Why grading should be about effort.

I’m a big proponent of standards based learning. Having benchmarks for students to reach for is something that instills intrinsic motivation and helps them set goals that are often higher than the ones teachers or parents set.

What gets lost in all of this is that each student learns in a slightly different way but teachers are still expected to grade everyone exactly the same. Every single one of us takes a different amount of time to access, process, internalize, and synthesize information to make it relevant and useful for us. This individualized learning style exists because each of us has a unique perspective on the world around us. We each are only able to see the world through the lens of our own experience. The student who breezes through assignments with ease may not in fact be more intelligent that others in class but s/he may have had more experiences in life such as travel, or an intact family that is supportive, or maybe a competitive older sibling who pushes them all the time (that was me…). Students who are struggling at or below grade level may have had all sorts of life experiences that shaped their learning as well. Their poor performance may have more to to with some sort of psychological trauma they may have experienced as a young child, or a divorce that is tearing a family apart, or depression cause by living in poverty, or hunger caused by poor over worked parents who can not provide enough food for the family. Any number of life experiences such as those plus many, many others have been shown to have negative effects on cognitive development in young minds.

Teachers are then expected to grade each of these disparate students on the same scale. Each kid gets the same amount of time to complete an assignment, or they don’t pass. Each student gets the same questions on a test, all worded exactly the same, and are then graded the same. A teachers’ job is in many ways might seem easy to describe. They plan lessons, lead classroom discussions, and grade papers. They put all of this information through some sort of analytical process to arrive at a grade for their students at the end of every term. That process is expected to be the same for every student.

What most people don’t realize is that grading can not be a completely objective process. There is an art to grading. There are things that teachers have to account for that they have a hard time quantifying numerically. When a good teacher sits down with their grade book, they have to take into account the life experiences that each student has brought to class and how those experiences have had an effect on the other students. In addition, a good teacher has to decide if those students represent more or less than the number of homework assignments completed accurately, or number of questions answered correctly on a quiz.

It’s subjective. I know I’m not suppose to say that. But that is why a good teacher can be trusted to use their best judgement in deciding the final outcome. By taking time to get to know each student and how they approach their own education, a good teacher can determine the overall effort that his/her students are employing in class. It is the effort that really counts in learning. Grit, determination, and resilience all play a much more important role in developing real life skills than whether or not one of my students can parrot back the name of the capital of Burkina Faso (It’s Ouagadougou for those of you keeping score at home). Learning about process and developing the skills to stick with something to the end is the real learning. Content be damned, I want my students to develop an understanding of how the real world will want them to function. The real world only cares about people who are not afraid of trying again, and again, and again until they understand. The real world looks to hire people who are supportive of others in their workplace, people who try to make other people around them a little bit better today than they were yesterday.

It’s the kids who breeze through the assignments but are total dicks to other students that should be marked down a few points in their grade. They might have a 97% average on tests and quizzes but would only get an A- because of their proclivity to dickishness. Grades are not just numerical, they represent all the little things that encompass the learning experience. It is the teacher who should make that call. They are the ones who are trained and who live in the trenches every day with these kids, learning about them and the lens through which they see the world through.

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