Do we need grades to learn?

Three ways to communicate learning and motivate students without grades

Tom Cosgrove Design and Technology Teacher, Leysin American School in Switzerland

As we move on past our high school and university years we begin to see that it is possible to learn without being graded. As adults we are motivated to learn for reasons other than getting a good grade. For some of us it might be financial motivation or maybe the desire for a pleasurable experience but almost never about grades. So why do we focus so much on grades in school?

For many schools around the world students are graded using a numerical value. They are given work to do and the teacher tells them how well they did using a number. Why have we gone down this path? As adults, and as young children, we learn things on our own because we are intrinsically motivated to do so but for some reason this motivation shifts at some point in our schooling. How can we replicate this experience in schools and how can we improve a student’s ability to learn without having a grade as the end goal?

Grades are often used to incentivise students into doing something they wouldn’t normally be very interested in. Teachers can often be heard saying “if you don’t do this you’re going to get a bad grade” or “to get a good grade you need to do this”. We place a lot of emphasis on grades in schools and it is difficult to move away from this mindset. We are told by administrators that we need to have grades so they can see how well students are doing. We are told by universities that we need grades so they can decide who to accept into their institutions. But why does it need to be this way? Is there another path?

At the Leysin American School we have been trying to show our students that they in fact do not need grades to learn something new. We have removed grades from all of our LAS edge classes. Students are awarded a passing or failing grade instead (and we have yet to use the “fail” option). How do we hold them accountable for their work, you may ask? We have come up with three main ways to make sure students are working to meet their full potential.

  1. We have made their learning visible. Students are required to track the stages of their project using a public board and the teacher is able to check their progress regularly and offer feedback.
  2. We have improved communication with parents and provide regular updates on their child’s progress. Grades are often used as a communication tool between teachers and parents. Without grades we found it useful to involve parents in the learning process by starting a conversation about how their child was doing.
  3. We ask students to showcase their work to an audience at regular intervals. By inviting people to our class to see student work, students can show off what they have done and explain what they learned from the process. This authentic learning experience is much more valuable than giving students a grade for their work. In addition, the presentation skills that students practice will serve them well in the long run. Showcasing what they have done to a visiting audience is both motivating and challenging for a lot of students and it was more rewarding for me as a teacher to see students perform in this setting.

Students showcasing their work to their peers and faculty members.

By removing the pressure of grades, students feel they are able to engage more deeply with their work because the standard is no longer being set by the teacher. That isn’t to say the expectations are not high, they are, but the students don’t feel the nagging pressure that grades put on them. It breaks the tension between student and teacher that grades often create and it allows for more meaningful conversations to happen.

As LAS edge teachers we could no longer fall back on using grades to motivate (or demotivate) our students and we had to come up with more creative ways to make sure students are accountable for their own learning. We now have more time to plan various ways to check in on student progress and to engage with students about their projects.

Try it. Let students choose work that is meaningful and interesting to them and don’t worry about giving them a grade. Offer them authentic feedback to help them improve or invite an audience for students to share their work with. As teachers it may be our job to de-emphasize grades in our classrooms so that students can see the real value of learning. It is possible to learn without grades, we’ve all found joy in learning something new, we just need to share this joy with our students.

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