Do grades matter?
Does having grades written on assessed pieces of work help or hinder the progress of students? Many schools in the UK and across the world are beginning to adopt “comment only” marking policies, claiming greater success than with traditional “grading” methods. This week I want to consider the pros and cons of each.
Why we use grades
- Students like to know how well they have done so that they can compare themselves to their targets and to their peers. It gives them a clear idea of how hard they need to work in the future to maintain or improve upon their current performance.
- Schools like to know where to place students against their targets, so that they can assess the quality of the education they provide, in order to maintain and drive up standards over time.
- Parents like to know what grades their children have achieved as it helps them to assess the quality of their school provision and enables them to plan for additional support at home if needed.
Conclusion: Grades work! So why would anyone decide to change?
Pitfalls of grades
Increasingly, evidence from studies around the world has demonstrated that a “comment only” marking policy is more likely to influence a student’s future study habits than a “grade only” or “comment and grade” system. This seems counter-intuitive. Surely, if a student is given more information about their performance then they will perform better in the future? Unfortunately not – they tend to forget about the comments made by the teacher and focus solely on their grade. This takes their focus away from the clear guidance on how to improve and replaces the guidance with a label.
Labelling is often very useful, as it helps us quickly identify and categorise things. However, when we give grades, we hang it around students’ necks like a name badge for the lesson, week, term or even year. This can have hugely demotivating consequences for them. If students have done well, they won’t feel as though they need to try harder. If they haven’t done well then grades won’t tell them how to improve (remember – seeing the grade will cause them to ignore most of the written feedback).
Grades are also not always helpful when assessments are largely formative. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the feedback process is eternal. In contrast, grades are so “final”. They don’t necessarily tell us what grade a student is currently working at, as progression is not linear – it goes up and down over time (but hopefully more up than down).
So, what is better about “comment only” marking?
“Comment only” marking requires students to evaluate the standard of their work, using the guidance you’ve given, helping them to plan for their own progress. For many students, when they see a “B” grade, they think that that will do (and they may even be right!) However, they might not understand how they achieved that grade, particularly in subjects where assessment is done via extended writing tasks. If they don’t know how they achieved the “B” grade, then they are not in a good position to repeat or improve upon that success later on. “Comment only” marking offers a solution to this, by showing students specific things they can do, to achieve marks in specific areas.
“Comment only” marking: Four Handy Tips
- Give feedback quickly – the longer you leave it, the less impact it will have on the student.
- Be focused. You don’t need to comment on everything – choose the points that will make the most significant difference to the student’s work (probably not spelling in the majority of subjects)
- Be specific – don’t write “add more detail here”, do write “explain why Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church”
- Make positive comments as well as negative ones – e.g. “thorough explanation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave”
- Use the language of the exam board (if appropriate), to help students understand how to show greater quality next time – e.g. “compare this theory to the theories you studied earlier in the course – which is more persuasive and why?”
I’d like to challenge you to have a go at “comment only” marking (where previously you would have included a grade) over the next few weeks. See what difference it makes to students in one class and let me know what you’ve found.
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