When providing grades for students, my goal is to do so in such a way that the grade will provide meaningful feedback to the student. In particular, I want to let them know what they were able to show mastery of on an exam and what they were not able to show mastery of. Therefore the grade should be reflective of the amount of material from the class they have come to understand.
How is this goal best accomplished? I suppose every teacher has their own philosophy on this, so I won’t even try to give you a ‘correct’ answer. However, I will share some of my experiences.
I have, in fact, worked at a school that does not give grades. Instead everything was measured as pass fail. I enjoyed working without the grading system, as I felt I was better able to focus on making sure students understood the material instead of making sure they knew how to answer an awkwardly worded question on an exam. It also relieved some pressure and let students make mistakes, which is a major part of learning. However, without the grades given back to them, it was very difficult to explicitly let them know how well they understood the material. Without this feedback, it seemed that there were students that would be in the C range that felt they knew everything. Also there were students that had a great grasp on the material, but felt as if they weren’t doing well in the class. From this experience, I feel that, even if the grading system is imperfect, grades should still be implemented in order to allow for defined feedback.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have also worked in schools with strict grading policies precisely detailing how to grade all assigned material. The homework, quizzes and exams were the same throughout each section of a course and the grades were given in the same manner. In this situation, I felt that I had to focus on questions like, “If you see this on the test, this is what they are really trying to say, therefore you should answer in this way,” instead of being able spend more time focusing on getting the students to truly understand the material. However, the feedback was extremely consistent and useful for the students because they knew exactly how well they were doing compared to other students taking the class or that had taken the class.
In yet another example, I have worked at a school were the policy was basically, “you have to give grades, but we won’t tell you how to do so.” This sounds like a wonderful thing as a teacher, because you get to decide where the focus will be and how to provide useful feedback to your students. However, this leads to problems like, “I got an A in Calculus 1, but now I’m failing Calculus 2”. This leads both teachers being put in a precarious situation when the student complains. Either the Calculus 2 teacher gets reprimanded and told to inflate the grades, or the Calculus 1 teacher is told that they are not appropriately covering the material and they need to change their practices. In any case, without some consistency, the grades are not useful feedback to the student.
As my personal preference, I do like to have a well-defined policy from the school I am working at. I want the students to have consistent experiences between classes, so that grades mean something. Also, as a selfish desire, I want to know that when (not if) a student complains, the administration will back my decisions as long as they have met the outlined criteria. If you are unsure as to how to respond to a student yourself, you can also refer the problem to the administration so that they can decide a consistent way of dealing with things. Even though this is the choice I’d make between these three, I still wish that I had a little more control over the grading process, so that I could make sure the emphasis of the course really was on understanding and not on good test taking techniques.
I would love if you’d share your experiences and opinion on the topic. As student, teacher or administrator, what grading policies have you found that you’ve enjoyed the most? Which have you found to be most useful? Are these the same policy or different? Please leave some comments below.
As a preview for next time, regardless of the grading policy you have, you still should look at the distribution of your grades. This can tell you if your class is understanding what you want them to, or if you should try different techniques. Therefore, I will share the distribution of grades on exams I have encountered. Hopefully, we can compare not only means and mediums, but also the shape and variability of the distributions we’ve had.