The discussion of grades, whether we should give grades or not, has been on my radar for years. I have always struggled with giving grades as I know it can inhibit the motivation of some of my students. In the past four years I have embraced formative assessment therefore everything in my class focusses on individual learning. My students know that learning has no end, it is about looking to improve, reflecting on learning and making plans for improvement. This shift in my understanding what helps students learn best really emphasizes the need to move away from grades whenever possible. This past year the Surrey School District opened the doors for schools to create their own reporting process. I was truly excited to dive in but when it came to developing a format my colleagues and I felt communicated student learning clearly, we struggled. So the year passed, we debated and nothing changed, at least for our grade 6/7s at Hillcrest. (Other grades/teachers in our school did jump in.) Something happened to me recently where the impact on grades and student learning hit home on a very personal level.
In the novel, Touching Spirit Bear, there is a part in the story where a Tlingit elder demonstrates how change can occur. One way is by a constant tension pushing us and eventually moving us off our path. The other way is for a sudden and unexpected push, this might include a life changing event. For me it was not a tragedy but the beginning of my Masters program that has caused a sudden shift. I was thrilled to be going back to school as my experience in the graduate diploma program had relit a fire within me that I did not realize was burning low. One of the reasons I enjoyed the program so much, and soared as a learner, was that I was free to learn what was important to me; it was a pass/fail course. The pressure of grades was absent therefore I learned for me, not for my instructor and the grade he would assign.
So when I was accepted into the Masters program I was excited and of course a bit nervous. But the nerves were centred on handling the extra workload, not on how I would do academically. Our first day approached and the syllabus arrived. All was good until I read the break down of the grades, this is where my shove came – I was to be graded on my learning. I froze. Really and truly my gut clutched tight and my anxiety escalated. For some of you, grades may motivate you, but for me they were a reminder that I was not smart. In high school I was a B student and never felt comfortable about sharing this with colleagues. For some reason I felt that it just wasn’t good enough. Initially my university grades were Cs until I started to get my feet firmly planted in the system. I slowly worked my way back up to Bs and even a sprinkling of A-s thrown in but my GPA suffered from those first two semesters. It took me 21 years after graduating with a BA to build up enough courage to apply because I truly did not feel smart enough.
Here it was again, I was feeling like I was an impostor, that people would discover maybe I should not have been accepted into the program because I was not an A student. I worried about what this would do to my learning as I had discovered through the PB+15 program that I love to learn. One of the teachers in the program compared me to the Pacman of learning – I gobble it all up. But would my learning be stunted because I was more focused on what I thought the instructor might want from me rather than the freedom that is allowed in a pass/fail situation.
How could I not connect what I was feeling to what students experience every time they know an assignment is a summative one. What does this do to my learners who often get Cs if I know what it does to me as a B student? How am I crippling the learning of my students when I assign a grade? Are these students showing only part of what they can do because they focus on the grade and are worried about my judgement rather than their own growth? For me it is about not feeling good enough inside, but for my students they have the extra pressure of not being good enough in the eyes of their parents. The shove, as I mentioned earlier, has made a monumental impact on my understanding of how grades can affect student learning. I know some of my students relish grades. How do I know, because I asked them. But for the most part it is the A students who want to keep grades, the rest would like them gone.Students have been very articulate with me regarding this issue and how they feel. I even had 4 students this spring choose ‘no grades’ as their persuasive topics of choice. I am feeling even more strongly that we need to remove grades, at least in elementary school. This does not mean we stop assessing our students, but is giving a grade the best way to communicate their learning. What this looks like for my students next year I am not quite sure; this is a tension in my teaching that needs to be addressed.
I must end with a relieved sigh. This weekend, during one of my sessions in my Masters course, I found out that everyone gets a B unless of course you do not complete the assigned work. My shoulders came away from my ears and I was able to sit back into my chair knowing that I could focus on my learning. I am sure those closest to me could hear my exhale of stress as it was released. If the thought of being graded can still do this to me even as an adult learner and one who has many life experiences under my belt, what does this do to most of our students? How have we stifled their thinking, their love of learning every time we say, “oh and by the way, this is a summative piece so I will be marking it”?