• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


When Students Say Grades "Matter," Give Them a Choice

Giving students options creates productive "discomfort."

April 14, 2016



This is the time of the year when grades “matter.”

Sure, in theory, they matter all the time, but this is the time of year when I see an uptick in students expressing how they need to get a good grade, that a good grade is very important, that they’ll just die if they don’t get a good grade.

When I ask why a good grade is important, the answers vary. Some students cite future goals of graduate school (particularly medical school), or specific professions where a high GPA is a requirement for entry. Others need to hit thresholds for scholarships, or to remain enrolled if they are on academic probation. Some don’t have a particular need in mind, but know they want the good grades anyway because good grades are good.

I’m interested in these needs and how they translate to student attitudes, behaviors, and learning. There is an extra wrinkle to this discussion because I use a grading contract in my course. In the contract, everything matters and I provide all the tools necessary for students to track their own progress should they so desire.

My students have never received a percentage or letter grade from me on any assignment, so no doubt they are unmoored from the markers of scholastic achievement they’re used to, but it’s interesting how few of my students – intelligent, engaging, often ambitious – have bothered to keep track using the contract.

Class ends next Tuesday. This is why everything suddenly matters, even though, at this point, there’s very little that can be done, one way or another to move up or down the grade ladder. Perhaps a 1/3 of a letter grade (B to B+) can be gained or lost depending on the final push, but the vast majority of students are relatively fixed.

Over time, I’ve come to believe that one of the most important things we can do in our courses is to provide opportunities for students to make choices that force them to confront not just their surface level attitudes – “good grades are good” – but to engage their deep, entirely personal values.

We all know that good grades are better than bad grades, but why? How much better? Better for whom?

The grading contract has proved to be a tool for making them confront their choices.

Using a traditional grading system meant students spent time trying to figure out what mattered to me, their instructor. If I allowed say, six absences before a grade penalty, I was signaling that coming to class matters, except for the six times you’re given permission, by me, to not come to class. Seems like a mixed message.

With the contract, there is no teacher to absolve them of their choice to start spring break early, or sleep in that one time, or skip class to study for that big biology test later in the day. They must confront their own desires, rather than look to me to either validate or punish their choices.

This desire to meet my priorities extended to the assignments themselves. What does the teacher want? seemed to be the dominant mindset students brought to their writing. But the contract privileges process, not product. Now, the question is: How much work do I want to do? Some students find this unsettling. They would much prefer that I set their priorities for them.

But other students are starting to discover is that if they are interested in the topics they’re exploring, rather than striving for a particular grade from a teacher that externally validates their effort, they are indeed willing to put in more and better work to follow those curiosities.

Even those students who are going through the motions must confront the reality that they are indeed going through the motions, that their so-so performance is rooted in their own effort, rather than the authority and judgment of the instructor.

A quirk in this semester’s schedule has birthed an unexpected opportunity at this time of grade-related anxiety for students to make a choice that will ask them to confront how much a good grade matters, and why.

Thursday, April 14 is going to be an “optional” class. Students are working on their final researched arguments. An initial draft was due this past Tuesday (Apr. 12), with the final version due our last day of class, Tuesday, Apr. 19.

Normally, a Tue/Thur class ends its semester on a Thursday, and I’ll have one draft due the second to last Tuesday, another one that last Tuesday, and then the final (which should only require polishing) on Thursday.  My experience says that asking for a full revision that involves additional research and argument restructuring in the Tue/Thur gap results in a pro-forma effort meant to comply with the teacher’s demand, rather than being the product of genuine curiosity and engagement, so I don’t do it.

Instead, students can come into class, where I will provide space, time, and access to me and their colleagues so if they desire, they can get feedback and work to improve their essays. We have already had some official “work day” periods where I have seen and they have experienced the power of in-the-moment collaboration and feedback to improve their work.[1]

We will see who comes, and why. I am already designing a reflection assignment that will ask them to assess why they’ve chosen to either come and work or to do something else.

I can tell students are suspicious, that they think it’s some sort of trick, that I’ll judge their essays more harshly if they choose not to attend.

They’re so used to deferring what matters to the authority that being given this freedom seems like a trap.

And maybe it is, in the sense that it forces a confrontation with the self, a put up or shut up moment about what matters. Switching to the grading contract has forced me into many moments just like this.

Maybe no one will show and I’ll spend my entire day alone.

If that’s the case, I at least hope this unplanned and unexpected lesson creates the right kind of discomfort in my students, where they must sit and wonder if they’re making the right choice, knowing that the only person who gets to decide this is themselves.

[1] Quick example, and maybe my favorite moment of the semester. One student was plotting a graph on Excel showing the year-to-year increase in distance of the leader for the longest average drive on the PGA tour. He knew he needed to add a trend line but didn’t know how to do it. Another student came across the room and showed him. That started another conversation about whether or not charting the longest driving average by the leader year-to-year was a good way to represent what he was trying to prove, namely that club technology is making some courses play “short.” A discussion among several students ensued and it was decided that it was probably preferable to instead take the average drive distance across all profressionals and plot that year-to-year. I didn’t say a word the whole time and yet much learning happened right in front of my eyes.


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