Grading Students Work

There has been for some time a critical body of educational researchers that believe grading students work has a detrimental effect on student learning and yet most educational establishments persist in expecting their teachers to grade work, to issue grades home, set ‘target grades’ and even most teacher training colleges continue to reinforce it. There is an expectation from pupils to be given a grade and they equally apply the pressure. Perhaps the most outspoken of these critics is Kohn. Although his research is based upon the American High School system, there is much within his research that is equally applicable to our own classrooms. He outlines three key effects of giving students grades:

  1. The students’ interest in learning will be diminished. Simply put, learning has become a chore; one learns what is needed for the test and not for broader educational reasons.
  2. It encourages students to try only the easier tasks “not because they’re lazy, but because they’re rational. After all, if the point is to get an A, your odds are better if you avoid taking intellectual risks.”
  3. Students tend to only learn things in a superficial manner and will quickly forget what they have learnt when grades are involved. I.e. they are simply learning to the test.

I know I have seen this in my own classroom. Especially now we have shifted to the linear A level and I am marking Year 12 work against the Year 13 standard. It is demoralising for the students, concerning for the parents and sparks heated debate with senior leaders. Further examples of how grades can act as a barrier to learning have been highlighted in other research, in Johnson and Johnson, 1989 for example, it is suggested that grades spoil peer relationships between students, as a gifted ‘A grade Student’ might view other students as a potential barrier to their own success. The A grade student will not want to waste their time helping their peers. Further, teachers can often mark according to what ‘feels right’ (i.e. across the ‘curve’) in grade distribution, with only a select few getting the top grades, some with really poor grades and a clump somewhere in the middle. It creates a sense of competition within the classroom and can have a destructive effect on collaborative learning. Collaborative learning has been identified in much educational research as being a highly effective setting for enhancing student attainment, including fostering student self-esteem and enhancing student satisfaction with learning.

From my own experience I have witnessed the grade comparison conversations take place when homework has been handed back. Students were focussed on who got what, did anyone get an A? Young boys (gender generalisation here, but it seemed often to be the case) teased each other on their low marks, or even took some kudos on not performing well. The very effects that all educators want to discourage. This has also been highlighted in Dylan William’s findings, when he asked educators what their pupils looked at first when they were given comments and marks on their work, of course the grades were first, soon followed by the grades of others. Further William adds that ‘in consequence… [It] teaches pupils with low attainments that they lack ability’, so they are de-motivated, believing they are not able to learn’ Worst still are those students that are satisfied in meeting their target grade in a piece of homework. I have often heard ‘I just need a C to go to my University/meet my minimum target grade…’ etc. Grades on work can create complacency for those achieving high grades, but also for those in the ‘clump’ in the middle also.

According to Kohn one should ‘Never grade Students while they are still learning’ as once this happens the learning will stop. There is quantifiable evidence to suggest that one of the most powerful actions a teacher can take is to remove any grading or marks entirely from their exchanges with their students. Instead they should focus most of their attention upon effective and constructive feedback. In one study (Butler 1988) found that a group of students that only received comments that were tailored to their individual performance, achieved an improved score of almost 30% on a task. In the same experiment, those that received only grades witnessed a decline as did the group receiving both comments and grades. The studies of Elawar and Corno (1985) and Lipnevich and Smith (2008) also demonstrated that pupils whom only received comments and no grades performed significantly better than those who only received grades.

Not all educational researchers however fully agrees with this view Guskey utilised a study from 1958 to show that if grades were used properly alongside comments then there should be an improvement in academic attainment. Whilst acknowledging many of the pitfalls in using grading, such as marking on the curve or grading to punish etc. they believe that with correct training of teachers, grading still holds a place in the classroom in informing the student and their parents and teachers alike. Within the 1958 study, pupils were divided into three groups, one with grades only, and another with grades and ‘standard’ comments and the third with more developed feedback and comments. The latter performed much better than the other two groups, but so did the group with grades and standards comments compared to that of only grades. The study concluded that grades can be effective in promoting educational achievement. However some have pointed to the methodological flaws within this study and the general consensus thus far is that grading has a detrimental effect of student/pupil attainment.

So, if the researchers largely agree, why are we still doing it? Generally, its our obsession to ‘evidence’ progress. With Ofsted forever looming, senior managers fret over data and whether the students can adequately articulate their progress and classroom experience. We can evidence the progress however, if we keep a central record of the scores/grades of students’ work but hide it from the students. I attempted no grade marking for a research project in 2012/13 and it was incredibly successful. We had a hike in high grades for A Level History of 22.2%. Granted, its hard to isolate this as the only reason for the improvement in their grades, but we had achieved ‘Red Alps’ for the first time in a couple of years with our cohort and the pattern of improvement went across the Humanities faculty. The project really focused the teaching team on their feedback and how to make it clear and specific. We created a range of new feedback sheets and progress charts. The students were never fully comfortable with it, preferring their comfort blanket of a grade; after all, they have had grades their whole academic career. But, is some discomfort not a bad thing? Does this not mean that they are learning and having to think? Unfortunately, I was told to close the project down despite the results by senior manager.

However, I am beginning to think I should resurrect the project. Has anyone else tried no grade marking? Have you too been successful with it? Should we again take up the banner?