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Grades: Motivation or Coercion?

If you don't grade it, students won't do it. That's what many educators (and parents) think, and for good reason. Here's a clip from a coaching session where I recall my students' reactions when they found out I wouldn't be grading their work:

Reactions like this would seem to validate the motivational power of grades. But what they really validate is the coercive power of grades. The power to compel some students to do something by giving them points for it. And the power to compel other students to not do something, since kids who lack confidence often blow off graded assignments (or cheat on them to avoid a bad grade).

Fortunately, it isn't true that students will only do something if it's graded. As a substitute teacher, I gave students brainteaser worksheets when teachers didn't leave me lesson plans. And students worked on them bell to bell. Many kids even stayed after class to ask me for the answers and get more worksheets. And guess what? I didn't collect or grade their papers. I was a sub, and students were unaccountable to me. They weren't engaged because it earned them points. They were engaged because the activities were engaging.

The reality, of course, is that grades are part of our K-12 system (college too). And in today's "gotta get through the curriculum before the test" world, you may not have the freedom to let kids work on Sudoku puzzles in class. (What a shame, since activities like this not only stretch kids' brains but can help raise scores.) But even if your job has been reduced to test prep, this doesn't mean you should assign a grade to everything students do.

Few entertainers or athletes would perform to their potential in shows or games if there were no room for error during rehearsal or practice. Similarly, the less pressure on kids to get the right answers in class, the more likely they are to get the right answers on tests. So let's stop slapping a grade on everything students do, and instead create classrooms that support risk-taking and learning from mistakes.

Let's do for students what directors and coaches do for actors and athletes: give timely, meaningful feedback. Let's assess what students know (and encourage them to self-assess) rather than grade them based on what they know.

Related post: Assessment Over Grading and Effort Over Accuracy

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