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The purpose of a grade is to communicate how well a student is learning to the student and their family. That’s a lot to expect from a single letter, number or symbol. With research finding grades diminish students’ interest in learning, reduce students’ quality of thinking and encourage students to take a path of least resistance to lessen the chance of doing poorly, some schools are considering alternative grading options to supplement their current grading process.

What is alternative grading? Alternative grading takes the focus off “the grade” and puts it on what’s important—knowledge and understanding. The goal: Give the kind of feedback that creates a lifelong drive to learn. Dylan Williams, dubbed an “Assessment Guru,” suggests “Grades cause an emotional reaction—either positive or negative. Feedback causes you to think and engage, which is reflective learning.” Unlike more detailed feedback, a simple letter grade leaves learners unknowing of whether or not they’ve done well and what they can improve upon. As renowned psychologist Jerome Bruner says, “Students should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information.”

Alternative grading methods Adopting alternative methods of grading requires dedication from educators and the willingness to change how they plan, instruct and assess. While your school may not want to do away with grades altogether, you may want to consider supplementing your existing approach:

  • Rubrics:  A rubric defines the needed criteria for a particular project or assignment to be successful. For example, a rubric for a writing assignment might communicate to students that their piece will be read with purpose, organization, details, voice and grammar in mind. To truly get your students invested in learning, involve them in creating their own rubrics for assignments. Offering them this input into the process helps them to fully understand and apply the learning goals to their assignments.
  • Gamify: Utilize an assessment process where students aim to master a skill (much like in a game) instead of committing facts to memory. Whereas memorized facts are often forgotten, skills mastery encourages students to think and learn, making it more likely they’ll be able to apply the skills in the future. Tokens awarded for reaching certain milestones can be used towards school logo’d merchandise such as hoodies, backpacks or iPad® sleeves.
  • Grade-to-replace:  This process utilizes a grade to jumpstart the process to improved work. In the grade-to-replace method, an initial grade is given with comments on what was done well and what can be improved upon. Then the student is given the opportunity to rework the project, ultimately replacing the original with better work. This approach takes the focus off the grade and puts it on how to improve. Provide students with a binder or USB drive to store work so past feedback is easily accessible for future assignments.

Traditional assessment is well-known and easy-to-understand. If your school adopts some form of alternative grading, it will be important to communicate this change to not only students, but parents and others who support your school. Send a letter explaining the change and its potential for a positive impact on learning. Invite parents to become involved in the process so they, too, know what is expected for their student to succeed. Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” By shifting the focus from making the grade to lifelong learning, students remain challenged, engaged and hungry for more.

Heick, Terry. “12 Alternatives To Letter Grades In Education.” TeachThought. N.p., 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.

Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against Grades.” The Case Against Grades. N.p., Nov. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.

Bower, Joe. “For the Love of Learning.” Real Assessment for Learning. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.

“5 Alternatives to Traditional Grading Methods | Edchat Recap.” Educational Technology Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.

“What Is a Rubric? – UEN.” What Is a Rubric? – UEN. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

“Top Hat Monocle Blog.” Top Hat Monocle Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

Gonzalez, Alfonso. “Do Grades Help or Hinder Learning?” Mr Gonzalezs Classroom RSS. N.p., 6 Mar. 2010. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.

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