As a recovering grade addict, I have thought a lot about the effects of grades on my life. The terror of getting a grade worse than an A during my middle and high school years was enough to affect many of my decisions about what extra-curricular activities I chose, what classes I took, and how I spent my free time. At the time, I liked to think that I had it all under control and that grades didn’t matter. But they did. So much so that I still remember the deep anger I felt toward one of my math teachers who, during my senior year, granted me the only B I had received in my whole young life. I blamed him for so much, much more than was necessary, and even worse I would not forgive myself for being such a failure.
It wasn’t until a few years later during my undergraduate degree that I finally started to loosen my grip (just slightly) on the “straight A” ideal. Before you get the idea that I was going rogue and not caring at all about grades, just know that that wasn’t the case. The grade addiction ran deep, and I still cared. I still fought for those A’s as much as before. But I started to recognize that a grade wasn’t a reflection on my worth or my identity. I began to realize that I had foolishly thought that the definition of who I was required some statement on my intelligence and that my intelligence was clearly linked to my GPA. It occurred to me that I needed to reject this line of thinking. I started to take things in stride, and a grade less than an A had less power over me than it did before. I won’t lie, it still stung, but I guess I cared more about how far I had come and all the people I had interacted with when I wasn’t studying. It was a small step, but a necessary one.
Now as I am preparing to become an educator in higher education, I wonder what to do about grading in my future courses. I still feel the lingering affects of grade addiction, and it is hard to let go. I alone cannot completely eradicate grades from the university system, and I will likely have to submit grades at the end of each semester as always. But what can I do to ease the pressure of grades on students? What can I do to help them have their eyes on the adventure of learning rather than the hurdle of the GPA?
For one thing, I can remember a few key lessons from interesting studies. First: Dan Pink has summarized many scientific studies about motivation in his TED talk, “The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.” These studies showed that when offered some external reward or punishment for a simple mechanical task, people performed better. However, when these same rewards or punishments were offered on a creative or cognitive task, performance WORSENED. You have probably felt this way before. Dan Pink says that what we need to succeed in our creative endeavors are 1) autonomy, 2) mastery, and 3) purpose. If I can find a way to incorporate these three things into the classroom, I think that the students will feel more joy in learning than fear of grades.
Another thing I would like to incorporate is something from the experience of an English teacher, Jeff Robbins, as told in Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades.” This teacher decided that the best way to remove grades from his classroom was to offer comments to all of his students on their work, write short notes about their progress in his own gradebook, and then sit down with them at the end of the semester to collectively discuss what they learned and, at the end of the conversation, their final grade. What I love about this approach is the way the instructor sits down with the students and focuses on individual improvement and learning. I also think that giving meaningful feedback on the students’ work is essential to encouraging progress.
To wrap up this post, I want to leave you with two quotes–one that I found to be very meaningful and one that I thought was a bit cheeky. First, from Alfie Kohn:
“Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count toward their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks. They’ll choose a shorter book, or a project on a familiar topic, in order to minimize the chance of doing poorly — not because they’re ‘unmotivated’ but because they’re rational. They’re responding to adults who, by telling them the goal is to get a good mark, have sent the message that success matters more than learning.”
The last quote I have is something funny I found from Katie Hendrickson’s summary of assessment in Finland. I’ve heard a lot of people praising Finland for their educational system, including my sister who lived there for over a year, so I figured I would jump on the bandwagon for a minute :). In their system, they do not frequently administer “high-stakes” testing, though when the international assessments come every couple of years, students from Finland tend to do very well. Why? Well, as one principal put it:
“Some testing is thus ultimately necessary…if only to prove that regular testing is not.”