Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Crash Course on Giving: Grades: Grades Tell Students How Well They Did in Comparison to Each Other, but Almost Nothing of What They Need to Work on to Get Better

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Crash Course on Giving: Grades: Grades Tell Students How Well They Did in Comparison to Each Other, but Almost Nothing of What They Need to Work on to Get Better

Article excerpt

Grades. Almost no one likes them. Most students deplore them, many teachers hate giving them, and I haven't met one teacher who enjoys the process of determining them. In fact, "grading" is often the bane of a teacher's existence. Yet, it must be done--at least until we have a major shift in educational philosophy. Nonetheless, grades can be important and useful. Ideally, grades give students constructive feedback on how they performed on an assessment, and, on a societal level, one can argue that we need grades so we can categorize students before we send them to appropriate colleges and hire them for appropriate jobs.

This essay, however, is not about "grading," it is about the physical act of giving grades. Sure, we all agree that "teachers don't give grades; students earn them." Yet, while this adage is correct in spirit, literally, it is untrue. Teachers do, in fact, physically hand students tests, quizzes, and essays, with grades on them. The very manner in which grades are presented or given to students can hold significant implications for a student's ability to learn from an assessment and the feedback provided. Hence, the manner in which grades are presented is essential to assuring that a teacher assesses not just the learning, but also, and perhaps more importantly, provides assessments for learning (Stiggins, 2002).

Unfortunately, grades frequently become the sole focus of a student's education--often because they're the sole focus of parents who assume, correctly in many cases, that they're a primary focus of college admission offices. With so much emphasis on grades, students, parents, and even teachers may become unaware of the actual student learning that may or may not be happening. Assignments that are intended to help students understand course content and develop academic skills simply become a means to an end, leaving students oblivious to whether they're actually learning and improving their skills. Instead, students know only what grade they got, but have no information about whether they have or haven't done well and, more importantly, what they must do in order to improve their performance.

The result of this is that a teacher's efforts to provide important feedback amount to nothing. As we all know, when a student gets an assignment back, the grade is not only the first thing that he or she looks at--often, it's the last. Opportunities to learn from the assessment vanish and, even worse for the teacher, the hours of providing feedback on exams and essays end up being for naught. I have spent many a late night wondering why the heck I was writing comments on student essays that were never going to be read, thinking why not just read it, put a letter on it, cut my grading time by 90% and get busy writing that great novel that all English teachers know they could write if they didn't have to spend so much time grading. This issue may be most pronounced for teachers of the humanities who grade essays. However, even teachers in the quantitative disciplines undoubtedly do more than make X's and check marks, and, assuredly, they too do not wish their efforts to be wasted.

Teachers can address this problem by using a clear rubric that provides specific feedback on student performance in different areas that correspond to the content and skills the assignment is intended to assess. However, even a rubric of this nature may not be good enough if there is still a final grade at the bottom, allowing students to find out "what they got" without actually reading any other part of the rubric. For this reason, I recommend that teachers avoid putting an overall grade on most assessments--as if a single letter or number could really sum up everything a student did well or poorly on a given assessment.

If you give a different grade for each area on the rubric, rather than having a student come away with the hazy notion that, "I got a B, so my paper was good," he or she would come away with a more nuanced understanding such as, "I got an A for organization so I must have organized my essay very well. …

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