February 10, 2017 by

Make a Bold Move, Give Up Grades

At the heart of motivation, for most students, is the numerical value placed on their learning. Not.

For too long, we have asserted that students need grades in order to participate in their learning or to take it seriously. This belief, however, is false and actually perpetuates a different truth about how grading makes communication about a whole host of non-learning related behaviors easier for teachers.

Grades are meant to label learning in an often disingenuous way given the flaws systemically. Educators claim that it helps families and students “know” how well they are doing, but ask yourself how much of the grade is tied to non-academic elements like homework, participation, extra credit.

If the goal is to get students fluent in what they know and can do, we must provide an atmosphere that prizes feedback and practice over summative products. The current system values product over process and therefore breeds a competitive culture and can encourage cheating. However, once we shift away from these beliefs, students can begin to see the process as the actual learning.

Educators must let go of the control and bring their students into every aspect of the learning process. If we teach them to understand the standards and skills they are working on and how these things apply to their lives, other classes and their futures, student can begin to articulate what they know and can do and we can support these things with evidence from that learning.

Learn How to Create Remarkable Learning Environments

After being on this journey for a few years now, the growth I’ve seen in students is tremendous. Once systems are in place, students understand the learning process. They go at a pace that makes sense for them and are able to reflect and set goals as they go. Then feedback can be tailored to the individual needs of each student which will again further student understanding of his/her own competency.

If we start by including students in the decision making about how they learn and what they learn, they take ownership of that experience. We co-create learning experiences and flexibly allow them to make choices about their focus. This is how creativity flourishes and how could we possibly quantify that with a grade? Student write throughout the process, reflecting against the standards, using the content they have acquired to show their learning. They think deeply about how well they can accomplish tasks, knowing that true mastery is when they can apply new knowledge without supports consistently. They take risks and failure is an implied part of the growth.

Grades de-emphasize the importance of learning and seek to quantify that which is so subjective. Too often, we misjudge what students know and can do based on a limited amount of work or even attendance when they know more than we think. Allowing them multiple opportunities to show what they know, applying skills to new information, provides them with the confidence to take those risks. Students must be ushered away from this belief that their grades define them and instead realize their choices do. Let’s teach kids to know themselves, strengths and challenges and provide them the strategies to move forward in the process.

Learn about how you can make bold moves in your classroom and create remarkable learning environments for your students.


High school educator, coach, author, reformer, recovering perfectionist, Starr Sackstein leads by example both in the classroom and on the internets. Tattooed, quirky and opinionated, she takes every opportunity to learn and dispel myths and false expectations. Impassioned writer, photographer and mother to a sassy eleven year old, Starr is convinced that her cats were human in another life. Grateful Dead enthusiast and fierce defender of first amendment rights. @MsSackstein on Twitter