Meaningful Grading

Note: This post is part of the Teaching 2.0 Masters in Curriculum and Instruction Program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. My current classes are about Project Based Learning and Assessment.


For grades to be valuable, they must be meaningful to all stakeholders. Teachers, parents, administrators, and students all have a vested interest in the value of grades. However, the most important link in this chain – the student – is the one that is often forgotten. Grades affect the lives of students throughout their formal schooling experience. Grades color, and often taint, the way students perceive their school experience and, ultimately, themselves. Yet, by the time students reach me in high school, they have been conditioned to look at grades as reward and punishment for following orders, meeting deadlines, and guessing what is in the teacher’s head. As Susan Brookhart states in Grading and Learning: Practices that Support Student Achievement (2011), “As students progress through school, their dissatisfaction with and cynicism about grades increase and their belief in the fairness of grades declines (Evans & Engelberg, 1988).” Not only is this an unfortunate situation for student motivation and enjoyment of school, it can be detrimental to learning; “Grading policies that are intended to elicit student compliance are not conducive to the active pursuit of learning.” (Brookhart, 2011) Isn’t student learning the primary goal of education?

The Challenge
My challenge at the high school level is to break through these years of conditioning with a different approach to grading. I have found that this is a monumental challenge. Not only does a lone teacher diving into this battle on his own battle the inertia of years of conditioning, he also must swim against the current created by his colleagues who teach the other classes that each student is currently experiencing.

What I’ve Already Implemented
My answer to this challenge has been to strive to make grades as meaningful and as connected to student learning as possible. However, I have also endeavored to devalue grades in my classroom. I don’t give “points” for any task, activity, or assignment. Period. My gradebook is completely focused upon each project that my students engage in and the critical science standards aligned with that project. At the culmination of each project, I ask my students to self assess the quality of their project work and the level of standard attainment. This self assessment process includes a reflection on the project, a rubric, and a conference between myself and the student. At this conference, the student tells me what grade they feel they have earned and why. This process is repeated at the end of each semester with a semester portfolio and reflection, followed by a conference. This reflects the principle that, “grades for individual assignments should reflect the achievement demonstrated in the work. Grades for report cards should reflect the achievement demonstrated in the body of work for that report period.” (Brookhart, 2011)

Next Steps
My next step – and this may be the most challenging step – is to involve students more effectively in the identification of learning goals for each project and in determining methods for reaching those goals. I have done this at times with mixed results. That being said, I don’t know that I’ve ever done it effectively and intentionally enough. My plan is to hold discussions with my classes early in our upcoming projects about the ultimate end goal of the project and the required learning for said project. I will share the state standards with them and ask them to help me identify the ones that they most want to tackle within the project. We will discuss ways to meet those standards; both along the way and in the final product. I will spread this process out over several days in small doses in order to prevent student burnout with reading state standards. The next step will then be to discuss specific activities, lessons, etc. that they would like me to deliver in order to help them meet these goals that we have agreed upon. Finally, we will co-create a rubric for the final project that will help them to see the criteria upon which they will assess the quality of their learning and the final product of our project.

I believe that this process will also allow students to more effectively track their own learning throughout a project. This is an area that my students really struggle with. And yet, “long-term projects lend themselves to monitoring and feedback along the way before the final project is finished and graded.” (Brookhart, 2011). While I have made feedback and revision an important part of my classes, I have not yet settled on an effective process for students to track their own progress. Regular blog reflections and revisiting the project rubric have helped. That being said, I often feel that students don’t understand the goals upon which they are reflecting and self-assessing. Furthermore, I feel that many don’t see the value of or reasoning behind these goals. I am convinced that this will cease to be a problem if I bring them into the goal identification process from the beginning.

At the culmination of the project, students will go through the same portfolio, reflection, self-assessment and conference process that they have been experiencing thus far. However, I believe that this process will be much more meaningful for them when they have a deeper understanding of the learning goals within the project. I plan to pilot this process in my physics

4 thoughts on “Meaningful Grading

  1. Hello,
    My name is Savannah Rhodes, and I’m a music education major at the University of South Alabama. Too often teachers give so much credit for things that should be EXPECTED, like giving points everyday just for showing up to class. Students rack up so many points from homework and class assignments that they can get by even if they do horrible on their tests, the things that actually test their knowledge of the subject. My EDM310 teacher uses a similar grading method as you. We evaluate ourselves during the middle and end of the semester, and come up with a grade that we can agree on. It’s nice to see that another teacher isn’t putting so much emphasis on the things that don’t matter, but grading students based on what they have actually learned. It’s also great that you include your students in setting goals for what they want to accomplish in the class. The more students get involved in what is going on in the classroom, the more likely they are to stay involved, work harder, and in return, learn more. Great post!
    – Savannah

  2. Savannah,

    Thanks for the compliments! This is a philosophy that has been years in the making and I continue to hone it. I really wish I had time to visit with my students in class every day and gather evidence of their learning while also giving them support and feedback. Often the recording of evidence is what I neglect, unfortunately.

    Regardless, though, I find that a teacher who spends a lot of time talking to and observing his or her students has a very accurate understanding of their learning. I used to spend hours grading work to have “proof” for my grades. In the end, the teacher’s gut instinct is nearly always correct – provided they spend the time with the students while they are in the process of learning!

    Why does this method of assessment work for you? Do you think this applies to all students as well as it does for college students?

  3. I want to applaud you on getting students to own their learning by setting learning goals through negotiation w you. For that is what it will look like for learning when they leave school.

    I am curious though how you go about setting group goals with your students. Could you share that?

  4. Hi Mr. Rice! I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama majoring in Secondary Ed and Mathematics. Your grading strategy is very similar to that of my EDM310 class. Dr. Strange does not give us grades for every project, activity, or blog post we do, but rather lets us self evaluate ourselves, and then we come to an agreement on the grade we deserve. We do this twice, once around mid-term and then last at the end of the semester. I like this idea because I think it gives students a sense of freedom, where they are making more decisions on their own, and taking the class more seriously. Having more freedom gives students a sense of self-determination to where they want to succeed and do well. Thanks for sharing this post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>