Five Simple Ways To Start Grading Less

by Drew Schrader

Originally published in a three part series in conjunction with What School Could Be. Learn more about their organization here.

Now that you’re familiar with why we might question grading and how you could approach tinkering with it, we want to share a handful of simple(ish) ways to start to de-emphasize grades and even grade less in your class.

  1. Delay the Grade: Many teachers are familiar with the frustration of providing feedback and having their students not read or consider it. When students receive feedback with no score, however, they are much more likely to engage with the feedback and improve because of it. As Dylan William puts it, “if teachers are providing careful diagnostic comments and then putting a score or grade on the work, they are wasting their time, they might as well just give a student a score or a grade — the students won’t learn anything as a result, but the teacher will save a great deal of time.” (William 2011).
  2. Self-Assess First: Another way to shift the impact of grading is to change the power dynamic. If teachers are the only ones who assess, then assessment becomes something someone does to you as a learner, rather than being a part of any learning process. Having students self-assess their work prior to your assessment increases self-regulation and metacognition, increases understanding, and it even gives you, the teacher, extra time.
  3. Quiz for Learning: Quizzes are a common form of quick assessment in classrooms, but most teachers and students fail to recognize that quizzes can be most effective as a tool for learning, rather than a measure of learning.  The effort it takes to try to remember something in a quiz-like setting is very effective for cementing it in our memory. Rather than using quizzes in the traditional carrot-or-stick kind of way, offer a quiz worth 0 points to emphasize that the goal is to get retrieval practice and also determine what we know well and what we need to study more. Since it isn’t going in the gradebook, you can have students grade themselves in class or you can use an online quiz tool that does the marking for you.
  4. Invite Students to Choose What You Grade: If you have a class where students do lots of practice on similar kinds of activities – think a daily bell-ringer, homework problem sets, reading reflection questions, etc. – you can dramatically reduce your grading by having them choose which assignment you grade. For example, let’s say students do a daily problem set with a word problem for homework each night. At the end of the week, have them submit all 5 sets, with the one they want you to grade on the top. This holds the expectation that they do all of them, but cuts your grading by 80%. Giving them the chance to choose activates some of the same metacognitive benefits of the self-assessment strategy above, while collecting all of their work gives you the security of peeking at all of it to ensure they aren’t making important errors. 
  5. Don’t Grade Everything: Rather than starting with the assumption that if students are going to do it, then you need to grade it, start by asking if you think grading will improve student learning.  If the only answer we can come up with is motivation – that they won’t do it if it isn’t graded – then we need to think about how we can make the purpose of the assignment clearer to students. For example, if we want students to answer questions at the end of a reading to check their understanding and synthesize what they have learned, we need to ask how we can make that goal clearer and more meaningful. Framing that reading as preparation for a group discussion, debate, or larger project or assignment, can help create a clearer purpose for students and help them move away from the work-for-points default. 

You may have picked up on a theme with these five strategies. They all rely on a fair amount of trust between the student and teacher. A strong teacher-student relationship has been shown to be highly impactful for supporting student learning. Teachers earn students’ trust in many ways, one of which is demonstrating care by supporting the student in growing their understanding in the class. Trust is also reciprocal, teachers need to trust that students are giving an earnest effort and that their work reflects the best of their current ability at any given moment in time. 

Grading, and especially grading used as a primary means of motivation, can create a dimension of antagonism in the teacher-student relationship and undermine trust. When we rely on grading to motivate our students, we feel the need to grade everything they do. (How often do students ask, “How many points is this worth?” when determining how much effort to put into an assignment?) When your teacher grades everything you do, it can create a barrier to that trusting relationship because the signal is you are constantly being judged and your mistakes have consequences. 

However, when students know that their teacher believes in them, treats them fairly, listens and responds to their needs, and respects them, they are more willing to work hard, to persevere through challenges, to be open to new ideas, and to believe in their own potential. (Wentzel 1997) 

We hope you will join us for our Virtual Roundtable for Educators Who Are Rethinking Grading to Improve Student Well-being, Engagement, and Belonging on April 4, 2023 at 4pm PT / 7pm ET. Following the event we look forward to sharing some final thoughts and resources with you.

Don’t miss the other posts in the series:
– Part 1: Changing Grading Is About Learning, Not Implementation
– Part 3: Using Improvement Science To Build Know-How And Self-Confidence

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