Laura Gibbs

Let's Talk about Grading (2): The Problem with so-called "Good" Grades

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Jan 8, 2019

In my first post for this series, I talked about the problem with punitive grading, and I'll have lots more to say about that as this series takes shape. But first, I also want to point out that there are also serious dangers on the flipside: "good" grades and other coercive rewards are a big problem too! Don't take my word for it: instead, go get Alfie Kohn's book and read it NOW. It's available as a Kindle from Amazon for $10, and you can get a used copy for $6... there is no better investment you can make in your teaching than to buy a copy of this book and read it:
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes


Kohn's Punished by Rewards book cover


I think most of us understand the dangers of punitive grading, since we've probably all experienced that negative side of grading at some point in our lives, some moment when we got a bad grade and felt discouraged about it, or maybe we got a bad grade and felt angry because it was unfair.


The downside of "good" grades is less obvious, though... which makes it even more dangerous! You've probably all seen those clickbait headlines about kids being addicted to their phones, right? Well, if we are going to use the word addiction in that very loose way, then kids are even more addicted to good grades than they are to their phones. Here's a quote from Alfie Kohn about the addictive quality of grades and the very negative consequences of that addiction:

When we are repeatedly offered extrinsic motivators, we come to find the task or behavior for which we are rewarded less appealing in itself than we did before (or than other people do). Thereafter, our intrinsic motivation having shrunk, we are less likely to engage in the activity unless offered an inducement for doing so. After a while, we appear to be responsive to—indeed, to require—rewards. But it is the prior use of rewards that made us that way!


It's a downward spiral of decreasing intrinsic motivation which results in students doing work just for the grade and only for the grade, not for the learning. This is obvious to the students themselves, and they will tell you about it if you ask them: they know that school is first and foremost about grades, not learning for its own sake.


And here's the good news: just as students are aware that school is all about grades, they are really glad for something different, when a class focuses on learning, not on the grades. Here are some comments I've received in end-of-semester evaluations (see also this complete archive of student end-of-semester evaluation comments on grading):

This grading system encourages students to write for the sake of writing and not for the sake of a grade.


It was very fun and I learned a lot! I really liked that I had the freedom to write just to write rather than for a grade.


This is the first time I have ever taken a course and was not stressed about grades so I purely learned the material. It was amazing and I think I learned more in this course than I have in any other in a long time.


I felt that I learned much more this way because the emphasis was on learning and creativity rather than a test.


I really liked this class. It was fun and was all about learning not just a grade.


Admittedly, most students also want to get an A in the class, and there's nothing I can do about that; their addiction to good grades is very real, and my school requires me to turn in a grade for each student at the end of the semester. I'm a cog in the grading/grinding machine, just like every other teacher.


Luckily, though, my school does not have the absurd plus/minus grading (as if anybody really knows what the difference is between an A- and a B+...), so all I have to come up with is a single letter grade: A B C D or F. Sad to say, that single letter is literally the only thing my school wants to know about each student's achievements: I could talk about each student's project, I could describe in detail their progress over the course of the semester, I could show how their contributions were useful to other students in the class and also how I will be using content created by the student in future classes.


But none of that matters. The work itself does not matter, not really. The only thing that matters is the ABCDF. We make that very clear to the students because the ABCDF is the only thing the school records; the grade is the only thing that shows up on their transcript. 


So, what do we do, as teachers, when we are required to give grades at the end of the semester? What can we do help our students as learners and also minimize the harm done by grading, despite the requirement that we turn in grades for our students?


My solution is simple: I take myself out of the grading process.


I repeat: I take myself OUT of the grading process.


My only role is to set the totally arbitrary definition of what an A is, and B and C and D and F (and letter grades are always arbitrary). Then, after I set those arbitrary definitions, I'm done. Everything else is up to the students. I focus all my efforts — ALL MY EFFORTS — on the learning, not the grading. And that means: I create exciting, challenging assignments; I give consistent, honest feedback; and I build a culture of sharing so that everyone in the class knows that their work matters to others, both current students and future students too.


In my next post, I'll get into the specifics of how I take myself out of the grading process and turn that over to the students. There are lots of ways to do that, of course; my approach may or may not work in your context. But that's why everybody should read Alfie Kohn's book; he looks at a huge range of contexts and practices, along with possible solutions.


You can also explore his website; he has mountains of material online you can read too:


screenshot of Alfie Kohn's website


And for more posts, check out ttog here at the Community and also at Twitter: Teachers Throwing Out Grades.


Meanwhile, I'll be back here tomorrow with practical advice for how to Just. Stop. Grading. :-)