As most parents know, kids respond emotionally to the grades they receive — and well beyond the jubilation that goes with an A+ or the despair that accompanies a D. When Jessie, an eighth-grader, got an uncharacteristically low score on a Spanish test, she felt not only embarrassed — “because I’d never done that badly before” — but lousy as well: “I didn’t feel as good about myself,” she said.
Not that every 95 percent is cause for celebration, at least for Xavier McCormick, now a college freshman. In high school, when he got top marks with little effort, McCormick felt indifferent to the teacher’s evaluation. “I felt … meh,” he said. “It was just kind of a number at that point.” Ordinarily, McCormick didn’t get too worked up about grades, focusing more on learning than dutifully carrying out every last assignment. “I’m not going to do it just to get the grade,” he said. “I’d rather get two hours more sleep.”
A more typical teenage response to grades, especially bad ones? Fear. “My friends get so caught up in grades,” Jessie said. When they underperform, their first reaction is: “My parents are going to kill me!”
EMOTIONS AND LEARNING
The trouble with these extreme emotional reactions to grades is that students’ knowledge of a subject is tied to their experience of the grade, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Powerful emotions attached to grades drown children’s inherent interest in any given subject.
“Whether the grade is good or bad, you’re taking the student away from focusing on intrinsic interest and tying their experience to grades,” Immordino-Yang explained. Under such circumstances, genuine interest in learning for its own sake wilts. “Grades can be an impetus to work, and can be really satisfying,” she said. “But when emotions about the grade swamp students’ emotions about a subject, that’s a problem.”
Once considered obstacles to thinking, emotions are now understood to be interdependent with various cognitive processes. A better way to think about emotion’s centrality to learning, Immordino-Yang writes in Emotions, Learning, and the Brain, is this: “We only think about things we care about.” When kids care mainly about grades, they’re devoting more mental resources to the assessment than to the actual subject matter.
Students seem to appreciate the distinction between studying to learn and working for the grade.
For Elizabeth Gilbert, now a graduate of the University of Chicago, writing the best essay mattered more than getting an A+. In her pursuit of excellence, she sometimes turned in assignments after they were due, enhancing her scholarship but diminishing her GPA. She gradually realized that submitting work for the grade became a sensible exit strategy. “To just settle for the grade helped,” she said.
McCormick put it differently. If grades were a pure reflection of learning, he added, students wouldn’t be graded on whether they did their homework. For example, in classes where homework makes up 20 percent of a student’s grades, even achieving 100 percent on every test — and so demonstrating complete understanding of a subject — won’t guarantee an A.
“School is about teaching kids how to follow rules, and having grades as the emphasis is how they do that,” he said.
TEACHERS AND GRADES
Some teachers agree. Starr Sackstein, a veteran teacher in Flushing, New York, and author of Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School, realized that she had started to use grades as a tool to control her students: For every day a paper came in past the deadline, for example, she’d deduct five points. She also started to recoil when she noticed students flipping to the back of papers she’d spent hours marking up, just to see their score. Sackstein understood how powerful grades could be to students. A self-described grade-grubber, she decided to change the way she evaluated students to maximize their learning by giving up grades.
Sackstein is part of a movement of teachers who are replacing grades with more nuanced kinds of student assessments. Encouraged by educators like Alfie Kohn and Mark Barnes, who reject grades as blunt and reductive, these teachers educate and evaluate their students using portfolios, one-on-one conferences, peer assessments and other forms of qualitative feedback.
Sackstein started slowly and worked to get student buy-in. She advised her students that they were going to figure out together how to improve their learning and evaluation, and told everyone they could get an A as far as she was concerned. She dropped cumulative assessments entirely — “because we have so much access to information all the time, it’s not a skill we need to test” — and invited students to set their own goals and develop their own standards. Sackstein then used everything the students did in class to measure them against their own goals.
“I do different types of conferences with students. I have oral projects, I set up meetings with kids,” Sackstein explained about the multiplicity of ways she tailors student work. “I’m not determining what they need; they are. I’m just a reader giving feedback,” she said. Students have responded to her methods, because assessments are more personal and she provides abundant opportunities for them to express themselves.
Sackstein often talks to students about how grades affect them, and understands how weighty regular numerical evaluations can be.
“Grades have the ability to make kids feel stupid or smart, and that’s a huge power,” she said. Teachers are human, she added, and will respond emotionally and sometimes arbitrarily to different kids and various types of work. When students define themselves positively or negatively by those judgments, they cede control over their well-being to someone — a teacher — who may not understand them.
“We as teachers and administrators have to be acutely aware of the kids in front of us,” Sackstein said. “Their learning is all that matters.”
By her senior year of high school, Caroline Wohl began to realize that striving to get A’s in every subject, no matter her enthusiasm for the material, was foolish and unnecessary. “I just grew up, and got less caught up in winning,” she said. She tolerated a B in AP physics, and threw herself into the school debate team, where she indulged her authentic interests and embraced the freedom from grades. Wohl missed several classes to compete in national debate tournaments, without regret.