Words Matter: I Don’t “Give” Grades

May 1, 2017

My daughter loves cooking shows so we watch a lot of Food Network TV at our house. Most of these shows are competitions, and when the shows get to the elimination point I often feel myself becoming agitated. I couldn’t figure out why until one of our recent daylong staff meetings to assess student progress.

In my class, I don’t “give” grades – my students demonstrate their mastery of skills and I report a “grade” that reflects that. Our program assesses students on soft skills and academic skills and we discuss these expectations daily in class. My students practice skills multiple times before assessments and have several opportunities to show their understanding throughout the semester.  We talk a lot about growth mindset in my class and in our program because success in postsecondary programs is different than success in high school, and our early middle college students can earn up to 60 college credits while they are in high school.

Our staff expects students to embody growth mindset in all of their activities, even while we struggle with it in one particular task – discussing student grades at our meetings to assess student progress. The common phrasing in our society is that a student “got a C” or “that teacher gave me a C.” While one could argue the former statement is correct, the meaning behind both statements is clear – teachers give grades and it is the teacher’s fault if grades are not what a student expected. This brings up the issue of the meaning of grades and people’s differing understandings of that. However, I want to focus on word choice.

As we made our way through our student list, teachers used the wording of “I gave him a B” or “She got a B-,” neither of which reflect our program’s intense work in coaching our students to be independent learners. All of our teachers are highly trained professionals – experts in our fields and in college and career readiness – who clearly define expectations for students. Yet many of them were surprised when I suggested the wording “she earned an A” or “he earned a C-?” We have so much going on every day that we often take our words for granted or assume others know what we mean.

Coaching students so they learn how to solve equations or translate words into equations allows me to then provide them a chance to show and celebrate their learning. When I consciously began discussing grades in class as a way to demonstrate mastery and receive feedback, I saw a visible shift in students’ actions and words. “Giving grades” creates a punitive environment in which students become more concerned with being compliant in order to earn points and not disturb the teacher. When grades are used to represent students’ understanding of concepts, students become responsible for their learning. There are other factors that affect students’ comfort in experimenting with learning, and teachers’ word choice and attitude is certainly one of them.

To get back to the cooking competitions – on Chopped, the judges often explain the shortcomings of a competitor’s dish and follow up with “and that is why we had to chop you.” The judges didn’t have to eliminate that person, and it wasn’t an arbitrary decision or based on personality or wardrobe choice (things students often blame teachers for using to determine grades). The cook being eliminated prepared a dish that didn’t meet the competition requirements as well as the other dishes, and only the best work earns the right to stay (or earns a passing grade). Now, teachers are not eliminating people from competitions, but we are comparing work to standards to determine the “grade” that best describes that work. We want students to embody growth mindset but we are hindering their growth with our words. Students work hard for their knowledge – it is important to celebrate that by recognizing that students earned their grades.

Gina Wilson, NBCT

Gina Wilson is a Lead Teacher and CORE Advisor at the Early College Alliance @ Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in Mathematics and a director for the MI National Board Certified Teachers Network. She is also a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow through America Achieves, a Collaborative for Student Success Teacher Champion, and a TeachStrong Ambassador. Prior to her teaching career, she worked as an environmental engineer and earned a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan. Follow her at @GinaWilsonNBCT.