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At the beginning of this school year, my colleagues and I decided to avoid giving the sophomores in our English classes any grades for six weeks. Research shows that providing students with a number or letter in addition to quality comments prevents them from authentically reflecting. Quantitative grades also diminish student interest in learning, reduce academic risk taking, and decrease the quality of thinking. But beyond academics, as teachers, we saw the negative impact grades made on our students’ mental and emotional health.
In fact, though a bit outdated, a 2002 study conducted by a psychologist at the University of Michigan showed 80 percent of students based their self worth on their academic success, leading to low self-esteem and other mental-health issues. In a highly academic setting, here was an opportunity to catalyze our students’ broader motivations for learning—a quality with macro-benefits in an environment obsessed with single Scantron marks.
It is difficult to ignore the realities of grades and their extrinsic power. As frustrated as I was with the parents who wanted conferences or who argued over a point or two, I understand their frustration. They wanted what was best for their child which includes a quality college education and well-paying career. Test scores and grades certainly matter in the current academic system for achieving these goals. But while some employers do still look for higher GPAs for recent college graduates, most are more concerned with relevant internship, job, and volunteer experience. And extrinsic motivation is often effective when it is immediate, so graduating from high school and college with higher grades actually represents intrinsic motivation and persistence.
So while the grades and scores matter as a quick reference for admissions officers and employers, they actually represent something more profound in the type of learner and worker in which they plan to invest.
When my students spent three days on a single thesis statement, they practiced similar intensive reflection to when I was working toward becoming National Board-certified. And for both my students and for me, such opportunities are rare. So while parents might see a 96 percent in the gradebook and feel comforted by such a number, many don’t actually know the work that led to it. The problem lies when the product itself is elevated above the process, and questions of improving revolve around getting an A and not mastering skills.