Get Away from Grading and Get Students Learning

By: Paul Barnwell

Why do we grade? Is it to sort students by perceived ability? To measure learning? To engage students? To fail students, because not everyone can or should be successful? To satisfy parents and others in the community? To hold students accountable?

Depending on your philosophy, you might support grading for any of the above reasons. I don't believe it's worth debating. In my opinion, we should de-emphasize traditional grading in favor of engaging students and providing more meaningful feedback to measure understanding.

Here's why:

  1. A heavy reliance on grading loses track of learning objectives and processes. Assessments and feedback that measure learning should be paramount. I've yet to meet an educator who has developed a coherent system that combines heavy reliance on traditional grading with true measurement of learning. (I've often seen heavy grading measure compliance, however.)
  2. Brain research suggests that people seek novel, exciting learning experiences. If we create the conditions, 99% of students will want to learn and participate.
  3. Grading is a form of external motivation. We do our students a disservice when we stray from intrinsic or internal motivation. Think about how counterproductive it is for students to be asking constantly whether an assignment will be graded.
  4. Grades on a report card do not necessarily reflect whether a student has learned anything, progressed in a subject, or been challenged.
  5. Grading practices differ so much from teacher to teacher that it is just as subjective a process as not giving grades. An A in science could be subject to a completely different standard than an A in history.
  6. My own most poignant, effective learning experiences were ones in which grading was an afterthought, because there was so much inherent value in what we were doing as students.
  7. I work hard enough during the day. I don't need to bring home papers to grade when I can assess students during school.

What do I do in the classroom, then, if I clearly have some major issues with traditional grading?

Focus on Learning

Many of us have heard the teaching maxim, "Start with the end in mind." I attempt to heed this advice by presenting to students a detailed outline of upcoming teaching units and summative assessments, which could be a test or, more likely, an essay or multimedia project assessment.

For example, students knew that they would need to learn the following in order to complete the Utopia brochure/commercial project at the end of a recent Challenge of Society unit:

  • Identification and use of persuasive techniques
  • Purpose of text features
  • Supporting detail practice and use
  • Incorporation of sound, voice, and images in media
  • Storyboarding.

By designing engaging lessons tied to the above objectives—plus my constant reminders of their link to the final project—students were generally cognizant and motivated. I was able to encourage my class, give spot checks, and assess for understanding along the way.

When students began working on their projects, they participated enthusiastically, and it turned out to be the most collectively successful summative assessment I've assigned during my five years of teaching. Check out for links to some student samples from this project.

Because I still have to give a letter grade on report cards, I usually give students a traditional grade on a rubric that accompanies my summative assessments, and these grades carry significant weight. I have to comply with my system's grading expectations, but that doesn't mean I can't focus on more important things while overseeing learning activities.

Relaxed Alertness

When I plan lessons, I try to create inherent value and engagement in the structure and content. My fast-paced class is set up to prompt student participation while providing opportunities for student interaction and movement. This environment of relaxed alertness keeps kids on their toes, but (I hope) doesn't stress them out.

I provide instant feedback and prompt engagement using, among others, the following strategies:

Constant Questioning. I swear by my classroom sets of 3" x 5" index cards on which I've written the students' names. I flip through each set every three or so days, which means there is no hiding in class. I'm not trying to stump students, but rather trigger participation and keep them focused. Plus, I can keep notes on class participation or other issues on a student's card.

Classwide Success. Say we're going to do a self-graded grammar quiz or individual quizzes. Sometimes I'll say, "Alright guys, let's check ourselves this time, but it will be unacceptable for anyone to get less than 80%." Sometimes a student has to try more than once to reach the benchmark. But this form of peer pressure seems to have a positive effect on student engagement and effort.

Green/Red Dot. If I tell students it is a "green dot task," they know I'll be doing a spot check for understanding. This could be on a worksheet or other simple activity. Students raise their hands when they've completed the activity. If a student's work is incomplete or wrong, I'll mark what needs correcting with a red dot, which means they have to keep working until they get a green dot. As I zoom around the room, I get a great snapshot of whether a class comprehends a given topic or activity. This activity fosters a sense—and expectation—of student success.

Partner Work/Interaction. Many students shut down if they must sit still for 90 minutes. I give students a chance to work together on assignments. Have students get up to find someone with a similar color shirt and share answers. Have students partner on the basis of their favorite season. These motivational and movement ploys go a long way when it comes to student engagement.

Mini Whiteboards. Go to Lowe's or Home Depot and ask them to cut a sheet of cheap white wall paneling into miniature whiteboards—or do it yourself. You don't have to collect papers if you design activities that require students to show their understanding as they work. When they finish, they erase their work and move on. The downside? Dry erase makers are relatively expensive.

Laptops. If students have access to laptops, they are instantly engaged. It never ceases to amaze me that, regardless of the academic task, students participate when a laptop sits on their desk.

Moving Forward

A belief that student engagement breeds effort, which eventually breeds success drives me to constantly reevaluate what I do and find new ways to engage students. This philosophy, coupled with smart uses of instructional and assessment data, can be a powerful way to motivate students and provide them with meaningful feedback.

I can move away from traditional grading with no qualms and no sacrifice of quality teaching and student work. In fact, the more I've strayed from traditional grading, the higher the quality of student work.

Too many students fail because they aren't engaged. How many more students could meet their potential if the majority of teachers focused on engagement and smart, innovative feedback, rather than hours toiling away with traditional grading methods?

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2010

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3 comments on article "Get Away from Grading and Get Students Learning"

Mr. Barnwell,

Thank you for a great article, every time that I plan a lesson the number one thing on my mind is how am I going to get my students engaged in what they are learning so that they can learn because they want to, not because they need to know something to get a better grade. It sounds like you have some great ideas when it comes to finding ways to get students engaged in what they are learning and to go beyond the letter grade. The ideas you addressed that I was particularly fond of included the partners working together based on shirt color, favorite season, etc. Normally when I have my students pair up, they pair up with a person near them or they will go and find a friend of theirs in the class to work with. That seems like a great way to get students to be more involved not only in their learning but the new social interactions that take place because of that. I would have to say the part of your article that I liked the most was the part toward the end involving a constant reevaluation of what we are teaching so that we can continually work and adapt to find ways to keep our students both engaged and learning. Thanks for the article, it was a great read!

3/4/2015 10:01 PM

Mr. Barnell,

You open with a great question challenging teachers to reflect upon why we grade. As I prepare to go into teaching this is a question I am constantly asking myself. You provide some great ideas for checking student understanding while shying away from the traditional approaches. I love the idea of fostering a classroom where the focus is not on assessing students, but on creating energy for student learning. I agree with your statement that students generally fail when they are not engaged. More emphasis should be placed on engaging students in their learning rather than assessing for understanding. I really connected with your idea of the green/red dot activity as well as utilizing white boards. These both check for understanding while giving students an opportunity to correct mistakes. I will say that one struggle with the issue of assessment is the pressure to give each student a formal grade. It has become such an expectation that each student will be formally assessed; I believe this creates fear in relying heavily on informal modes of assessment. Overall this was a great article that challenges educators to think about why they assess in the way they we do.

3/8/2015 8:47 PM

Mr. Barnwell,

Thank you for this great article that you have written, when I plan a lesson for my math class the number one thing that comes to my attention is how am I going to get my students engaged in what they are learning so that they can gain the knowledge because they want to learn the subject, not because I tell that need to or that they need to know something to get a better grade in my class. When I read your article you had some really great ideas for a class room when it comes to finding ways to get students engaged in what they are learning and to go beyond the letter grade. What stuck out to me the most from what you talked about in this article was, including students working together based on shirt color, their favorite season, etc. In my class when I have my student’s pair up with a partner, I just allow them to pair up with a person near them or let them go and find a friend of theirs in the class to work with. The points that you address gave me some great ways to get students to be more involved not only in their learning but the new social interactions that take place because of that. When reading through this article my favorite part is when you talked about your “Relaxed Alertness”. What I liked about is how you had a fast paces class to prompt students participation while giving them the opportunities for their interaction and movement, like you said I believe that this will creat an environment that is relaxed but also keeps them alert and keeps kids on their toes. But at the same time I don’t want to stress them out.

Thank Chad Wolf

3/9/2015 9:25 PM

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