Providing grades for students' work is one of the most common ways educators let students and their families know how well students are doing in school. If the letter grade is high, it is assumed that the student has a good grasp of the material; if it is low, the student might be struggling in a particular course.
But is giving a letter grade alone enough? Do students adequately understand what they are doing right or wrong if they get only a letter grade?
According to Louis Volante, an associate professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, providing a letter grade may not give students usable feedback to improve their classroom performance. Instead, providing feedback without a letter grade may help students understand the curriculum even better, he says.
"The research is pretty clear that when you do give feedback without grades, it does have a positive impact on student learning and achievement," says Volante, who has extensive experience researching effective assessment and evaluation techniques.
When you only give a letter grade without providing feedback, students may not understand why they received the grade. Sometimes, even with feedback, students tend to focus solely on the grade and not what the teacher might be telling them. That's why Volante says that giving feedback without grades can be effective.
If educators take the time to sit down and speak with or write out how students are doing on their work and what changes they could make, students would have a more detailed understanding of how they could improve. Struggling students in particular could grasp the material better if they had in-depth feedback, Volante says.
During a research project Volante participated in, two teachers explained why they liked using feedback without grades and why they felt it was the best method for improving student learning. One, a 2nd grade teacher, says that because her students are young, letter grades have less meaning to them, so she gives them feedback instead. The teacher said that learning should be about how to improve the students' skills and not about how to get the highest grades.
The other teacher, who teaches high school math, allows students to submit their work as many times as they want before the due date, and he gives them different feedback each time. This way, he says, he knows that they're learning, and by getting this feedback, they are continually improving their work.
Reeling in the Resistance
Although Volante and other researchers have found that giving students feedback without grades can be effective, educators, students, and parents have shown resistance.
"Our research found that there is resistance from students, as well as parents," Volante says. "Students tend to be mark-driven .... Often feedback given without a grade attached to it was given less importance by the students."
Some educators feel that this type of change might be a difficult shift for them and for their students, and research found that more veteran principals and teachers aren't as keen on the idea as newer educators are, Volante says.
Despite some levels of resistance, Volante says that educators will probably come around, especially if they have access to consistent professional development and professional learning communities. During his research, Volante noticed that teachers who were supported through professional development were more likely to be open and comfortable with innovative teaching practices. However, it takes time for teachers to accept some new practices.
The concept of feedback without grades is an idea that Volante sees as progressing, and more students and teachers are seeing the benefits of using this approach. Along with improving teaching abilities, this scenario results in students generally performing better. For example, allowing students to submit their projects in stages and giving them feedback can help improve the learning experience more than students submitting the final project with no feedback, Volante says.
"Breaking down the project into smaller pieces to get feedback without grades will actually help them learn and improve their final product," Volante says. "Getting regular feedback from teachers will help improve students' work and their understanding of whatever that topic might be."