The More You Talk about Grades, the More You Talk about Grades

Entry Two in Maxims for Teachers

Students should feel like they can talk with their teachers about their grades. If I’ve made a mistake or if I was unclear or unfair, I need to know so that I can make it right. If students don’t understand the standards or how to improve, I can help to clarify, encourage, and instruct. What starts as a conversation about grades can, ideally, become an opportunity to understand a student, to improve communication, and to shift the focus to ideas and learning.

Unfortunately, though, the bulk of conversations about grades are negotiations, complaints, and debates. They’re frustrating and disheartening, because we’ve already expended a lot of effort making things clear, and because the conservations focus myopically on the grades themselves, not what those grades represent. Most of us have compassion for the fact that students know that grades matter, and that they urgently want to get good ones. But it also seems that the more important grades have become, the less effective they are as a mode of communication that promotes learning and growth.

So the grade-talk drones on: an email during finals week from the student with a “C” announcing that “I really need to get an A in your class.” The office hour with the student complaining about the way that you scored the rubric, but who has never actually read the rubric, and never will, and will ignore you even if you try to read it aloud to him. The protests that “I worked very hard on this” or that “everyone in the other section got at least a 90.” A 30- MINUTE conversation about whether a discussion post deserved a ✓ or ✓-.

In an attempt to curtail these grievances, many teachers resolve to make their instructions, standards, and rules as clear as possible. They explain criteria and they finely delineate levels of achievement. They design reliable and valid rubrics for every type of activity. They construct detailed gradebooks on their course management systems that reflect their elaborate 1000-point system, so that students know just how many points have been earned at any given moment in the semester. They explain, at length, the difference between a ✓+, a ✓, and a ✓-, and calculate how each is worth .3% of the final grade.

Then, at the start of the next semester, these same teachers revise their instructions, standards, and rules to address how students misunderstood or ignored their previous instructions, standards, and rules.

Alas, it’s a trap, because THE MORE YOU TALK ABOUT GRADES, THE MORE YOU TALK ABOUT GRADES. You will not stop students from talking about grades by talking at greater length about grades. By making your grading scheme more complicated. By giving more grades. By allowing grade-talk and grade-standards and grade-rules to take up ever more air and real estate in your teaching materials and course sites and class meetings.

I’m not here to ask you to relinquish your standards. Of course, if we give grades, we ought to make an effort to be fair and clear, and to explain and apply meaningful norms. And we shouldn’t give up trying to redirect trivial conversations to meaningful ones.

At the same time, we ought to acknowledge that grades have become a rather debased form of communication. In our educational system and culture, grades are markers of identity and types of currency. They matter, but often not in the ways that we want them to.

Our problems with grades and grading are symptoms of deeper problems with teaching and learning. Why do we do so much grading instead of reading and responding? Are we even allowed to have high standards and evaluate work honestly? Are grades the best way to promote and judge the learning that we think matters most?

When we get caught in the cycle of refining and clarifying grading systems ad infinitum, we avoid dealing with the deeper problems that perpetuate all the chatter and cant about letters and numbers.

And we also amplify the noise.