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Grade Changes: Using Marks to Motivate Students

By Ryan Kinser — December 04, 2012 7 min read
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A few years ago, my principal called me into his office and explained that too many students were failing my honors language arts class. I deflected his comments as no fault of my own.

“They’re not putting in the effort it takes to master the content,” I said. “It’s an honors class.”

How many teachers have had similar conversations and responded defensively like I did? But I taught the material! The kids aren’t trying … don’t have the basic skills … didn’t meet deadlines … need to learn responsibility.

And so forth.

There is often truth to these statements. But I have come to believe that great teachers accept responsibility for motivating their students. The most effective educators establish an environment where kids not only want to succeed but feel that they can.

Here are several ideas teachers can implement to transform grading practices for motivational purposes while protecting the rigor of instruction:

Give targeted, specific feedback often … and don’t record it in your gradebook. A veteran colleague once shook her head at a stack of essays on my desk. “You’re grading too much,” she said. “Be short and specific. Look for patterns. Give them helpful snippets.” This has proven sage advice that I repeat often.

I’m fond of creating short, individualized podcasts with feedback for students as I read their work. Want to see it mastered? Watch former National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling demonstrate it on this Teaching Channel video. I no longer feel the need to grade absolutely everything. If we instead provide timely, relevant feedback, students will improve.

Let students fail ... and then try again. In Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, Rafe Esquith, a former National Teacher of the Year, asked a simple question I never forgot: If a student’s goal is to master material, why cut him or her off after one try? Esquith told his students to turn in assignments only once they felt they would receive at least a B. If, after grading, he didn’t agree with the student’s self-assessment, the student would have to improve the work.

You may be thinking, as I once did, “I don’t have time to re-grade things and take so much late work.” But what better precedent can you set than acknowledging a student who has taken the time to reflect on your feedback and improve work? It helps to make this clear to parents as well. If the work isn’t good enough, their child will have the option to do it again. This is even more effective when teachers and students have co-constructed an assignment rubric. Once students practice the habit of aligning their own work to the rubric, they are more likely to accept your evaluation.

Ease up on deadlines. When I was a college freshman, my grandmother passed away. Twice in the first semester! Try occasionally relieving students of the need to devise such whoppers when they don’t finish an assignment.

Stanford University professor Mehran Sahami gives his students two free assignment extensions in his popular open course CS 106A, Programming Methodology. “Every once in a while,” he tells the class, “something bad happens to a good person.”

Did a baseball tournament run all weekend? Fine. Did someone get home too late from church? No problem. They get two freebies in my room, too. Beyond these, I expect students to complete all work to mastery. It’s a compromise they’ve bought into completely.

Douglas Reeves echoes this approach in this Educational Leadership article: “The appropriate consequence is not a zero; it’s completing the work—before, during, or after school, during study periods, at ‘quiet tables’ at lunch, or in other settings.” These practices can virtually eliminate the time you spend listening to outrageous excuses.

Credit classwork for completion, but test for mastery. Are your students’ paragraphs or math problems riddled with red ink? Is nitpicking classwork really necessary, and more importantly, how much will students take to heart before they give up? After all, Derek Jeter’s batting average doesn’t include his practice swings.

I’m interested in evaluating the bigger benchmarks in each unit. Smaller classwork grades are always scored for completion with a comment or two. For example, I may score an in-class writing assignment this way: Each student receives 70 points for taking the time to complete the work. They receive the remaining 30 points based on one benchmark, like writing a clear thesis statement. Exemplary thesis? Thirty points. Proficient? Twenty points. Emerging? Ten points. This cuts down my grading time, offers students several chances to earn points, and helps them build confidence as they use my specific feedback on tougher tasks.

Find ways to grade participation. Stephen King stresses the value of effort and participation in his memoir On Writing:

There is a muse, but he's not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He's a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level … you have to do all the grunt labor …

By dangling a carrot for that grunt labor, you might find students raising their hands more often. Each week I give students points for their participation, and extra ones for things like an outstanding insight on our Edmodo page or a specific praise of a classmate. How do I track it all? Every student receives the full points unless they make absolutely no contribution that week. I jot down some of the best examples of participation to share publicly with the class. This is a small grade, of course, maybe a point or two on the report card. But the small reward for effort builds confidence.

Check in with students. This year I am a teacherpreneur with the Center for Teaching Quality, which means I divide my time equally between the classroom and advocacy for teacher leadership. Each week brings weekly check-ins with my CTQ colleagues. I’ve used these calls to highlight successes and completed assignments. I’ve also asked for deadline extensions, lamented about unforeseen challenges, and explained other sudden, pertinent tasks.

This is an invaluable practice to replicate in the classroom. Every Thursday, my students and I check in with each other for a few minutes. We pause to celebrate. “Matt hit three home runs on Saturday! Lisa’s science project is going to the state fair!” Then they tell me about other tests, projects, big games, and other events that might affect our workload. If I hear about something that affects several people, like a history project, I adjust. Why schedule homework on a night where your students are cramming for another test? The flexibility shows the kids you care—and they’ll start to prioritize your big assignments when you ask.

Make time for ungraded play. Do you have room for this in an age of high-stakes testing and pressure-packed calendars? Yes! Think about fostering a culture of creativity in the mold of companies like 3M and Google. 3M has a long-standing practice of allowing workers creative free time to pursue their own interests. The release from rigid structure at least for a portion of the week has led to some terrific breakthroughs, including the invention of the Post-It note. Google followed suit with its 20 percent time.

Despite a rigorous pacing guide, I generally devote Fridays to creative pursuits—writing, art, reading, or chess. I don’t grade these activities or threaten to take them away. But I do require students to present reflections on how this time has helped them. One student used this time to plan a toy drive; another spent her free time reading the blog of a needy family, leading her to start a Web campaign supporting them. The best part? When I do push the pedal on a demanding assignment, the students respond with effort because they know I value their time.

Offer extra credit. Who doesn’t like opportunities for affirmation and achievement, especially ones you didn’t plan? If you allow students to suggest extra credit opportunities, you’ll be excited by their ideas. I often find myself saying, “Great! Go for it!” In a recent case, a student wanted to teach his classmates how to upload a YouTube video. Another girl decided to share her expertise on Prezi. I rewarded both initiatives, because when I look at a student’s progress, these things should matter even if they don’t show up on multiple-choice tests.

If you’re feeling frazzled or you just want to jumpstart your own classroom culture, it’s not too late in the year to make a change. By implementing some of these easy grading practices and being transparent with your students and their parents about the shifts, teachers can avoid tough conversations with principals, like the one I had a few years ago.

Instead, you’ll be asked why your students are so successful.

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