Audit Your Gradebook

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, poor grading is an epidemic plaguing our schools. It kills the joy of learning for students and sucks the life blood from the souls of teachers. But it doesn’t have to be this way.While Ken ‘O Connor and others suggest a variety of “fixes” for broken grades, might we suggest a more simplified approach to grading?

If it doesn’t reflect actual content knowledge, it doesn’t go in the gradebook. Period.

Picture1Ridding your gradebook of anything that doesn't reflect student learning of content won't only help your students focus on learning, but it will provide you as the teacher with usable data to support decision making and free you from the draining experience of pointless grading.Student “doing” as opposed to student learning is one of the two things teachers focus on most often instead of learning. So before you enter ANYTHING into your gradebook ask yourself “Does this reflect student learning, or does this simply reflect student doing?”

Why does this matter?

If you as a classroom teacher are going to become focused on learning, an Edunator if you will, then you can’t be left guessing as to whether or not your students learned material. You’re going to need evidence of student learning.

You’re going to want to know exactly what they know and preferably how they learned it so that you can repeat this process in the future. If you’re gradebook includes penalties for late work, bonus points for task completion, participation points, completion points, points for brining in Kleenex at the beginning of the school year, points for bringing a pencil to class every day, etc., how are you EVER going to determine effectively what a student knows? Achieving in such a classroom is not a matter of learning, it’s a matter of jumping through necessary hoops, task completion and rules compliance. And your students know this.

For the purposes of this discussion, we need to consider two types of students: Those who are motivated by grades and those who are not. Students who are not motivated by grades are no more motivated by the above system then they would be a much more simplified one. Need evidence of this? How many teachers do you know that grade in the above manner, yet still have students who fail? They don’t care about their grades…if they did, they likely wouldn’t be failing. Meanwhile, students who ARE motivated by grades quickly learn what it takes to be successful in a classroom like this. They fulfill what is required and concentrate their efforts on that. So when they learn that showing up early will score them five bonus points, they’re early. When they find out that turning in work late drops their grade by 20% they make sure to never do that again. Meanwhile, they’ve still not necessarily learned anything.

Suppose in your classroom the ONLY things in your gradebook were well-written tests or other forms of assessment in which students were required to demonstrate precise knowledge of the skills covered in class. What would happen to students? The ones unmotivated by grades would remain unmotivated by the change in grading so we’ll have to reach them a different way. The students highly motivated by grades? They would now be LEARNING FRANTICALLY in an effort to pass the tests. Assuming the tests were written in a manner that required actual learning to succeed, your motivated students would instantly become 100% focused on learning course content, nothing else.

Now if we all graded in this manner, wouldn’t grades naturally fall? Yes, but one could argue that grade inflation is part of the problem. How are we preparing kids for future careers (or standardized tests for that matter) if they receive A’s in our classes for jumping through hoops but can’t perform the skills we’re saying that they can? The road to better test scores, and more importantly more educated adults, begins with ensuring students are capable of doing what their grade says they are when they leave the room.

"Won’t students refuse to do classwork if it’s not for a grade?" Not if you explain to them that the classwork will help prepare them to pass the test they won’t, as long as your classwork does in fact help prepare them to pass the test. If it’s mindless busy work, then yes, students will complain and refuse. But the problem in this case isn’t the student’s refusal to do work, it’s your mindless busy work. Every assignment MUST be easily understood as to HOW it helps students learn the course objective. If they don’t understand how it relates, they won’t do it. Show students that classwork is like practice before the big game. When they fail, reflect with them on their classwork. Help them make the connections between the quality of classwork and the performance on the test.

"Don’t we need to reward students for working hard and coming prepared?" Sure, go ahead if you like. Just don’t reward them by distorting your achievement data (i.e., grades). Some teachers will argue that students need to learn the importance of hard work and being prepared to be successfull in the "real world." Hard work and being prepared by themselves do not guarantee success in life, being proficient in a skill or knowledable in a fullfilling area of high demand does. 

So what of those students who are NOT motivated by grades? Again, they’re certainly not going to be hurt by this more demanding grading structure. After all, if they weren’t doing much before, not doing much now won’t matter. Except the strangest thing often happens when teachers make this shift….the kids unmotivated by grades suddenly take an interest in learning.

Students who hate school REALLY hate busy work. Tell them “Look, you don’t care about your grade and I don’t either. It’s a letter. You know what I care about? You LEARNING this material. And completing this work will help you learn this material because blah blah blah…” Suddenly now, the conversation has changed. You’re no longer asking an at-risk student with a million problems to jump through a hundred hoops. You’re asking them to simply learn this one objective. Of course, there’s another one waiting for them, you both know that. But it’s broken down into a much more manageable size now. It’s not about DOING a hundred things to achieve a grade, it’s about LEARNING ONE THING because it’s important and they can gain the approval of the teacher – something all kids want whether they show it or not.

Take a good long, hard look at your gradebook fellow Edunators. Is that late work policy REALLY getting kids to turn in work on time? What’s REALLY the purpose of those bonus points – could that be accomplished without distorting how much students know? Does that word search REALLY show your students learned ANYTHING at all?

By cleaning everything out of your gradebook that doesn’t reflect learning, you can ensure that your most motivated students are actually learning course content, not simply jumping through hoops. You provide yourelf with more meaningful data that you can use to make decisions about what your students need from you next. You can hold yourself accountable to ensure that your coursework is focused on helping students learn course objectives and you certainly aren’t going to harm students who already aren’t motivated to do anything. Hell, you might even reach one or two more than you already had.