August 11, 2017

Grading and Learning: Rethinking Traditional Practice

By Mark Olson, Program Director for M.Ed. Core Courses | Education

When I began my high school teaching career, I assumed that the grading practices I had experienced as a student were the ones that I should employ as a teacher. It had never really occurred to me that there might be other, more supportive ways to assess student learning. In fact, it wasn’t until I was part way through my graduate program that someone invited me to consider whether my traditional grading practices were actually confounding the purpose of grades and impeding student learning.

What are traditional grading practices?

As a traditional grader, I began by grading all of my students’ work. I would collect and score homework, quizzes, tests, papers, projects and presentations and assign points for each. As I did so, I would take into account the student’s ability, his or her effort and provide extra-credit assignments if necessary. Of course, if assignments were late, sloppily done or showed a lack of effort, I would adjust the grade accordingly. At the end of the grading period, I would average all the grades and convert the points into a percentage and assign a final course grade.

This grade would eventually be recorded at the district office and used to calculate overall GPA which could be used for multiple purposes, including class rank. For much of my career this seemed a perfectly good way to manage my classroom grading. It never occurred to me to consider some of the underlying assumptions of my traditional grading practices or to honestly reflect on what I believed the purpose of grades to be.

What is the purpose of grades?

When we as educators are asked the purpose of grades, we often give a variety of answers. If we probe more deeply, we usually find that our answers tend to coalesce around the idea that the purpose of grades is to communicate what a student has learned and is able to do. That seems simple enough, but do our grading practices really support that purpose?

Does the practice support the purpose?

If the purpose of a grade as defined above is to communicate what a student knows and is able to do relative to a particular learning objective, then it’s important to consider some common practices of traditional graders and see if their practices support the purpose. For example, is deducting points for late work consistent with the purpose? How about deducting points for absences, tardiness or misbehavior? How about adding points for students who try really hard? How about using group grades for individuals within a team? How about extra-credit assignments?

Are these practices consistent with the purpose? Not really. What each of these practices does is distort, negatively or positively, what a student really knows and is able to do relative to a particular learning objective. When we introduce student behaviors into an academic grade, we dilute and confound the communicative power of the grade itself.

What are alternate practices?

Let’s begin with the very idea of averaging grades. By averaging grades over the entire course, we are assuming that the learning at the beginning of the course is just as important as that at the end. In my experience, a student’s performance on a cumulative, final exam or project is much more indicative of what’s been learned than is an exam or project from week two. Ensuring that the grade book reflects this reality is important for achieving our purpose.

Grading homework is also problematic. Homework is, after all, practice. Homework is a formative measure and should only be used for that purpose. Including homework in a course grade runs counter to the purpose of a grade and skews our understanding of what a student knows and can do.

Another traditional practice to reconsider is deducting points for student behaviors. Docking a grade because an assignment is late thwarts the purpose of a grade. Assigning a zero for missed work not only thwarts the purpose of a grade, but it also absolves the student of the responsibility of doing the work.

Finding ways to address behaviors without diluting and confounding the communicative power of grades is important work.

Rethinking grading and learning requires strong leadership. If you want to learn more about how to develop grading practices that are consistent with the purpose of grades and supportive of student learning, the Master of Education program at Concordia University, Nebraska is an excellent place to begin your exploration.



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