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November 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 3

Tell Me About… / A Time When Grades Were Motivating—Or Not

I Wanted More Than "Good Job"

When I was in school, I was a diligent worker. I remember a college class in which I worked extremely hard on a research paper, revising and editing to make sure it delivered the message I intended. I was so proud of the paper and looked forward to getting feedback from the teacher. But when it was returned a few days later, the teacher had simply given me a perfect score and written the words "Good job!" Although I should have been elated at the grade, I was disappointed—I wanted feedback. This event informed my own grading practices as a teacher. We can help students improve their learning by using rubrics and taking the time to write comments. Feedback, not grades, is the key to learning.
<ATTRIB>—Cathy Hix, K–12 social studies specialist, Arlington County Public Schools, Virginia</ATTRIB>

D for Devastation

I still recall the excitement I felt as a child when the teacher handed out report cards each quarter. I felt a sense of satisfaction that my hard work had paid off. It took only one report card my 6th grade year to change my perspective. I remember vividly the moment I slipped out the yellow copy of the report card and saw my grade in math—a D. I had never received any grade lower than a C, and as a young perfectionist I was devastated. My homework and assignments all quarter had indicated I was doing OK. The next day, I asked my teacher to double-check because I was sure he had made a mistake. He responded, "No, it is correct—you bombed the last test." That event shaped my assessment practices as a teacher.
Throughout my 18 years in the classroom, I always ensured accurate assessment of student learning based on multiple measures, not a single test.
<ATTRIB>—Lori Mora, assistant principal, Deer Valley Middle School, Phoenix, Arizona</ATTRIB>

Grades Became the Goal

In high school, I remember averaging my grades for the four marking periods in every course to determine what I needed to score on the final exam to get an A or a B for the course. If getting a low grade on the final wouldn't affect my yearend average, I wouldn't study for the final. Sad to say, I was motivated by the final course grade and not the learning that went into it.
<ATTRIB>—Denise Rawding, teacher, Central Avenue School, Madison, New Jersey</ATTRIB>

When Assignments Seem Dumb

I once overheard two students discussing an assignment they had received in another class that they agreed was a waste of time. Because I knew both students to be bright and capable, my interest was piqued, and I asked them to tell me about the assignment.
All students had been assigned to complete an acrostic, purportedly to help them learn the chapter's vocabulary. One student, Mandy, who later became high school valedictorian, intended to complete the assignment, saying she needed the points. Dana, who was later double accelerated and graduated from college at age 19, would not consider doing the assignment, saying she had better ways to spend her time. These two students represent a classic motivational dichotomy: Mandy was highly intelligent and was motivated by point accumulation; Dana was an intellectual who was motivated by the learning itself.
When assignments are neither rigorous nor relevant, grades will not motivate our most intellectual students. These students may become selective consumers: They lose "points" and risk opprobrium—and we risk losing them.
<ATTRIB>—Steve Schroeder-Davis, curriculum specialist, Elk River Public Schools, Minnesota</ATTRIB>

My Grades Always Surprised

I remember as a student that teachers never made us aware of what criteria they were using to grade. Essentially, my term papers, essays, and even homework were all the proverbial Hail-Mary passes. The grade I received was always a surprise. Consequently, I was motivated to just get my assignments done, but I was not motivated to do my best because I had no sense of what that was. The lesson I apply to my own teaching is to teach the process first with a lot of guided practice. That way, my students know the expectations, and they become motivated to achieve. My rule of thumb is, "No surprises."
<ATTRIB>—Ron Klemp, adjunct professor, Santa Monica College, Culver City, California</ATTRIB>

Students as Data Partners

In the 1980s, long before the current focus on data-driven education, my 8th grade social studies teacher used to track data for every test, every question, and every student. After we took a test, the following class period was devoted to analyzing answers and the data associated with those answers. This was profoundly motivating to me because I wanted to "see myself" in the data. As educators and leaders analyze data to improve instruction, we should consider frequently sharing data with our students.
<ATTRIB>—Jeffrey McCoach, teacher, Methacton School District, Collegeville, Pennsylvania</ATTRIB>

Blanking on a Sunflower

My senior year of high school, I received a C- on a pointillism portrait of a sunflower because I chose to leave a portion of the flower blank. I have that picture in my classroom to remind me to allow students to defend their vision when it doesn't fit within my guidelines.
<ATTRIB>—Mirna Jope, teacher, Encina Preparatory High School, Sacramento, California</ATTRIB>

When Pressure Kills Learning

Although I was always a motivated student who wanted to do my best, as I grew older I wasn't as focused on learning as I had been in the elementary grades. I became more competitive, and I even took courses that I knew I wouldn't enjoy just to get the grade point average boost to help me get a scholarship to college. I think that kids today are under even more pressure to get the grade, so much so that they don't love the learning anymore. We should be teaching the whole child to love to learn, not to love taking tests and making As. I think that grades provide more of a negative motivation than a positive one. The question is, can we fit a square peg (percentage grading) into a round hole (standards-based/benchmark/checklist grading) in our essentialist, fast-paced schools focused on "leaving no child behind"?
<ATTRIB>—Albert Robertson, social studies teacher, Pleasant Hill Middle School, Lexington, South Carolina</ATTRIB>

Thanks for That Feedback?

In a graduate-level writing class, I had an instructor give me the following feedback: "Don't be afraid to keep doing sh***y writing." From my perspective today, I have to assume this feedback was intended to be useful, but at the time it was just discouraging and disheartening. The class was small, and there were all kinds of opportunities for constructive feedback, but this one cutting and ill-defined assessment shut me down for months.
<ATTRIB>—Sam Patterson, dean of student advising and outreach, Kehillah High School, Palo Alto, California</ATTRIB>

Students Need Unlimited Opportunities to Excel

On essays, I always offer unlimited revisions until students receive the grade they want. One student revised six times, going from 77 percent to 100 percent. His mom later told me he was motivated to get 100 percent on a writing assignment.
<ATTRIB>—Doug Hill, teacher, Rochester Community Schools, Rochester Hills, Michigan</ATTRIB>

Grades and Rigor

As a new teacher in the inner city, I learned two valuable lessons about grading that have influenced me throughout my career.
Because many of the students lacked structure at home, I found that I would be doing them a disservice if I counted homework for a large percentage of their grades. I was simply punishing them for circumstances not entirely under their control. I also quickly realized that there was not much correlation between homework completion and success on assessments. The best measure of a student's comprehension and attainment of skills was authentic, in-class assessment.
The second lesson I learned was that students were capable of much more if I was willing to push them beyond what they originally thought possible. As I increased the rigor in my classroom, the distribution of grades stayed about the same. By the end of my time in the classroom, a student earning a C was demonstrating a much greater understanding of the material than a student earning an A had done years before.
<ATTRIB>—P.J. Caposey, principal, Oregon High School, Oregon, Illinois</ATTRIB>

"No Mark" Says More Than Failure

Teaching in an International Baccalaureate middle years program in Fairfax County, Virginia, afforded me the opportunity to rethink traditional grading systems.
We used alternative grade sheets that provided more detailed information to students and parents. Instead of just getting a percentage, students saw where they stood on a rubric in areas such as content, skills, concepts, and organization/presentation. Instead of zeroes for incomplete work, we used the designation "No Mark" to indicate that we lacked evidence about a student's achievement in that area.
When I handed out the alternative grade sheets for the first time, I was amazed at the conversations generated among my 8th grade students. Most striking, one bright student was appalled by her "No Mark" grade. She insisted that I must have a grade for her. When I explained that I couldn't make decisions about her achievement because of her chronic absences, she became determined to complete the necessary assignments and force me to make judgments about her work.
Compare that to the typical, "This is stupid, I hate this class," that often results from a student seeing the traditional failing grade on a report card.
<ATTRIB>—Cheryl Wallace, teacher, Syracuse City School District, New York</ATTRIB>

Grades Should Reflect Student Achievement

I grade only summative assessments because I believe that report card grades should represent student achievement relative to a predetermined set of standards. There are typically no more than 10 summative grades in the grade book for each nine-week grading period.
Because I also believe that report card grades should represent each student's current level of achievement, students have the opportunity to retake any assessment until the end of the grading period (with some restrictions) with their grade on the retake replacing their original grade.
I have used this approach to grading for the last four years, and I have found that most students take ownership of their grade because they realize that they have control over the grade they earn.
<ATTRIB>—Andrew Schwei, Spanish teacher, Jefferson High School, Jefferson, Wisconsin</ATTRIB>

Why I Hold Firm on Due Dates

I have a strict policy about not accepting late work. Over the years this has made a huge difference in student accountability (and my sanity—I don't have to chase students to hand in work). At the beginning of the school year, the kids grumble and make excuses about why they didn't do their homework or project. But once they see that I am serious about not taking work past the due date, the completion rate goes up, and the excuses stop.
Last semester, I had a student intern who accepted work whenever the kids handed it in, sometimes 3–4 weeks late. When he left, the students said, "Uh-oh, no more late work." We went right back to the status quo!
<ATTRIB>—Suzanne Meyer, English teacher, Leland, North Carolina</ATTRIB>

Show an Active Interest

When students see that you take a personal, hands-on approach to their learning, they are engaged. Even students who don't normally complete all their work begin to step it up when they know that their teacher and peers are taking an active interest. Providing ongoing, descriptive feedback works very well. Conferencing with students one-on-one and in small groups helps immensely. Videotaping student work and getting students to review the videos is a great way for students to engage in self-reflection, leading to improved confidence and skill.
<ATTRIB>—Karen Tigani, acting vice principal, Stratford, Ontario, Canada</ATTRIB>

Little Acts of Encouragement

Teachers who were flexible about grading used grades to motivate me, helping me feel good about my ability as a student. Such teachers would round an 89.4 up to an A- because they believed I deserved it. This simple act of being flexible fired my belief that I was smart and made me feel that teachers were on my side. On the other hand, the opposite was also true: Teachers who rigidly stuck to their guns—a grade was not an A- unless it was a full 90 percent—made me angry and discouraged.
Little acts such as these can strongly affect a student's attitude about education. We need to use little opportunities to show our students that we believe in them.
<ATTRIB>—Janet Helms, high school math teacher, Spencer County High School, Taylorsville, Kentucky</ATTRIB>

Acknowledgement Gets an A

When I was young, I was a very good student. Simply going through the motions usually earned me an A. My 4th grade teacher was the only teacher I had who acknowledged that my work was above and beyond an A by giving me the grade A++++. This motivated me to complete my assignments to the best of my ability.
<ATTRIB>—Linda Belnap, ELL teacher, Meridian School District, Idaho</ATTRIB>

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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