Rethinking Grades: Assessment and Motivation in the 21st Century

As I noted in my previous post, I gave my first conference presentation last week at the bi-annual Teacher Conference sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS). It was a terrific experience. My slides are below, along with some of the key thoughts that are captured in the PPT.

  • By signaling what a community actually values (regardless of what it says it values), grades have the power to shape curriculum—and the community itself—in meaningful but often undetected ways.
  • I’ve come to the conclusion that grades—at least as they’re typically used—don’t help us accomplish our “21st century” goals. In fact, they often prevent us from accomplishing them. So, if we must assign grades, let’s at least try to do so in ways that ensure the grades are serving the purposes we want them to serve.
  • Re: Pink and Robinson: You’re probably picturing your own students, wondering what planet these guys live on. “Of course grades are necessary!” you’re thinking. “Without grades, kids would never do their work.” There’s an element of truth to this, but I would argue that grading can create a vicious cycle. By reducing intrinsic motivation, grades ensure that more grades will be necessary to “get students moving” in the future. (In this sense, it’s akin to addiction—and we can probably all think of students whom we could describe as “addicted” to grades.)
  • Re: Mastery: In a rapidly changing world, we must teach students to find pleasure and success in the process—not just the results. Grades should reflect this emphasis.
  • Re: Mastery: We must expose students to failure, but without making failure seem insurmountable. Grades make that difficult to do. (If the marking period ends next week, that F in the gradebook isn’t going anywhere, and there’s nothing a kid can do about it.)
  • Re: Purpose: Luckily, many teachers are beginning to implement classroom models—think project-, problem-, or place-based learning—with the potential to address real-world relevance and purpose. The question, then, is: Will we rethink grades so as not to undermine that purpose?
  • Grades are both carrot and stick. As such, they have the potential to undermine autonomy, mastery, and purpose, all in one fell swoop.
  • Re: The Tendency of Fixed-Mindset Students to Avoid Challenging Tasks: To me, this is potentially the most devastating critique of all, because it undermines the entire premise of education. Students—like all people—MUST stretch themselves to continue learning and growing, but with grades, the goal can easily become getting the grade as opposed to learning and growing.
  • As our classrooms become more purposeful, though—as we move in the direction of preparing students for a changing world through more engaging pedagogical approaches—grades should become less necessary as a means of ensuring compliance. So what should they mean? And how often should we give them?
  • Grades are a central feature of American educational culture and are, in most places, at least, very well-entrenched. But if you accept that the world is changing and that education must change to keep pace, you should at least be open to the possibility that grading practices might need to change as well.
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