The downside of grading
Most people reckon that grades motivate, creating healthy competition and something to aim for. But one of the surprises from educational research is that grading has a negative effect on at least half of students. By grading I mean any comparison with other students, marks out of ten, letter grades, merits and distinctions etc
The students most at risk are those in the top and bottom quarters; let’s see why. Weaker students get a string of poor grades and their interest and motivation is reduced. So they work less hard, produce even poorer work, and a vicious cycle results.
Able students get a string of good grades and become complacent. They don’t bother to read your helpful comments, as they don’t see a need to improve. They may even reduce their effort – “a merit is good enough?”
Psychology has established more subtle responses to grading. It tends to make students nervous and vulnerable, so they play safe and recoil from risks – the opposite of what we want, as students learn most by taking risks and working outside their comfort-zone.
Grading tends to make students adopt quick fixes, like copying or learning without understanding. It makes mistakes seem shameful, rather than opportunities to learn. It also teaches some students they ‘can’t do it’.
Ironically even if weak students overcome these tendencies and improve greatly, their classmates have improved about as much. So they are still at the bottom of the pile. Grades tend not to recognise improvement over time, so they make ability seem fixed rather than due to effort to learn. Minimum Target Grades may be an exception though, if the emphasis is on beating your personal best, not everybody else’s.
Use ‘medal and mission’ feedback instead of grading
The alternative to grading is to give “medal and mission feedback”. In order to learn at the maximum rate students need to know what they have done well (a medal) and what they need to improve (a mission). If learning is like rolling a rock up a slope, students need to know how far they have rolled their rock, and where to roll next.
But be careful: comparative comments like “excellent work” or “rather weak” have the same negative effect as grades. Students need to know how to improve, not how they compare.
Students also need to know which way is up – the goals for the task. The most powerful way to do this is to give students clear goals, assessment criteria, success criteria, and best of all, show them what good work looks like. Examples of good work can be peer explained, discussed in class, or they can study them and answer questions about them. “how did Javar present his data?”
And don’t forget students must act on the feedback! It helps to ask them to put targets from their last piece of work on the top of their next. See ‘Learning Loops’ in my ‘Teaching Today’ or ‘Evidence Based Teaching’.
Of course we do need to grade work sometimes as students need to know how well they’re doing. But how often? Once a term? Twice a term?
I have wittered on about this at conferences for decades. A few years ago somebody approached me and said he had introduced Medal and Mission feedback on an underperforming A-level philosophy course. He gave students no grades at all, just comments. He found the weaker students strived much more, and able students were more stretched. After two years he was struggling to find missions for his top students, their work was so good, so he got them reading undergraduate textbooks.
He was pleased and confident when they took their final exam. But his confidence turned to mush months later when he found a letter on his desk from the Examining Board and a ‘see me’ from the Head of Department. He opened it with trepidation – what had he done wrong? It was an invitation to an awards ceremony – two of his students were in the top five for the whole country.