Why do we have grades?

  • On 2013-11-11
  • Formative assessment, hattie

I am current working with quite a prestigious school to transform their Year 8 curriculum and teaching practice such that the learning is not only more engaging but it begins to embed a structure to develop performance oriented independent learners.

As part of the process we were discussing formative assessment and the qualities or attributes of effective formative assessment. At one point I had quite a vigorous discussion with some teachers about the purpose of grading students.

One of the habitual practices I see in high schools is the grading of pieces of work, assignments, tests, etc and they are essentially summative. In other words, a student does a test, assignment, whatever and they are given a mark and that goes towards the result the student achieves for the term or year.


I asked them, “Why is this the habit you use? What is the purpose of this?” I really want you, as a reader, to think about this too. Why do you grade?

Now I am not against grading as a tool. What I think needs to shift is the context in how we use grades as a tool.

If you look behaviorally at students over time when grades are given they become used as a tool of reward. They are an artificial indication of that the student is doing well (or not), that they can provide what the teacher wants of them (or not). Self-belief and self-confidence rise and fall on the grades. Students adapt so as to get good grades (or give up). Students compare themselves to each other and mindsets are made and embedded. In many high schools I find that one of the clear and constant complaints is that students don’t want to show their working, or demonstrate the process of thinking, they just want the answer and get the grade.

Is this the purpose of schools and learning?

If our job as educators is to be partners to the students to learn then shouldn’t our structures match this desire? Having structures that are supposedly used to measure student understanding yet hinder it seems a bit silly to me.

Wouldn’t it be a good idea if all students could achieve a high grade (90% and above)? Why not let them resubmit an assignment and correct the mistakes they made? Why not have them re-sit the test or exam until they get a good mark? Give the students a choice to keep working until their grade is high and what you start to reward with grades is effort and you build a growth mindset. This is the fundamental thinking of how games work on develop skills and competency (thus the gamification and competency learning movements occurring in learning)

For those students who achieve a high grade quickly, why not have them tutor the other students on their thinking (not the answers) such that everyone can succeed. Not only does this build a community-oriented culture of learning (all for one and one for all), not only does this provide a feedback and coaching structure within the classroom, it addresses the higher competency students to develop their executive functions and be able to explain their thinking to others in such a way that the other students succeed.

And what does Hattie’s meta-analysis say about feedback, micro-teaching, formative evaluation, etc? They are amongst the top approaches to improving student learning.

Shifting one’s context can make a profound difference with little effort or hard work!



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