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4 reasons why grading students is bad and why it's good

4 reasons to stop grading students (and 2 reasons to keep doing it)

4 min read
  • The science of learning

Teachers spend a lot of time grading students’ work. However, this constant marking may not be the best way to create an environment which promotes learning and high academic achievement. What if grading students wasn’t actually helpful?

4 reasons to stop grading students

Recent research conducted in Canada investigated students’ experience of receiving grades compared to being given written feedback. Here are some of the problems they found:

Promotes a fixed mindset

Students being constantly graded for their work can promote a fixed mindset; they may come to believe that their grades reflect who they are and cannot be enhanced through learning. Students with a fixed mindset are more likely to avoid taking on challenging work, which would limit their opportunities for learning.

Negative effect on well-being

Research has shown that grades can have a negative impact on student well-being, such that they can be a source of stress and anxiety. For high achievers, with grades comes pressure and expectation (potentially from themselves, their peers and their parents). Struggling to live up to this when they fail can be a real challenge.

On the other hand, when students are lower achieving, grades give them an easy way of directly comparing themselves with others, highlighting their short fallings and damaging their sense of self-worth and competence.

Engaging in inadequate learning techniques

Whilst research has shown that awarding students grades for work/exams can be effective in helping them remember information for short periods of time, it does not aid recall after a longer period, something which is essential for exams set at a later date. This is because if students are constantly awarded grades, their sole focus is placed on this, rather than exploring and developing an interest in the subject matter. This leads to a much deeper level of processing and higher levels of retention.

Creates poor relationships

For students, being able to build positive relationships with their teachers is important and can lead to improvements in academic performance, as they feel comfortable asking for assistance with content they are struggling to master. However, the grading of work can stop such trust being gained as students may believe that the mark awarded by their teacher does not represent the quality of their work or that the marking is inconsistent.

Similarly, grading work can stop students from forming relationships with each other as classes can start to feel like competitions, where students are disinterested in collective learning and instead only learn to beat their peers.

Grades aren’t all bad

Whilst recent research does highlight some of the negatives associated with grading, there are some clear positives.

Opportunity for feedback

Grades give students an opportunity to receive feedback, from which they can set challenging but realistic goals for future improvements. Goal setting is a positive way in which students can improve their academic performance as goals provide motivation, leading to improvements in concentration and focus.

Select the most appropriate courses

Awarding students grades allows them to identify their strengths, meaning that that they can make informed choices when choosing which courses they take. Being able to make informed choices is important as such decisions have the potential to shape the student’s further education and eventually their careers.

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How can we use grades effectively?

One of the world’s leading education systems, Finland, attributes some of its success to a lack of grading; and whilst the UK does not need to make such drastic changes, teachers should be encouraged to consider how often and the way in which they give grades.Teachers should award grades sparingly, and instead focus their efforts on giving helpful written feedback. When grades do accompany work, ideally, written feedback could be given several days prior to the grades being distributed to stop students from concentrating only on the grade and not even considering their feedback.

Final thoughts

There is definitely a case for grades having a negative effect on students, but there are some positives associated with them, and hence it may be unhelpful to suggest that teachers stop grading students entirely.

Whilst grades allow students to assess their abilities and choose the courses most suited to their skill sets, they also have the potential to encourage students to avoid more challenging work due to a fear of failure, cause unnecessary stress or damage to self-worth, promote the use of superficial learning techniques, and hinder the formation of strong relationships (not only between students and their teacher, but also between students themselves).

Therefore, whilst we are not suggesting that grades should be scrapped completely, we do suggest that teachers consider limiting the amount of work for which students receive a grade.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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