March 21, 2012

How numbers and letters punish students

During our nine-week grading periods, I never put a  number, percentage or letter grade on any activity or project that my students complete. I supply detailed narrative feedback, asking students to return to activities and demonstrate mastery, if necessary.

When our quarters end, my school requires a letter grade for a report card. Instead of arbitrarily supplying a grade, I invite my students to participate in this evaluation process and tell me what their grade should be. Most students are remarkably accurate with this process. Some, however, are so stuck in the world of numbers and letters, that they can't comprehend how to come up with a grade, without the aid of points and percentages.

A powerful lesson
In an attempt to demonstrate the problem with grades, I tried a new approach, and we revisited the the points world at the end of the third marking period. I gave my students a list of all activities and projects and arbitrarily applied a point value (years ago, I never understood how strange this practice is). I then asked my students to put a point value on their production for each activity.

As the process ensued, there were plenty of sighs and groans around the room. Some students looked for ways to circumvent the system, because the math didn't provide any wiggle room. Fifty percent on a major project, crushed their overall grade. It didn't matter that they may have gone above and beyond in other areas. Many hated the process and literally begged to be "let off the hook."

Of course, in the end, seeing how clearly the numbers and letters punish students, we left the points world, returning to the comforts of the Results Only Learning Environment, where punishment is abandoned in favor of real  learning.