Are We Grading or Degrading our Students? Let's Shift Paradigms

Posted by Jono Farrington on

Over the 15 years that I have worked as a learning specialist and educational therapist, I have never had a student come into my office with a poor test grade and ask me to help them to learn the material that they clearly did not master. Instead of nurturing a desire to learn, our current paradigm instills a fear of failure.

As a result, when a student receives what they believe to be a poor grade on a test or assignment, they often feel degraded and ashamed. Oftentimes, these tests and assignments are hidden or thrown away, and learning takes a nosedive. In fact, when a student does unexpectedly poorly on a test, they are often so mortified that they learn little to nothing the rest of the day. Instead they tend to internally ruminate and stress about the grade. Sadly, it is the high test grades that students love to share and celebrate, as students quickly learn that they are rewarded for perfection.  

Traditional Grading Only Points Out the Errors:

When teachers limit feedback to pointing out errors on assignments and tests, this can be both demoralizing and discouraging for learners. Can you imagine working in an environment that only points out errors? Too much criticism can be discouraging and can cause kids to dislike school and ultimately learning.

Where Does This Leave the Average Student or Struggling Learners?

Average students and struggling learners are often disempowered and frustrated, as they rarely, if ever, get to experience the grades they desire. As a result, many of these learners can fall prey to a sense of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from persistence failure.

They learn to give up quickly as past efforts have failed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression, acting out in school and even juvenile delinquency.

Executive Functioning Coaching

Learning to Embrace Mistakes Builds Resilience:

Conversely, we should thank our students for sharing their misconceptions and mistakes and offer rewards for learning from them. We should teach them the value of, "giving it another try" and learning from mishaps. They should know that most of our greatest inventions were the result of repeated mistakes. In fact, it was reported that Thomas Edison made 1000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When asked about it, Edison allegedly said, "I have not failed 1000 times. I have successfully discovered 1000 ways NOT to make a light bulb."

How Can We Shift Paradigms to an Environment that Helps Students Embrace and Celebrate Learning?

Here are a number of strategies that can help shift our current paradigm.

  • Teach students that you love hearing about their mistakes and misconceptions. You can even offer a locked box where students can safely and anonymously ask questions or request the review or reteaching of a topic.
  • When students make a mistake, guide them to the correct answer. Use words like:
    • "You're getting there."
    • "Almost."
    • "You're getting warmer."
    • "Give it another try."
  • Reward students for effort instead of intelligence. As Winston Churchill professed, "Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential."
  • Let go of grades and only make comments. Begin by telling students what they did right, and then point out a few things they can do to improve their abilities. Try to offer more feedback on what you liked and limit negative feedback, so students do not get overwhelmed.
  • Allow students to always earn back partial credit for doing assignment and test corrections.
  • Share your own past mistakes and misconceptions and share what you did to learn from that experience.
  • If you don't know an answer to a question, admit it. Then demonstrate for your students how to find the answer.
  • When students make a mistake, do not give them the answer. Instead, guide them to the correct response. You can even turn it into a game like, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" - where students can ask for one the following lifelines: 50:50 (give them a choice of two options), ask the class (poll the class), or ask a peer.

I hope you found this blog helpful. If you have some other suggestions, please make a comment below this posting.

Cheers, Erica

Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator, and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning. She is also the director of Learning to Learn and Learning Specialist Courses.

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