Grades don’t work

Does a failing grade motivate you to do better, or does it just make you feel incompetent?

Image used with permission from Google Commons

Does a failing grade motivate you to do better, or does it just make you feel incompetent?

From the time they start school, students all over the world are taught that grades reflect intelligence, hard work and potential for future success. This notion is so ingrained in our schooling that, for the most part, we don’t question schools’ systems of grading— let alone whether or not grading is an effective strategy as a whole. My goal with this article is to take a step back and examine critically the concept of grading in schools because if, in reality, grades are not fair and accurate representations of our abilities, then every part of society caught in the chain reactions that grades have is operating on false assumptions.

According to an article from the journal Life Sciences Education included in the National Library of Medicine, the grading systems we use today are still fairly new. Grades as we know them grew out of a need for teachers to have a uniform system for measuring student performance and communicating that information to outside institutions. And initially, students didn’t have access to them. That wasn’t until schools began applying capitalistic logic to education, and grades turned into motivators: rewards, punishments, incentives and even a sort of currency— something that students could earn and exchange in the future for prospects and success.

The first official record of a grading system appears at Yale in 1785, where seniors were graded into four categories: Optimi, second Optimi, Inferiores and Pejores (roughly translating to best, second best, less good and worse). Soon after this, Harvard and other schools began experimenting with public rankings and evaluations, fueling competition among students, despite acknowledgment by other schools that these practices would distract from learning.

The first record in which a student received a grade on an A-F scale surfaces in 1883 at Harvard. This system wasn’t widely adopted until the 1940s though, and even in 1971, only 67% of American primary and secondary schools used it. The A-F system has still not been wholly accepted, however. Much of the literature in this area raises concerns about the psychological impacts of grades on students, as well as the integrity of the A-F scale, which has been known to promote grade inflation. The most pressing question about this system however, is whether or not it actually works. Do grades actually motivate students to learn more? Or do they motivate students to keep getting good grades?

There are two main types of feedback that teachers use: evaluative feedback and descriptive feedback. Evaluative feedback judges student work, including things like numerical and letter grades, as well as written praise or criticism. Descriptive feedback provides constructive, specific information as to how a student can improve. In 1986, a study was conducted that has since proved to be widely influential, and is now included in the database of the American Psychological Association (APA). Researchers Butler and Nisan compared the impacts of no feedback, evaluative feedback and descriptive feedback on student performance. They found that students receiving descriptive feedback without grades performed significantly better on follow-up assignments than did students receiving grades or no feedback. Providing evaluative feedback did not, in fact, enhance student performance, despite having for so long been believed to do so.

Moreover, according to Professor Susan M. Brookhart, PhD in her book, How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, when a paper is returned with comments and a grade, most students skip right by the comments and focus only on the grade. When something is graded, feedback is ignored. Results from the study by Butler and Nisan suggested “that the information routinely given in schools—that is, grades—may encourage an emphasis on quantitative aspects of learning, depress creativity, foster fear of failure and undermine interest.”

As it stands, grades more accurately measure how well a student can predict and prepare for what will be on a test and how well they can conform to set standards of reading and writing than they do how well a student is actually processing and understanding course material. Because of this, school for students often feels like a job, where we avoid challenges in order to churn out work that will meet standards and get us the A’s we need to exchange for future security, rather than a learning environment.

Education has always been a sacred thing. It is something that students should want to devote themselves to. Our current systems of grading impede learning. They are built upon the false capitalistic ideas that competition and rewards are motivators rather than stressors. Harmful systems of grading do not just impact our schools and our students, they impact everything. Society is built on students. Everything starts with a grade.

Modern grading systems are, for almost everyone, the only educational frameworks we have ever experienced. Because of that, they are seen as unchangeable and have ceased to be questioned. Schools need to adapt to better align with student learning and prioritize education over competition and achievement. It would be unethical and unreasonable to ask teachers to take the time and effort to provide descriptive feedback on every assignment for every single student in each of their classes. However, there are countless active-learning practices like in-class discussion, student collaboration and descriptive, constructive peer review that schools and teachers could implement to shift the classroom structure into alignment with learning.