learn from the teacher’s basic notes such as circles and hints?
If you really need to record a number grade, keep that hidden from the student. As you mark the assignment, record points on a separate rubric rather than directly on the student’s copy of the assignment. After the student has a chance to review your written feedback on their returned paper, they may see their rubric or grade. Kristy Louden shares her methods for getting students to read the feedback on their papers in this Cult of Pedagogy blog. The students may be frustrated by not knowing their assignment grade immediately; however, they adjust to this over time and start paying more attention to the teacher’s feedback.
3. Keep grades as fluid as possible: If you administer a test on a certain day and a student does not perform as well as they could have, is that grade permanent in the grade book? Could the student have more opportunities to demonstrate their proficiency with the concepts after the test? Professor and researcher Peter Liljedahl compares this approach to grading to skydiving employees in his 2020 book, Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics:
Imagine two employees at a skydiving company whose jobs are to secure jumpers with the proper parachute equipment. Employee A started off strong, properly securing jumpers’ parachutes, but has not been as proficient lately. Compare Employee A to a student who earned As on their assessments early in the term but lately has been earning Cs.
Employee B did not start off strong but, over time, has grown to be extremely proficient in securing parachutes. Compare Employee B to a student who struggled early term but is now performing well on their assessments because they filled in missing gaps and made connections in the concepts.
If both Employee A and B were “graded” in a traditional school sense, they would have the same report card “average” . . . but anyone who cares about their safety would insist on working with Employee B because they have shown evidence of their growth and learning—which means the skydiver is more likely to have a secure parachute. It doesn’t matter how well an employee USED to secure parachutes.
Considering that grades do not have to be permanent, could teachers reframe how we assess students in a term? Could retake opportunities be offered to students who have learned more over time? Could assignments be turned in late? (This depends on if the grade is an indicator of actual learning or student behaviors.) What if the last test grade of the term was the only grade calculated in the grade book, similar to comparing the skydiving employees’ proficiency?
If you are ready to make the shift toward assessing student learning and de-emphasizing grades but your school community is not on the same page as you, these shifts can at least de-emphasize the focus on number grades within your class. After I reflected on my words and practices as a teacher, it is no wonder my past students would occasionally push for more points or a higher grade (also known as “grade grubbing”), copy homework assignments, and cram for assessments. I was sending the message that their effort was a means to an end of a final grade.
After making these shifts, the students are not automatically perfect in discussing their own learning and growth, but I do hear a lot less of “I am so happy I earned an A on my test!” and more “I really know how to multiply fractions well; I worked hard in this unit.”
Crystal Frommert, M.Ed, has over 20 years of experience as an educator, mostly in middle school. Crystal has taught math in public, parochial, and international schools. In addition to math, she has taught computer science and social justice. Beyond teaching, she has served as an instructional coach, school board member, adjunct college instructor, technology coordinator, and assistant head of middle school. She has presented at local, national, and international educational conferences on topics ranging from social and emotional learning to technology integration. She currently serves as a grade-level coordinator and math teacher in Houston, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and dog.