Monday, August 22, 2011

Grading Practices That Inhibit Learning

For the past 4 years I have been giving teachers at our school a copy of the following resource to start the year.  What I find interesting is the date the original resource was published (1989). As we all head back to school soon I thought I would share it on my blog.  

Maybe we can add more to the list?  

1. Inconsistent grading scale: The same performance results in different grades, in different schools or classes. Differing expectations can penalize students. 

2. Worshiping averages: Insisting on using all of the marks to calculate an average,even when “the average” is not consistent with what the teacher knows about the student’s learning.

3. Using zeros indiscriminately: Giving zeros for incomplete work has a devastating effect on
averages and often they are not even related to learning or achievement but to non-academic factors like behavior, respect, punctuality, etc.

4. Following the pattern
of assign, test, grade and teach: When teaching occurs after a grade has been assigned, it’s  and too late for the student. They need lots of teaching and practice that isn’t graded although it should be assessed and used to enhance learning before testing takes place.

5. Not teaching to the test: Too many teachers rely on trick questions, new formats and unfamiliar material. If students are expected to perform skills and produce information, for a grade, these should be part of instruction.

6. Ambushing students: Pop quizzes are more likely to teach students how to cheat on
a test than they are to result in learning. Such tests are often a control vehicle designed to get even, not as an aid to understand.

7. Suggesting that success is unlikely: Students are not likely to strive for targets that they already know are unattainable to them.

8. Practicing “gotcha” teaching: A nearly foolproof way to inhibit student learning is to keep the outcomes and expectations of assignments secret. Grades become ways of finding out how well students have read their their teacher’s mind.

9. Grading first efforts: Learning is not a “one-shot” deal. When the products of learning are complex and sophisticated, students need lots of teaching and practice and feedback before the product is evaluated.

10. Penalizing students For taking risks: Taking risks is often not rewarded in school. Students need  encouragement and support while they try new or more demanding work, not low marks.

11. Failing to recognize Measurement error: Very often grades are reported as objective statistics without  attention to such things as weighting factors or reliability of the scores. In most cases, a composite score may be only a rough estimate of student learning and sometimes it can be very inaccurate. 

12. Establishing inconsistent 
grading criteria: Criteria for grading in schools and classes often changes from  day to day, grading period to grading period and class to class. This lack of consensus makes it difficult for students to understand the standards. 

13. Weighting long questions for more: teachers tend to assign weighting to problem solving questions 
based on the number of steps or items in the solution. Using a problem solving rubric evaluates the students thinking skills, not the length of the solution. 

14. Moving target: Too often assignments are given to students without a clear explanation of what is expected. Set the criteria and standards for assignments before students are given task and discuss them with the class.

15. Inconsistent standards: Some teachers are philosophically opposed to giving a student a
high grade. If the student has achieved the curriculum standards Then that learning needs to be recognized.

Adapted from Canady and Hotchkiss, 1989


  1. I see this list as some of the definitive reasons why we need to stop grading in the first place. All grading practices at best are unhelpful for learning and at worst (like this list of 15) are ultimately harmful.

    Grading is a practice not to be perfected or honed -- rather it's something we for the most part don't "need" to be doing at all.


  2. Most grading problems you list can be prevented or at least mitigated by preparing the summative assessment while preparing annual objectives. You can see an example of what I mean by this here.

    You will notice that my summative assessment is not an end-of-course test. It can be met any time during the year. I plan to get 80% of students to the standard early in the second half of the year. That timing permits weaker students more time to make the grade while allowing the stronger ones opportunity to build real proficiency.

  3. Grades are a form of extrinsic motivation and as such have been shown in many studies to have a negative impact on learning. Why care about what you learned as long as you get the grade. Daniel Pink's book "Drive" is a good place to start for a better understanding. Here is a link to my summary. I think the merit badge system is much better. Once you demonstrate mastery, you get the badge. You can't fail, you just haven't finished yet. Great post.

  4. I am wondering how many of these practices show up in some form in the way we evaluate teachers? Inconsistent application of standards? Failure to recognize measurement error? Lack of sufficient data? How we treat teachers is linked to how they treat their students. John D'Auria (

  5. I couldn't help but think about how modeling the practices we want to see in others is such a guiding force in all levels of schooling ....and it works. Modeling how we want to be treated in schools can set a very high bar for every member of the school community. Think about how this sets the tone for school culture - an indicator that research shows influences student success.