Why ‘Grades’ Are A Useless Form Of Feedback (And Do More Harm Than Good)


So, ‘smart’ kids are no happier than others. Besides, why does society value academia so highly anyway? School systems think standardised testing will somehow improve learning and that assigning grades and report cards will somehow improve learning, but a large body of research suggests quite the opposite. Kids need feedback that will help them improve. But what do we actually want students to get out of their education? What are we trying to achieve?

A teacher’s take on why schools should scrap ‘grades’, and instead give students real ‘feedback’…

Grades are a useless form of feedback, and do more harm than good
Alfie Kohn outlines here some of his arguments against ‘grades’:
Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself
Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks
Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking
Grades aren’t valid, reliable, or objective
Grades distort the curriculum
Grades waste a lot of time that could be spent on learning
Grades encourage cheating
Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students
Grades spoil students’ relationships with each other

In this article, educator Chris Crouch gives his three key reasons for his anti-grades stance and why they’re not only potentially harmful to learning, but plain useless and unreliable:
• Grades are inflated
• Grades remove intrinsic motivation
• Grades are poor communicators of student learning

What are we trying to measure, and how do we measure it?
I read yesterday that the world’s ‘smartest’ kids are also the ‘saddest’. Yikes. That goes against the age-old, ‘go to school, get a good education, become smart, get a great job, have a great life’ model that is drilled into us from when we’re young. Surely we don’t prioritise good grades and academic results above the chance for a happy childhood? Although that would be in line with the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality that is rife in today’s society. It got me thinking about our push for “results, results, results” in schools, which then got me thinking about how we define and measure “results”.

Of course we want our students to get “results”, but how do we measure the success of education? And besides, what are we actually trying to achieve? I’ve blogged previously about Ken Robinson’s ideas about education and suggestions that we focus too heavily on the ‘academic’. I quoted him as saying “The whole point of education is to get people to learn. If there’s no learning going on, there’s no education going on.” He says that the role of teachers is “to facilitate learning”, to “mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage”. I’ve searched Victoria’s education department website as well as Victoria’s curriculum website and Australia’s National Curriculum website and Australian government’s education department website. Surely, as the four key organisations that determine what my students learn, I will have been able to figure out what I’m expected to be doing when I teach. I couldn’t actually find anything of any use, other than “High quality school education supports productivity and improves the educational outcomes of children, increasing the likelihood that they will attain skills and be in employment” (http://education.gov.au/school-education). My reaction – what the heck does that mean? Let me get this straight… If my students get a job when they finish school, then their education has been a success? Can other people see how ridiculous that sounds? Well, I’m no closer to learning what kind of ‘results’ I’m looking for, other than the specifics listed in curriculum documents. Perhaps that is actually what we’re hoping for? Children that develop a long list of skills and understandings that will lead to them getting a job? In America, don’t the Common Core Standards aim to develop “college and career readiness”? I’m starting to see a pattern.
Kindergarten prepares kids for Primary School,
which prepares kids for High School,
which prepares teenagers for Tertiary Education and work.

>Is this honestly what our education system is/does?< 

Above I listed lots of reasons given by Crouch and Kohn as to why grades are not only useless, but damaging to learning. Even if we ignored that for a moment, how can teachers grade a student’s learning if we don’t actually know what we or they are hoping to achieve, let alone how to measure it?

So what feedback will improve student learning?
I’m not arguing for a kumbaya, sit-around-the-campfire and sing all kids praises regardless of effort. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t measure success or attempt to measure a learning program’s effectiveness. Some argue that these days, we’re overly politically correct, praise kids too often and are setting our future generations up for failure but taking away things such as competition and opportunities to build resilience. I’m not suggesting we scrap ‘grades’ and reports and replace them with gold stars for all. I do believe, however, that teachers need to actively give their students real feedback – Feedback that report grades or exam scores do not provide.

Many ‘pro-graders’ argue that grades do give ‘feedback’ to teachers, students, parents, schools and systems are about how kids are going with their learning. I suppose they do somewhat, however as Ken Robinson has mentioned, we assess learner success “across a very narrow spectrum of achievement”. Curriculum documents essentially provide teachers with a whole repertoire of skills and understandings that their students are expected to master. That’s what we assess against. That’s what we use to assign grades. That’s the feedback we give.

I’ve mentioned John Hattie in a previous blog post, in regards to his work on “effect sizes” in relation to “feedback”. Long story short, I don’t see reports/grades anywhere on his list of factors which improve student learning outcomes. A few factors are sort of related, such as “Student Self-Reported Grades” which states that a student’s expectations of their own learning and the push for them to exceed those expectations, “Formative Evaluation” which basically refers to the assessment used to inform teaching and learning, and “Feedback” information for teacher and more importantly, the student, on where they’re going, how they’re going and where to next. Note that this last factor does not mean feedback given to a parent about what their kid has done at school for the last six months! Here, Hattie says that feedback (not grades!) “leads to increased effort, motivation or engagement to reduce the discrepancy between current status and the goal, it can lead to alternative strategies to understand the material, it confirm to the student that they are correct or incorrect, it can indicate that more information is available or needed, it can point to directions that the students could pursue, and it can lead to restructuring understandings” (*pp2-3).

This research has shown that descriptive feedback, which conveys information on how one performs the task and details ways to overcome difficulties, was far more effective than evaluative feedback, which simply informed students about how well they did and, consequently, carried a connotation of social comparison without giving any guidelines on how to improve” (^p32). Further, “receiving a grade was also generally associated with lower self-efficacy and more negative affect” (^p33).

Although they’ve been around since the 1700s, it might be time to give grades the flick. In fact, the fact that they’ve been around for so long is probably even more of a reason to get rid of them. If anyone is able to give me some arguments for grades that out-way the downsides I’ve discussed, I’m more than happy to hear your side!

This has been my longest post to date, so thankyou for sticking with it – If you stayed until the end! 🙂

Teachling <WordPress> <Tumblr> < Twitter>

Some good links relating to this topic:

Image source: http://hardik.practutor.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/BadGradeClipArt.jpg

12 thoughts on “Why ‘Grades’ Are A Useless Form Of Feedback (And Do More Harm Than Good)

  1. In my career I’ve always tried to focus on the learning aspect of education more than the evaluative aspect. It seems like we place too much emphasis on the things we despise e.g. standardized testing. I also think the public schools need to take some pages out of the Montessori play book… My son learned so much so quickly when he attended Montessori.

    • Yes, I agree, and of course when you refer to the “learning aspect”, well that’s what we’re here for isn’t it. Not to evaluate, diagnose and standardise, but to facilitate learning. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I just spent two weeks talking about this very issue with my “Psych of Studying” students and they debated the validity of Alfie Kohn’s claims you list here. Many of them are spot-on, especially in the context of the high-stakes testing environment we find ourselves in here in the states. All we know about achievement motivation and promoting learning backs your position here: feedback, when properly tied to students’ work and presented in a way that enables students to see what they need to do to grow or improve boosts their efficacy, their sense of control over learning, and their sense of connection with their teachers to boot. These three elements (competence, autonomy, relatedness) are the core of our motivation to engage. When these needs are properly “fed” not only do students work up to their potential, but they are happier too. Speaking of “happy” I stumbled across this TED talk the other day, about the connection between happiness and success in your endeavors: http://on.ted.com/Achor. It’s worth a watch.

    • Thanks for your comment, Erica. Thanks for the Ted link too- Always love a good Ted Talk! I like the way you summarised the benefits of good, quality, effective feedback with those 3 key elements. Who could argue with that?

  3. Another great post. I agree wholeheartedly. Of course, with a prescriptive curriculum, as seems to be the way of it, the only way to know if it is being “taught” is by testing and assigning grades. A more child-centered fluid approach would be more difficult to “test”, but the results be more long-lasting and beneficial, to the learners and society.

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  6. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always hated assigning a number to measure students’ learning. It seems to negate the importance of what they have or haven’t accomplished. I mean, just a couple of weeks ago I had a parent email me because I “gave” her son a C instead of an A on a report card! How DARE I! The blame did not lie with her son, who earned the grade, but with me, the teacher who assigned the grade.

    The problem with our district (and many other districts in the United States) is that we are required to have a minimum of 18 grades per six week grading period. That’s three grades per week. Additionally, with less and less funding for education, class sizes are larger and planning periods are shorter. In order to meet the three grades per week requirement while also maintaining a life outside of school, many teachers now give participation points rather than authentic feedback on students’ assignments.

    Now, let’s rewind back to the “A-student” who earned a C in my class. This student turns in all of his assignments, most of them on time. He is able to jump through the low level hoops required to earn participation grades. Luckily for him (and his mother), those participation grades are usually high enough to balance out his low-scoring graded assignments. Also, he ALWAYS writes his name, date, and class period in the top right corner of the page, so he’ll earn those points without a problem (insert sarcasm font here). Now, what are we left with? A student who follows directions beautifully, never disrupts the class, and always brings in those highly coveted tissue boxes to combat the spring-time sniffles (and earn 10 points extra credit). A student who’s mother is actively involved in his education. Sounds like a dream, right?

    The poor kid is not allowed to fail, to make mistakes he can learn from. He cried when he saw his report card – not because he saw that he didn’t learn as much as was expected, but because he was afraid to show his mother.

    I would love to give constructive feedback on all of my students’ assignments, but in order to do that we need to first get rid of the three grade per week minimum, place more value on common formative and common summative assessments, and eliminate participation grades completely. Grades should ONLY reflect students’ mastery of the standards, not their ability to write their name on a paper and turn it in.

    One assignment per week with constructive feedback is worth way more than three fluff grades per week.

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  8. Reblogged this on teachaldenham and commented:
    Are grades, particularly at key stages 2 and 3 doing more harm than good for our students? Should we abandon them in favour of what Teachling calls ‘Real Feedback’?

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