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More Than a Grade: Cultivating Intellectual Play in Students

This post is written by student member Danah Hashem.

Educators know the dreaded question well: Will this be graded? Subtext: As a student in your class, the impact this assignment has on my report card matters more to me than the potential learning experience it offers; how much should I care about my performance on this?

This simple but familiar and frequent question encapsulates a larger issue impacting classrooms around the globe. It is not a new phenomenon for students to give in to the temptation to trade mindsets of intellectual play, exploration, and growth for the reductionist, quantifiable goal of high grades. However, in the face of increased standardized testing and global competition, today’s students are chasing the grade more than ever before. And who are we to blame them? Increasingly, the systems in which they are asked to operate measure and assess them based on these numbers, awarding opportunities, status, and identities accordingly. More and more our students are viewing grades as the reason and the reward for their learning, and it’s not always difficult to understand why.

This leaves us as educators with some difficult questions of our own. What are we doing that is communicating to our students that grades are the final goal and ultimate achievement of learning? And how do we stop? What can we do to shift the culture, reframe the goals, and revive the elusive spirit of intellectual curiosity in our classrooms?

While the answers to those questions are complex, systemic, and extend well outside the walls of our own classrooms, I believe there are some concrete, achievable steps we can take to support, encourage, and mentor our students in their very real struggle to understand the importance of personal education in a grade-driven culture.

  1. Value process along with—and perhaps even over—product. A strong summative writing assignment requires work that is completed in stages, a few of which should include brainstorming, exploration, experimentation, drafting, and revision. We can communicate the importance of these stages to students by dedicating class time to them, giving detailed feedback on them, holding reflective conversations regarding them, and potentially weighting those stages more heavily than the finished product when grading. This tells students that you care more about the journey they went through to create and understand their final product than the final product itself.
  2. Allow revision. Particularly on larger assignments, I always allow my students to resubmit their work for a higher grade, deducting no penalty points for wanting another try. This shows students that my primary concern is their personal struggles as scholars wrestling with challenging tasks and concepts.
  3. Integrate single-point rubrics. As helpful as a well-crafted holistic or analytic rubric can be, the goal of these rubrics is essentially to standardize and quantify intellectual creation, which can encourage ranking, comparison, and fixation on teacher-direction in order to target a specific grade. The single-point rubric is a grading option that describes what proficiency should look like in each of the outlined categories, making no attempt to anticipate where and how students will succeed or fall short. Structuring rubrics in this way allows more subjectivity and invites educators to reflect on both strengths and weaknesses in each category. Grades can still be assigned with clear explanation; however, there are no predefined levels, limits, or categories for success. This rubric stresses descriptive, personalized feedback over the numerical grade.
  4. Encourage self-reflection. In order to actively demonstrate that the grade is not the capstone of intellectual pursuit, spend time reflecting on assignments before, during, and after the grading process. These reflections can be structured as journal entries, large-group discussions, or partner conversations. Guiding questions can encourage students to think deeply about what they gained from the process. Questions that encourage this kind of thinking include
  • What was the most difficult portion of this assignment for you?
  • How did you overcome those difficulties?
  • What do you think was the strongest aspect of your project and why?
  1. Highlight intellectual courage. Educators can encourage student identities that operate outside of the grading system by highlighting exemplary work that does not necessarily reinforce the culture of grade-based status. Taking class time to promote a student’s work as innovative, courageous, or explorative can subvert the grade-based status system while also gently fostering the confidence students need to engage in intellectual play.

Ultimately, if we must grade, our grades should support, complement, and encourage real learning. This makes the job of an educator more nuanced and admittedly more difficult; there are no effective ways to standardize and quantify the authentic intellectual pursuits of individuals. However, before we can ask our students to internalize this reality, we ourselves must be willing to take clear and definitive steps to make that reality evident in our classroom culture. It can be difficult in our grade-saturated culture, but change always begins with initial steps.

Danah Hashem teaches tenth-grade world literature at Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, MA, where she pursues her passions for and scholarship in digital literacies, Middle Eastern literature, and student-centered learning. Follow her on Twitter at @DanahRHashem or via her blog, www.pencilsandpatience.wordpress.com.

Note: NCTE has a variety of resources to support teachers looking to approach grading intentionally and generatively in their classrooms. For additional information on assessments and grading, visit the following position statements: Resolution on Grading Student WritingFormative Assessment That Truly Informs InstructionWriting Assessment: A Position Statement