Grades are neither a reward nor a punishment.

a plusI would like to reflect on three “best practices” regarding grading which are widely used with large audiences, but are not actually a good use for grades. The three activities which catch my attention include 1) grading syllabus quizzes, 2) giving bonus assignments, and 3) lowering grades due to low participation. Why are these practices problematic?

Grades, whether quantitative or qualitative, should represent the value that instructors assign to student’s performance during students’ learning assessments. Using grades in any other way, such as rewards or punishment, creates an environment in which grades get tied to extrinsic motivation. In the long run, this structure generates challenges for teaching and learning.

Have you heard your students complain about working so hard on something, but they did not get any grade? Have your students focused more on how many points they received rather than carefully consider the constructive feedback you provided to them? Have your students lost interest in learning anything more in the course once they received a passing grade? These questions are more common when the means (grades representing the assessment results of learning) get more attention than the ends (the learning). When instructors focus more on grades and assessments during their course syllabus review or first-week introductions rather than what students will learn and how the course will prepare them for their future, these questions from the students are expected.

How can we avoid these problems?

  1. Instead of assigning grades for required activities, use other methods which ensure students complete the activity. An online course may use release conditions to ensure students can only see the certain course content after they have completed the (ungraded) syllabus quiz. Instructors could make students complete the required activity under supervision while using course time. The instructor could re-design the required activity to make it more intrinsically motivating to the students so that students want to complete the activity.
  2. Avoid bonus assignments. Ask yourself why you need to provide bonus assignments and address the underlying issues without giving grades. Did students not perform well on the course assessments? Do your students come to class unprepared and performed poorly? Do they not have the necessary prior knowledge? Do students have sufficient time to perform at the expected level during your assessments? Perhaps evaluate and redesign the course teaching and learning activities. Conduct item analyses on your assessments to ensure the test questions are adequately measuring performance. Make sure that the assessments, lessons and learning objectives are aligned and that students are clear about course expectations.
  3. Assign points for activities that allow students to demonstrate that they achieved the course learning objectives. Avoid docking points as a punitive measure for undesirable student behaviors, such as missing class or lack of participation. Ask yourself if the points are awarded or deducted because the student is demonstrating performance directly related to the learning objectives. Unless participation or attending class is the learning outcome for the course, avoid assigning points to participation. Ask yourself “why do I require participation?” and “How does participation relate to meeting the course learning objectives?” so that you can understand your underlying instructional need. Design the course so that students who do not participate will eventually not perform well in your assessments. For example, an instructor can design in-class, hands-on activities which will relate directly to the content on assessments. Students who do not come to class or participate will miss out on important learning experiences and are likely to perform poorly on the assessment. If students perform well on the assessment without coming to class or participating, consider that participation is not that important for success on the assessments. Time on task or seat time may be a requirement from your board of regents or accreditation agencies. In this case, instructors need to design their course to help students want to be present and to participate. Giving points for participation may improve participation, but it does not guarantee learning improves. You want students’ minds engaged in the task at hand. It does no good if students are physically in class, when their minds are elsewhere.

To sum it up, please reserve the grades for student learning performance evaluation. By doing this, you will be helping yourself and your peers by creating a learning environment which grades are not considered a reward or punishment. This is the first big step to change directions from extrinsically motivated students to intrinsically motivated students.

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