We know how much students care about grades and how they respond when they get a grade they didn’t expect and don’t think they deserve. But are we clear about how students ought to respond to grades? What are the characteristics of a mature, mindful response to these quality assessments? My concern is not how students talk to each other about their grades. Letting off steam is an understandable response. Way more important is how they process the feedback internally—what they’re telling themselves about the grades they receive.
We want students to learn from their grades, but learn what? Here’s a list to get us started. Be welcome to suggest revisions or to add to it in the comments section.
- To connect the grade with the preparation. How much did they study for the exam? What were they doing during that study time? Did they write the paper the night before it was due? Did they submit a revised version or their first draft? We can help students make those connections by providing guidelines that recommend realistic amounts of study time and propose, for example, a good ration between time spent on the first draft and time devoted to revision.
- To use the grade as motivation for next time. Grades promote learning when they provide the motivation to improve the next performance. If a grade does motivate, then the student must look at the feedback, understand it, and come up with an improvement plan—and that’s not what students typically do. Their thinking tends to be more generic: I’ll try harder next time. Teachers need to demonstrate how students can use the feedback to improve their next submissions. I talked to a teacher who asks a student to volunteer their paper for public revision in return for a few bonus points. The teacher and the class then look at the feedback, find examples of it in the paper, and develop a concrete to-do list for the next writing assignment—which is worth way more than any bonus points.
- To see the grade as assessment of a performance not a judgment of the person. This takes maturity. Think about how faculty respond to those negative comments students make on course evaluations. The pressure to get good grades also makes the mature response harder. But unless students can put their grade in perspective, disconnecting it from how they think and feel about their abilities, a grade, especially if a student thinks it’s low, can do more harm than good. It confirms what students most fear: that they aren’t good enough, that they can’t do it, and so why bother trying?
- To understand that grades are imprecise measures of learning. What anyone has learned exists within their brain, and an exam answer or a paper’s thesis only partially illuminate what’s inside a student’s head. Grades reflect that imprecision. A lot of research documents that grades correlate only with grades—not with career or personal success. Learning from grades starts by taking them with a grain of salt.
- To recognize that improvement is a possibility no matter what the grade. Maybe a student doesn’t want or need to a better grade. A teacher can accept that, but no grade rules out the possibility of a better performance, and that’s what a student needs to understand. Whatever the grade, there’s more to learn about that content and more to learn about the learning. It’s not just recognizing that something can always be done better; it’s the added conviction that I am smart enough and can work hard enough to do it better.
- To realize that constructive conversations about grades can happen with teachers. The point of these conversations is mutual understanding—the student more clearly understanding (not necessarily accepting) the rationale for the grade and the teacher learning how the student understood the assignment and proceeded to complete it. Arguments might be exchanged but without accusation or anger. Excuses might be offered as explanations but without the expectation that they merit exceptions.
Considering how most students respond to grades, this is a lot to hope for. But even small improvements would be beneficial. Teachers should be challenging students individually and collectively to respond to grades more constructively.Instead of getting in the way, grades need to get out of the way of learning.
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