The Case Against Grades

Yesterday an interesting tweet caught my eye around the same time that our Learning Network was meeting to plan for our next Learning cycle.  The tweet caught my eye not so

Discussing writing lists in the Kindergarten classroom at Tweedsmuir P.S.

much for the content of the tweet but because a familiar name was cited - Alfie Kohn.  Alfie Kohn is the author of 12 books and many articles in the fields of education, parenting and behaviour.  He is a staunch critic of rewards and competition and is very outspoken about education's fixation on grades and test scores.  I first came across Alfie's work during my third year of teaching when I was looking for a book about creating a classroom where students had jobs or roles as part of a collaborative community.  Punished By Rewards happened to be the first book that caught my eye that day at Chapters.  It was intriguing to see how reward systems could be great in the short run but ultimately fails, or worse, creates lasting harm. As I walked around listening to the discussions about the learning cycle I was reminded of Punished By Rewards not because the learning cycles being planning had specifically to do with rewards, but the conversations inevitably went to assessment -  "How should we assess their writing?", "Should we create a rubric?", which are expected practices today.

It was at this point that I returned to my office to see the tweet regarding an article by Alfie called "The Case Against Grades". I love it when essays or articles start with a quote, especially one from a student.  It grabs my attention.  The following quote started Alfie's article from Educational Leadership in November 2011.

"I remember the first time that a grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing….Suddenly all the joy was taken away.  I was writing for a grade -- I was no longer exploring for me.  I want to get that back.  Will I ever get that back?"

                                                   -- Claire, a student (in Olson, 2006)

From the article Alfie details 3 main points that were extensively studied by educational psychologists in the 80's and 90's.  When students from elementary school to college are led to focus on grades are compared with those who aren't the results support these robust conclusions:

    • Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.  Every study that has ever investigated the impact on intrinsic motivation of receiving grades (or instructions that emphasize the importance of getting good grades) has found a negative effect.


    • Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.  Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count toward their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks.


    •  Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.  They may skim books for what they’ll “need to know.” They’re less likely to wonder, say, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?”

There are all sorts of reasons about why we need to grade students' work.  It may even be a fact of life in education today.  However, after reading this compelling article is seems reasonable to take a step back and really consider whether the ideas and findings from research of this nature could be used to our advantage and move students forward academically.


If you are interesting in reading the full article click here "The Case Against Grades."


I'd love to hear your thoughts!
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