Grades are killing student perplexity & creativity

I just started teaching a semester long programming class. Since I’m new to it, I had an idea of how I would grade this, but I thought I’d see how students progressed for a week before I committed to anything specific. So, I didn’t mention grades. I established class routines, showed students how to interact with the self paced programming curriculum, and off they went. They work hard all period & I run around the room trying to support students when they didn’t understand something. They all worked. All class period. All week. I didn’t assign homework.

A few of the students came in  and asked if they were “allowed” to continue working on programming from home, and they were excited when I told them that they could. I’ve never seen such motivation. I teach at an alternative school, where most students have gotten into trouble at their previous school, many have drug abuse history…they were excited to be allowed to work from home?!?

One of these students came into my room during lunch & I asked them how they would like their grade determined. We talked about setting individual goals, and creating a separate criteria for each student. Then he said this:

“If I had know that before, I wouldn’t have worked as hard.”

Then another student said the same thing in a different conversion.

Later, outside of class, I spoke to a quiet, thoughtful girl about grades. Here’s what she said:

“Grades just make me feel dumb.”

She explained that no matter what, when someone ranks her work she feels hurt that it didn’t get a better score. She is right. I feel that way too. When I get observed as a teacher and my administrator ranks a variety of things on a 1-5 scale, if i’m not a 5, I feel like a crappy teacher.

I like standards based grading. Its an improvement over traditional grading, but it is still applying a number to student effort & creativity. It still creates a ranking. For students who have struggled with school, which is a far greater number then students who have been very successful, grades are a de-motivator. They jump in full force if they are perplexed & curious and just instinctively want to figure something out. When they know its for a grade they hesitate, they get nervous, they over think, panic, sit quietly & wait for someone else to do it.

So now what? I still teach in a traditional system where a specific traditional grade book is required for all teachers to document student progress.  I spent years tweaking my standards based grading system to work within a traditional grade book. It is possible. So, my new challenge: how can I document student progress while supporting their creativity, eliminating the constant concern & focus on grades?


5 thoughts on “Grades are killing student perplexity & creativity

  1. THIS! I am struggling with exactly this! I’ve come to the conclusion that we aren’t justifying student achievement to the student. Grades, no matter what system you use, are there to justify student achievement to outside observers. Students know EXACTLY how much they know and how much they don’t. Grades, good or bad, give them a false sense of understanding.

    If you figure out how to do this, I will quit my job and join the Church of Crazy Math Teacher Lady, praise be unto her!

    • I’m guessing this will be a slowly evolving process. I think talking to and listening to students is an important first step. They provide insight that we just don’t consider, which should seem obvious!

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