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Three Ways to Evaluate Students Without Using Grades

Jillian is a rising junior who is obsessed with her academic scores. When I spoke to her, she admits to losing sleep over them, being preoccupied with keeping up with fellow students and even enduring an anxiety disorder because of them.

Even though Jillian wants good grades, they hold her hostage each year.

The fact is—most students I meet fall into a similar trap in school. Grades have become such an obsession, that they can undermine learning. Grade obsession is a serious problem as students can be more focused on what letter they receive than what they actually learned and applied in the course.

According to an article in Edutopia on student stress, “A new study found that when students experience an academic setback such as a bad grade, the amount of cortisol—the so-called stress hormone—in their bodies typically spikes. A majority of these students—68 percent—experienced a drop in grades in their first semester and reported feeling stressed as a result.”

The Problem with Grades

According to one Penn State University website,

Even though “grades do provide the desirable incentive to perform better, they also cause the undesirable effect of restricting student learning.” In addition to the mental health aspects, grade obsession can alter a child’s creativity, as “constantly thinking about what the teacher wants or what the rubric says for a paper ‘injects a fear of not meeting standards for a good grade’ and may ‘limit the domain our research, our thought process and the exploration of a topic,’ or in gist our creativity and our willingness to explore and actually retain information on the desired topic.

The bottom line?

  • Grades can cause students to be consumed with the product, not the process.
  • Grades can deepen stress and anxiety, restricting their learning experience.
  • Grades can replace students’ actual learning and growth from a course.

What Can Teachers and Parents Do?

In the early days of our American Public School system, Horace Mann wanted faculty to require students to actually demonstrate they understood the subjects, not merely circle letters on a multiple-choice test. Granted, the volume of students in K-12 and higher education was lower in 1859 and that was easier to do, even a century ago. Today, we’ve reduced the classroom experience—at least for students—to memorizing specific facts for a test, circling them on a paper exam and forgetting about them days later.

There has to be a better way.

As our school year begins, what if we tried something different? Even if our students are in a conventional school system that uses grades and report cards, what if we modified (or expanded) that report card to make the learning genuine in the end? Let me offer three suggestions that some teachers use in K-12 and college institutions.

1. A Discussion Before and After a Course

Susan Blum teaches anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and has for 30 years. Last year, she made a change. She discusses with her students what they want to genuinely learn in her class that year at the beginning of her course. Then, at the end, she sits down with each student (one-on-one) instead of giving an exam to discuss what they learned. The discussion is built off a reflection paper on questions like: Did you learn something you didn’t expect to learn?  What work of yours was especially strong? Why? Explain its positive features. Susan said most students are harder on themselves than she would have been. The conversation becomes the foundation for her final evaluation she gives her students.

2. Self Evaluation from Students Themselves

This one is tougher for younger students in K-12 classrooms, but some teachers lay out their expectations and over the course of the year, allow the students to assess their own learning and to provide a rationale for their evaluation. Once again, most students are harder on themselves, but when they’re not, these teachers meet to discuss the “baloney factor” in their personal evaluations. Some teachers recognize early on that they have immature students in the course and offer a final grade based on the median between the student’s evaluation and their own. Once again, the report card isn’t built off of letter grades they’ve made throughout the year, but from a mutual evaluation, the teacher and student made together. Some teachers make this a collaborative experience all year long with lots of discussions throughout.

3. Codes, Exercises and Feedback

A third option is, some teachers ask students to choose from a set of exercises to work on. Once the students have chosen theirs, they receive a working “code” to work from that requires rigor and clear goals. They submit their progress to their instructor who critiques their work and returns it for revision. This creates an ongoing cycle students must work on, much like a project on a job with an employer. The cycle continues until the teacher has nothing left to critique. At the end of a course, teachers assign grades based on progress, quality and effort, not merely letter grades along the way. While there still remains a final grade, it is based on progress and actual learning, not an obsession with letter grades. Teachers can tell when a student has learned.

These unorthodox approaches can be used in secondary schools and colleges. If you see “grade obsession” blocking your students from learning, why not try one out?

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Three Ways to Evaluate Students Without Using Grades