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5 Ways to Encourage Students to Concentrate on Learning Instead of Grades

My middle and high school students enthusiastically enter class with their schoolwork completed and questions ready to ask. They are uninterested in receiving a grade for this assignment. They did it for the purpose of education and suddenly I awaken from this wonderful dream.

In actuality, kids are continuously checking their grades on the internet. They inquire about things like:

How many points would I lose if I forgot to include units?

How much will you deduct for mistakes in spelling?

What can I do to improve my grade to an A?

I began to focus on how my actions contributed to the grades-obsessed culture after decades of this reality in my math classrooms. I’m ashamed to say that I used to praise pupils solely on the basis of their marks rather than their effort and progress. Parents’ conferences tended to focus on numbers rather than student learning.

As part of my reflection, I discovered a group of teachers at my school who were similarly fed up with concentrating on grades. Even though we still had to issue grades, we exchanged ideas and tools that helped us de-emphasize grades in our classes.


1. Change your vocabulary (with kids and parents): When a student was reluctant to do an assignment, I threatened them with things like, “You have to do it or this will be a grade!” I now say things like, “You did a fantastic job simplifying radicals.” I’m excited to see how you use that talent to solve the Pythagorean theorem.” Is this guaranteed to work every time? Obviously not. However, being aware of my language and focusing on learning rather than grades began to change the ethos of my class.

My tone with my parents changed as well. instead of grades, I would email or phone with information about the concepts or talents their child was displaying. A student received 35 out of 42 points on his last examination. To be better prepared for the subject in the next chapter, I propose that he practice prime factorization.” Giving a mark of 35 out of 42 may be statistically deceptive, but it reduces the unfair stigma that comes with receiving a low B.

2. Delay the grade: We should think about how to urge students to pay more attention to instructor feedback instead of grades. Delay the delivery of the actual grade so that student focus shifts from the grade to the feedback.

This method was tested by another math teacher and myself. We graded tests in class with standard marks and brief notes, but no point deductions or grades were written on the test itself. Students were asked to reflect and make corrections after receiving their tests. I would discuss topics and criticism with the kids while assisting them with their mistakes, but never points.

At first, this annoyed the children, but with time, they began to concentrate on their actual performance. If a student wanted to know their grade, I would meet with them a day later at their request (I still had to give grades as a school requirement.)

3. Lower the stakes: According to research, accuracy should never be graded in homework or formative assessment. Most of the teachers I know keep track of homework completion grades. I quit doing it a few years ago. (For subsequent student/parent conferences, I did keep track of who was doing their homework.) I stressed that homework was an opportunity to practice and experiment. To relieve even more pressure, I informed my students that their lowest quiz grades will be automatically dropped at the end of each term. This alleviated a great deal of stress and tears.

4. Allow for retakes: Tests and other ‘one and done’ circumstances will never bring the best out of pupils, particularly because of the nature of time and memorization. The math department at my high school had a policy of issuing a retake test once a term to replace the lowest test grade. Advocate for a redo policy if your school does not have one. Alternatively, get creative in your class on how to offer retakes for the sake of learning rather than just to replace a grade.

5. Allow self-grading: As a secondary school teacher, I sometimes hear the argument, “Are we preparing them for college if we don’t offer traditional grades?” Naturally, we can’t foretell what our children will face in higher education, but there appears to be a tendency among some college lecturers toward “upgrading.” There are “strong pedagogical reasons to do it [ungrade], given the litany of studies demonstrating that grades play to extrinsic (not intrinsic) motivation, decrease enjoyment of learning, and heighten anxieties of failure. Furthermore, grades aren’t always a strong indicator of student learning. We also know they’re vulnerable to massive inflation, based on additional studies.”

Teachers can mitigate some of the negative consequences of grades by providing students more control over their evaluation. When assigning a rubric-based project, have the students complete their own rubric and then meet with them to discuss their self-evaluation. It’s not uncommon for their grade to be lower than yours, which is a fantastic way to start a good dialogue. Self-assessment also improves metacognitive skills and gives pupils ownership of their own learning.

In my dreams, we don’t issue grades at all, and students happily do assignments for the sheer love of learning. However, grades, no matter how erroneous, determine placement and ranking. Still, as instructors, we can use our imaginations within the confines of our own classrooms to make grades more accurate, collaborative, and stress-free.

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