Redefining the End Goal

Seven ways educators can help students look beyond grades

“There’s no way I’m taking honors biology next year,” Katie told me. “It’s going to wreck my GPA.” She was in eighth grade and contemplating the high school course options.

I knew Katie collected insects for fun and had memorized every bone in the human body. “The honors class will move faster and cover more ground,”

“Not if I end up with a B+,” she replied.

That stopped me. The threat of a B+ was enough to deter her? I tried one more time. “If you get a B plus, then it really is the right placement. Plus, you’ll have access to higher-level classes down the road.”

At the time, I thought I made a compelling case, but I now know I took the wrong approach. Kids like Katie can’t shift their focus beyond extrinsic motivators until their fears are addressed. If you lead with logical reasoning, they won’t hear a word you say.

There can be real consequences if they tune you out. Students may write off a subject because they think they’re bad at it, not realizing that mastery comes from exposure. Here are seven ways educators can help students think more flexibly, take more risks, and look beyond grades.

Validate their feelings.

No matter how ridiculous a student’s fears may seem to you, they make complete sense to them. You don’t have to agree with them to validate their emotions. Try to figure out their underlying concern. You can then say, “I get it. If I thought a B+ would wreck my GPA and my future, I’d want to play it safe too.” Or, “If I thought my parents would be mad at me if I got a B, I’d be hesitant to take the honors class too.” When kids feel understood, they let down their guard and are able to consider other perspectives. It’s futile to reason with an anxious student.

Talk about their interests.

Follow up on the details they divulge in papers or class discussions. If they share memories about collecting shells with their grandmother or crying after a Little League loss, bring it up in conversation. Point them to websites that classify sea shells, or recommend biographies about baseball players. Make personal connections, show delight in their curiosity, and encourage them to delve deeper. You’ll help them value their many dimensions.

You’ll also combat the misconception that academics matter above all else. Any kind of hard work creates new neural pathways, whether students choose to develop photographs, sketch portraits, play the violin, or build robots. And in a recent study, researchers at Stanford and Yale-NUS college in Singapore found that students who believe that effort and ability are intertwined are more curious, motivated, and likely to uncover new interests. They believe their potential is limitless, maintain a growth mindset, and are less likely to make comments such as, “I’m terrible at math” (” ‘Find your passion’ is bad advice, say Yale and Stanford psychologists,” by Ephrat Livni, June 26, 2018, Quartz).

Keep the stakes low.

Students take their emotional cues from their teachers. Brandon, a seventh grader, told me he loved one teacher because “he was strict but never made tests feel scary.” The teacher was loose with labeling. Everything was an ‘in-class exercise.’ “A final exam was an in-class exercise. A quiz was an in-class exercise. A worksheet was an in-class exercise. Things had points, but the teacher didn’t make a big deal about that,” Brandon explained, adding that he was able to adopt the same attitude.

It can be hard to keep the stakes low, particularly when middle school students enroll in courses for high school credit. One school system recently stopped calculating those grades into students’ high school GPA. The practice was deterring too many kids from taking classes such as world languages. As a director in that system told me, “We felt strongly that middle school should be a time for academic exploration.”

Some teachers don’t grade every assignment. They may give feedback informally or use narratives instead of letter grades. They may focus more on process than results by evaluating a project at multiple stages. Or they may factor in social-emotional competencies such as collaboration and leadership. Celebrate failure by asking students to share their “biggest blooper” of the week. After they disclose the setback, praise them for taking a risk.

Lighten the mood.

Look for creative ways to incorporate humor. One history teacher bought his students United Nations weapons inspector hats, then promised extra points if they wore them to the final exam. The kids felt silly, but everyone did it. As one student noted, “it’s hard to take anything too seriously when you’re wearing a duck hat.”

Humor can be used in other ways. When teachers poke fun at themselves, students are more likely to accept their own imperfections. Don’t hesitate to make self-deprecating comments or to share funny news stories or video clips.

Offer a menu of coping strategies.

Dana, a sixth-grade student, told me that she felt less stressed and more engaged in science than any other course. She attributed this to her teacher, who began each class with a mindfulness practice. Dana used that time to shake off daily stress, settle her thoughts, and ease into learning. More importantly, she felt the teacher cared about her and prioritized her well-being. She was able to stay focused on the present and the task at hand.

Different students benefit from different strategies, so offer a menu of choices. You can try incorporating movement breaks, setting the mood with music, discussing inspirational quotes, or encouraging kids to log their thoughts in a journal. As an added bonus, they may bring these ideas home.

Underscore that life is more zigzag than straight line.

Encourage students to read biographies and autobiographies or watch documentaries about people who are leaders in a range of industries. They’ll see that everyone experiences peaks and valleys—and that both are critical to success. They’ll start to understand that mistakes are opportunities for learning, not reasons to give up. When students expect some adversity and absurdity, they’re more likely to tackle challenges.

Discourage discussing grades with peers.

All kids talk about grades to an extent, but some take it to the extreme. I hold at least one morning meeting on the topic with my seventh graders. Students lead the discussion and ask their classmates to think about the pros and cons. The kids always conclude that there are far more cons than pros. They’ll note that talking about grades is “conceited and obnoxious,” or “raises everyone’s anxiety,” or “takes the focus away from doing your personal best.”

My students generally agree to stop talking about it, but there are inevitable lapses. When that happens, remind them they don’t have to engage. They may want help with the language or need permission to assert, “that’s personal.” The less time kids spend talking and thinking about grades, the more time they can devote to actually learning.