Posted in Education, Grading, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Are Grades Motivators or Destructive Forces?

Ahh, grades.  Can I get an A?  Give me a B!  What does that spell?  Nothing, because grades are useless.  Right?  Well, as a teacher I’ve always been torn when it comes time to assess students.  Rather than “give” a student an A, B, C, D, or any other random letter grade, I’d rather have a conversation with the student about their progress in working towards, meeting, or exceeding the objectives being assessed through the assignment.  Jotting down a letter at the top of a student’s paper seems futile and destructive to me.  What does an A really mean?  Does it mean the student is awesome or awful?  Grading in the traditional sense seems confining and feeds our society’s need to clarify and classify everything.

“How is my son doing in school?” a parent might ask.

“Well, he’s got an A right now,” a teacher might respond.

“Oh great.  Thanks so much.  Now I know exactly how my son is doing in school and so I can be happy,” the parent might come back with.

“Well, no actually.  He’s quite the bully and not very nice to his classmates,” the teacher might add.

“But you said he’s got an A.  I don’t understand,” the parent might say.

See how confusing grades can be in a society driven to label everything.  Parents and students see grades as labels.  Don’t we already label our students enough?  Must we add grade labels too?  Can’t we document a student’s progress in class based on how they are working towards, meeting, or exceeding the objectives?  Wouldn’t that paint more of a complete picture of the student?  While I do write comments like this at each midterm, I also have to grade the students at the end of the term with a single letter.  I dislike that part of my job very much.  I feel as though grades alone show nothing more than a random letter that people have attached labels to over time.  I worry that grades make students anxious or nervous and cause them to complete work that is not authentic because they are worried about the grade they might receive.  Heck, I used to do that in school.  If I knew that a particular teacher gave me As when I wrote about a certain topic or in a specific voice, I would do that for every assignment.  I didn’t try to be honest with myself and grow as a student.  Instead, I worked for the grade.  I felt like a seal in a zoo working for a fish.  I don’t wish this for my students in the least.  I want them to be free thinkers, creators, engineers, designers, and fun makers.  How can I promote this while also “giving” students grades?  I wrestle with this on a daily basis.  Perhaps one day my school will change to objectives or standards based assessment and grades will become a thing of the past.  That day can’t come soon enough.

However, to play devil’s advocate, I do wonder, sometimes, in some situations, if grades motivate students.  Over the recent Thanksgiving Break, my school sent term grades to the students and their families.  I received a few emails from parents about the grades during this time.  Luckily, they were supportive and curious emails and not accusatory and punitive messages.  Clearly, some parents reviewed the grades with their sons over the vacation.  For many of my students, these messages seemed to have resonated with the boys as I saw a huge change from many of the students in class today.  Today was the first day of classes since break.  The students who seemed to struggle the most at the end of the fall term were the most attentive and focused in the classroom today.  They asked for help and put forth effort I hadn’t seen from them all year.  Now, I do realize that this is only day one following break and perhaps the honeymoon phase is once again upon us, but, I do like what I saw today in class.  The students seem ready to make more positive choices and put forth greater effort to show their true potential as students and thinkers.  I was impressed.  Prior to grades being released, these students didn’t show this same kind of effort despite the numerous conversations I had with them about their performance in and out of class.  Nothing seemed to motivate them.  So, did the grades light the fire underneath them that I saw today in the classroom?  Were they so moved by their perceived “low” grades that they decided to come back with a vengeance?  Did the grades really motivate the students or was it something else entirely?  Perhaps their parents bribed them over vacation to get better grades.  “If you get an A, we’ll buy you a Playstation 4.”  Could that be the cause that brought about the change I saw today?  Who knows.  What I do know, though, is that grades may not be all bad.  Perhaps grades can help motivate or convince students to put forth more effort in the classroom.  Wouldn’t it be nice if students could be intrinsically motivated rather than needing some sort of external motivation like grades?  In a perfect world, I would eliminate grades from schools and focus on progress, effort, and the objectives.  In the meantime, I might need to adjust my perspective on grades and the grading process.  Maybe grades aren’t all purely evil like I once thought.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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