Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Grading Effort: Unintended Consequences

There are so many issues with grading. A teacher's entire slate of professional developlment could be spent discussing and investigating how to properly tinker with their grading practices. Inevitably, teachers end up talking at some point about effort, and whether we should be grading effort, and if so, how do we grade effort (notice the question is never should we be grading at all).

I have some serious issues with grading at all, but if you do feel the need to grade, it is important to remember the unintended consequences of grading a student's effort.

Think about these situations:

Johnny works his tail off on a social studies project, but in the end, his project really wasn't that good. Despite the lack of a final product, Johnny actually ended up learning a lot from his mistakes, but not soon enough, as the due date demanded he turn his project in. The teacher ends up failing Johnny on the content portions of the scoring rubric, but recognizes Johnny's effort and gives him a very high grade for his effort.

The teacher does this because we think it will bode well for the future. We want Johnny to keep working hard because we believe that his perseverance will pay off. However, what if that isn't the message he receives? He might say:

Even when I try really hard, I'm still dumb.
This situation may be more serious than you first comprehend. I've written about Bernard Weiner's research before on how important it is that children value their effort as an important factor in their intelligence. A child who is graded highly for their effort but poorly on their intelligence and skills may ultimately come to see external factors as being more influential on their learning. We don't want this.

Carol lollygags her way through another math assignment, placing little to no effort in her learning. Despite her lack of effort, Carol follows the instructions and produces what the teacher wants. The teacher marks Carol very well on her content and (wrongly) assumes she must have placed a ton of effort into doing so well on this project.

My fear here is that Carol knows far better than her teacher how little effort she truly put into her learning, and that Carol recieves a message that sounds something like this:

I can do really well even when I don't try.

Grading effort is a precarious endeavor that teachers need to think long and hard about before passing judgement on something so intangible. We would be wise to remember that we may have more to lose than we have to gain when it comes to grading effort.


  1. It is for that very reason -- that for some students, "what the teacher wants" comes very easily, and for others, it is a much harder endeavor, that I think we should be grading or somehow discussing effort. (Let me say, I agree with your overall discomfort with grades in general.) Otherwise, Johnny and Carol -- who both know full well how much effort they put into the project whether we grade them on it or not -- will still be thinking the same thing, but we are not addressing it.

    Rather, we should be making it explicit that, yes, this work will be harder for some students than others, but we expect everyone to work hard, and so instead of giving Carol a pass because she met the teacher's "standards", we need to point out that this project was easy for her, but maybe she should have taken it in a different, more challenging direction. Which of course implies that I, as a teacher, have a better handle on my students' abilities, struggles, and strengths than perhaps I am capapble of at this point in time...

    By the way, I find it eerily interesting that you chose "Carol" as your "get it done right with little effort" student, as I did not really have to work hard in school until I hit Organic Chemistry -- what an eye-opener that was! It truly changed my perspective as a learner and a teacher, because I wished that someone had helped me understand that effort was more important than grades when I was a malleable child, rather than a college student.

  2. Grading the wrong thing. If you want to grade them on what they learned, test them before and after, but you still have to compare what they know, not how much better they got.

    Example: I have an johnny, an awful employee and carol, a great employee, then johnny gets a little better, carol stays the same. Now I have to fire one, so I obviously fire johnny, and if you teach them the "effort" way, it's like a slap in the face for johnny, he's never know this type of treatment, not used to it, not results based, etc....

    I know you're going to say something like "we're not talking about workplaces", but isn't that what we're preparing our children for?

    Good jobs require production of results and real life has deadlines. Teach my children that, give them an F or two, it won't happen a third.

  3. If Johnny is not a smart child, and Carol is...

    Johnny's crappy project get an A because he's not that smart?

    Carol get's an A because it's a good project?

    Carol looks at Johnny's crappy project with an A, and says "Hey what the?"

    Next time she doesn't put that much effort in because why? Crappy gets an A if your "just not that smart"

    If I was Carol....I would be PISSED

  4. @Anonymous: I responded to your comment in a new blog post here: http://www.joebower.org/2010/10/grading-inequalities.html

  5. These are two different students, why grade them as if they were the same? My classroom is not a work place, they are not competing against each other, they are competing against themselves and if Johnny has shown improvement in skills from previous assignments why not reward him for his growth? If Carol has digressed and not moved beyond where she was why reward her with a good grade?

  6. I once shared the story behind this post to a senior educational leader and they simply shrugged it off. There was no discussion.

    The ugly truths behind grading maybe inconvenient, but that doesn't make them less real.

  7. Nice post Joe. Let me add a question that complicates things further. Should homework completion contribute to a student's work habits?
    As teachers, we often assign work in class and ask students to continue finishing it as homework. Some students complete the work, others don't and we weave this into our assessment of a student's work habits. Sadly, we sometimes fail to ask 'why' a student failed to complete their assignment. Were they lazy? Did they honestly forget? Or, did they not understand how to complete the work? If we fail to ask 'why', we run the risk of reporting that the student has poor work habits when in actuality he/she may have made an honest attempt at completing the assignment but simply not understood the material. How often do we see a student fail to complete homework, get assigned a '0' to reflect his achievement and also receive a 'N' as a work habit? Quite often, I'd bet. Talk about hitting students with a double dose of negativity and turning them off of school. So, I guess this brings me to the real point..students' learning should happen at school under the guidance of the teacher where their achievement and work habits can be assessed separately.


  8. This only works as well as the teacher can view effort. I've seen teachers give students low scores on writing prompts because of perceived intelligence, and the assumption that a student that has an aptitude at a subject (for example, science,) has an automatic aptitude at everything, especially writing.
    On the other hand is the concern of a student who is much smarter than he lets on and acts like he tries hard in class, holds on to everything they say, and game the system to always get an A. This situation of a teacher being ignorant to a student taking advantage of them has disheartened many students who are receiving low scores in the same class, yet trying twice as hard. Teachers need to make one clear way for the students to expend their effort, and have that get them the grade. Instead of the grade coming from something that doesn't have to do with learning, the grade should come from how much effort and progress they have made in their learning.


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