What NOT to say about grades …


This week there has been an active discussion on Twitter around the hashtag #TTOG, founded by Mark Barnes and an acronym for Teachers Throwing Out Grades. This discussion, coupled with the recent posts by my division head, Mike Crowley, has led me to ruminate on my own processes with regards assessment, and in the name of keeping it simple, I’m going to focus on the most obvious place in which my ideas manifest, and that is the classroom.

The language we use in the classroom is fundamental in establishing the type of learning environment that we believe in. In particular, the way we talk about grades sends a very clear message to students and parents about what our priorities are. There are many factors that we do not necessarily have control over in the work that we do, but within the walls of our rooms we have the freedom (I hope) to say what we feel is right. When the “outside” does not work the way we want it to, we can only start with the “inside” and work our way out. In changing the way we talk about grades, we slowly change the way our students (and their parents) see assessment and the learning process. To make this tangible, here are examples of sentences you will NOT hear me say:

  • “What I am saying to you right now is really important. If you don’t listen now you won’t get a good grade on the assignment.”
  • “You really need to work harder if you want to get the grades you think you deserve.”
  • “This essay is serious. It counts much more towards your final grade than the other work we have done.”
  • “If you don’t behave better, your grades are going to really suffer.”
  • “You haven’t done your homework that was due today. When you do hand it in, I’m taking off a few points.”
  • “You could get a much better grade than this if you work with the feedback I have given you.”
  • “Everything we have been doing up to now has just been practice. Now we move onto the work that really counts. These grades will be used in your report card.”
  • “Paul is a pretty good student. He is sitting at about 75% right now, but with some effort he could be at 83-85%. That would be great and I know he wants it, but he will have to really knuckle down.”

The last comment is personal. I  was educated in a numbers focused system in South Africa. Our classes were streamed by ability, and our report cards carried a ranking of our place in the cohort. There are two numbers I remember clearly: 

  • 84.3 %  I was placed second in my last year of primary school. The girl who came first had 84.7 % (Katie, I don’t know how you did it).
  • 17 / 210  My ranking in my final year of high school. According to my principal this was a disappointment, based on the potential that my IQ “revealed”.

I wouldn’t want my students to leave my classroom thinking about the number they had achieved or the number they wanted to achieve (or thinking back 25 years and remembering the number instead of what they learned how to do). In all my conversations I work to avoid making statements like those above, and instead make sure that all we talk about is learning and skills. An example of this would be:

“The essay I read yesterday shows that you have responded really well to my feedback. Your transitions are effective, and I can see that you have applied the sentence structures we have been practicing. The area I would like you to focus on is the analysis; think about how the evidence you chose connects back to your thesis statement and then write that down, including the specific words from the thesis statement. This will make your argument stronger because the reader will understand why what you have written is important.”
Now doesn’t that just make more sense than 75 % ? It seems obvious to me.

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