Changing Grading is About Learning, Not Implementation

by Drew Schrader

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

In our research at Challenge Success, we find that many students are lacking full engagement, going through the motions, or “doing school.” In other words, they are completing the work and may very well be working very hard, but they don’t find particular meaning or purpose in it, nor do they find it interesting or enjoyable in and of itself. Grading is a key factor as it can erode student engagement by emphasizing the transactional value of points earned towards a particular grade instead of the  inherent value in the material. Purposeful engagement is about the learning rather than the earning, but as Alfie Kohn notes: “A ‘grading orientation’ and a ‘learning orientation’ have been shown to be inversely related.” Unfortunately, grading tends to diminish student interest in whatever they are studying, moving us further and further away from the true purpose of education: learning.

While more and more teachers and schools are actively questioning their grading and assessment practices because of its impact on engagement (among other reasons), others are at a different place in their journey.  In our conversations with educators, we have found three general types of teachers starting down this path:

  1. Troubled By Grading – Many teachers have come to question all or at least parts of the practice of grading. For some it is the frustration of having students (and their parents) perpetually more interested in how they can pick up a few more points as opposed to any genuine interest in course material. Others are troubled by the artificial precision implied by 100 point scales and modern grade books that calculate down to the tenth or even hundredth of a percentage. Across the board, teachers who are troubled by grading recognize that the enterprise of grading is ultimately at odds with their goals and values as an educator.
  2. Inspired by Examples – Some teachers begin to work on their grading practices after being exposed to an alternative approach from a peer. Whether it comes from a compelling conference presenter, a blog they found on social media, or an innovative colleague down the hall, the “inspired by examples” teacher comes to the table energized about new ideas, possible strategies, and new tools that might transform their practice. This teacher can likely name a host of potential benefits for making the changes, but their initial interest is driven by “the what” more than “the why.”
  3. Compelled by Colleagues (or Required By Administrator) A third group of teachers comes into this conversation with a little more reluctance. In the best of cases, the teacher is “compelled” to curiosity, in the way a good novel keeps you reading, “I’ve heard about what so-and-so is doing with their grading and I’d like to learn more.” Sometimes it is a matter of their co-teacher, course-alike counterparts, or department moving from a few people trying something out, to implementing a shared practice. And for some, it is an outright mandate from the powers that be to revise their grading practices. 

On one level, each of these teachers is asking the same question: “How do I begin to change my grading and assessment practices?” The energy and potential around this kind of self and practice examination is exciting, but things get sticky as the conversation shifts from why we are questioning these practices to how to go about making actual shifts in what to do. In this blog series, we want to first explore the importance of establishing a clear direction for your grading reform efforts and then get into how to pursue that direction in a focused and effective way.

Watch Out for Solutionitis

People in general, and teachers in particular, are problem solvers and doers and it is easy for us to jump to what improvement scientists label “solutionitis.” When faced with a new challenge, we immediately start scanning for a solution, often without fully unpacking the nature of the problem. Additionally, for some educators, there might be SO MANY reasons for them to want to change their grading practices that it feels silly to even ask why. However, we have learned that a lack of attention to “the why” can open up a number of potential problems, including the possibility that we might make changes that actually make our problem worse, particularly for students who are most in need of support. 

For example, with a shift to “standards based grading” one of the common goals is to redirect student attention from external measures of performance towards growth and improvement. Switching grading from the accumulation of points towards the tracking of growth towards particular standards, however, could unintentionally amplify fixation on level, performance, and potential failure.  In a traditional “omnibus grade,” high-achieving students often focus on making sure their grade is always an ‘A’ and panic anytime it drops. In a standards-based setting, that same student might have 10 or more standards they are being assessed on, each an opportunity to fixate on an evaluation that is less than the highest level.  The problem could be even more pronounced for struggling students. Often struggling students are those who are not motivated by the carrot-stick of traditional grading, and merely changing the language of those carrots and sticks might not be enough to tap into the motivation we are after. 

The Elephant in the Room: Change is HARD

These potential challenges stem from the reality that a shift in grading practices is a significant change for students as well as for teachers. If that change isn’t accompanied by shifts in classroom conversation, culture, and instructional practices, teachers might not see the improvement in student engagement with learning they seek, which may discourage and deflate the well-meaning educator. 

A teacher doing the work because they are “troubled by grading” may be sufficiently convinced of the need to change to persist through these early hiccups, but it is not hard to imagine them beginning to question whether it is possible to shift something as fundamental as grading. Similarly, a teacher who is “inspired by an example” may have the enthusiasm to continue to tinker with the idea through some early failures, but they too could reasonably have the sense that they tried it and it just didn’t work how they hoped it would. For those more externally compelled to change, however, these early set-backs are likely to be enough to call the whole endeavor into question and cause them to revert back to their comfort zone.

Underneath each of these potential issues is the reality that most changes, especially changes as complex and interconnected as changes in grading practices, are going to require trial and error, constant reflection, and frequent adaptation. 

Focus on Your Own Learning

In other words, we must commit to learning – but not just any learning. Bringing an improvement mindset to the change process involves dialing in on a very particular kind of learning. While much of what we typically consider learning consists of increasing our knowledge around a topic, improvement-oriented learning involves developing the ability to use that knowledge to achieve a particular outcome. 

As a field, we are awash with research and promising theories about effective assessment for learning. Taking that valuable knowledge and building real school level know-how involves developing practices that regularly create our desired experiences for students.

So how do we do that? In part two we’ll explore how improvement science provides a roadmap for the way forward. 

Don’t miss the other posts in the series:
– Part 2: Using Improvement Science To Build Know-How And Self-Confidence
– Part 3: Five Simple Ways To Start Grading Less

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