How to Make Grades About Students Again

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Our first semester ended last week.  I have been working on grades, both standards scores and letter grades, for the past 3 days.  Pondering.  Wondering.  Pulling my hair out as I try to figure out which box to place my students in as we try to assess the growth that has happened.  In the end of it all, I am reminded of how much I still hate grades.

And yet, within this process of distilling my students down to a single letter comes an amazing opportunity for conversation.  Within the very simplification of all of the learning they have done, we have had an awesome chance to change the notion of what that score or letter means.

So how can we make grades and scores about the students again?

Start with a student definition.  Our very first conversation was the definition of each letter grade; a seemingly simple topic of conversation that shows just what students think grades measure; hard work, effort, being able to follow deadlines.  Very few students really understood that grades are supposed to measure knowledge.  Not work habits.  Not personalities.  In fact, many students said that the teacher is who is in control of grades (which, of course, there is an ounce of truth in) but they had never thought about how they could control the score.  How the choices they make result in the score they get.  The light-bulb moment for some students was tangible.

Have them grade themselves.  And not just for fun, but really.  After each grading period, my students either write which standard score they should get and why or which letter grade and why.  This very simple act – it takes about 5 minutes – become the seeds of conversations we need to have next.

Have them do a semester survey.  I continually want to be a better teacher for my students and that means that I need to face some ugly truths; some students are not getting enough help, some students feel I talk too much, some students are still not reading but getting very good at faking it.  How do I know?  I asked them on our end of semester survey and they told me their truths.  

Ask them what they are proud of.  As students came up one-by-one, this was the very first question I asked.  Not what their grade should be, not what their goal is.  But what are they proud of.  Why that?  What else?  Then what are goals?  How can I help best?  How can I support?  I read their survey and we discussed things right then.  Their voices came first, not their score.

Then discuss their grades.  The majority of students had picked the same letter I would, but some had either scored themselves too high or too low.  And while this is always interesting to see,  the bigger truth can be found in why they have picked that letter to define them.  Those simple statements they use to explain their answer; I am not that smart, I don’t understand, I work hard, I can teach others.  All clues to how they see themselves and their own learning.  All clues we can use to change the very essence of the conversation, because the conversation cannot just be about the grade, it needs to be about them.  About more than what they are distilled to on paper.  About how they see themselves, about their strengths, about their needs, about their dreams.

So while I work in a system that still asks me to define students through a score, we can reclaim that very conversation.  We can change the focus of the grade.  We can go deeper, make it more meaningful but we have to take the time to do it.  We have to assure that students have a voice in the process if we ever want it to be meaningful, if we ever want them to care.  We cannot do that through a letter, we cannot even do it through a report card comment.  It is not enough.  This conversation is the very least we can do to make grades about the students again.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

2 thoughts on “How to Make Grades About Students Again

  1. Pernille, Thanks for the “from the heart” conversation. It spoke deeply to me about students who can own their choices and learning in the classroom and in life. This post is shared with my colleague, Mike, who shared with me that he’d like to converse with students about evaluations, but was unclear of the path.

  2. Pingback: Oct 4 Assessment | Pearltrees

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