Grades vs. Feedback

Educational institutions have developed a well-established system for reporting academic achievement of students: the report card. Most schools no longer send home “cards”, but do send home reports at pre-planned intervals throughout the school year. Typically, this report lists the student’s class subjects along with an achievement grade/indicator. While these have value for specific audiences, they are not the best platform for directing students toward improving their learning.

Unfortunately, schools have ‘educated’ the public to pay a great deal of attention toward the grades provided on the report. I am not saying that awareness of the student’s grade has little value, however, often conversations between parents and students, and even teachers, often revolve around “getting better grades”. Although that may be the end goal, the language of these conversations often tends to address “grades” rather than the learning process. A frequently heard comment in these conversations is the need to “work harder”. However, what does “work harder” mean in terms of actual practice? There needs to be a more articulate process for students to navigate if there is to be real growth.

Grades are a measure of the extent of the learning that has taken place, and are useful as end-point measures, but during the learning process, conversations need to focus on learning and on how to improve. Rather than discussing “raising grades” or ”working harder” with your child, we could start by discussing how the learning process is going, identify specific areas that can withstand improvement, and provide strategies for making these improvements.

At TIS, we place emphasis on formative assessment. This type of assessment is carried out in order to inform the learning process. Formative assessment is not used in determination of report grades. It is used to help the student and the teacher identify areas of strength and areas requiring more growth and attention. Conversations focus on how to improve students’ understanding of the topic and how to build the skills required to do well in future learning, as well as assessments.

A key aspect in addressing the learning process is providing meaningful feedback on work that students are doing. Simply seeing a mark on an assignment/test is not useful feedback and it can send the wrong message. In the past, I have heard some students say things like “The teacher gave me a ‘D’ on my assignment.” With this mindset, the student’s perception is that mark issued was solely at the teacher’s discretion, with little thought given toward why the ‘D’ was issued nor how to improve in the future.

A more constructive approach would be provision of a written or verbal description of the strengths and weaknesses of the work. With meaningful descriptive feedback about their work, along with an understanding of what work at higher levels of quality looks like, the student is in a position to make improvements in the future because they have a clear understanding of what needs improvement and how to get there. It moves the students from being passive recipients of grades to students who are invested in making attainable improvements in their approaches to learning.

If we change our conversations to focus on strategies to improve learning, including acting on feedback, we can move forward in getting students to understand and participate in their role in improving their skills and understanding. In the end, it will yield a by-product of improved grades.


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