Saturday, November 26, 2011

Grading & Commenting

There is plenty of evidence and research to make up the case against grading. But you have to look for it and want to see it for it to mean anything.

When I write and speak about abolishing grading, I draw on a balance of anecdotal evidence and scientific research. One of the studies I often use is summarized nicely in Alfie Kohn's article Education's Rotten Apples:
In a study that appeared in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, Ruth Butler took 5th and 6th graders, including both high- and low-achieving students, and asked them to work on some word-construction and creative-thinking tasks. One-third of them then received feedback in narrative form, one-third received grades for their performance, and one-third received both comments and grades. 
The first finding: Irrespective of how well they had been doing in school, students were subsequently less successful at the tasks, and also reported less interest in those tasks, if they received a grade rather than narrative feedback. Other research has produced the same result: Grades almost always have a detrimental effect on how well students learn and how interested they are in the topic they're learning. 
But because Ms. Butler had thought to include a third experimental condition—grades plus comments—she was able to document that the negative effects of grading, on both performance and interest, were not mitigated by the addition of a comment. In fact, with the task that required more original thinking, the students' performance was highest with comments, lower with grades, and lowest of all with both. These differences were all statistically significant, and they applied to high- and low-achieving students alike. 


  1. That is an interesting research conclusion. I would have thought the communts would have helped. I am aware that a grade at the top of a student paper almost always trumps the detailed comments I add. Often, the comments are not read.

  2. When you have grades you build failure into the system. Why would you do that? There is no reason anyone should fail in school. Just let the kids know that they aren't finished learning something yet. Most kids adapt to grading culture and do only what is necessary to get the grade. At the top end of the food chain, why would you learn more if you already have an A? Grades are extrinsic motivators and as such don't' work. Read my summary of Daniel Pink's "Drive" for details at Keep up the good work.

  3. I come from a business background and I have been training in the corporate world for the last 20 years and I am very much interested in learning and development in general which includes formal education. I can definitely see the benefits of no grades especially in how that can affect students morals and therefore their motivations. From another perspective, as a business trainer but also as a learner my self both now and in the past, I have a couple of questions and a couple of comments/observations

    1) Are you demonizing the use of scores/grades as a principal, for all ages and levels of education or the current scoring system and for certain ages?
    2) Without any scoring/grading system how do the teachers and the students see the progress and be able to the areas where they have natural talent and areas where they need do more or do something differently?

    I will try to be as brief as I can. :-)

    For years I was responsible for training groups of young adults who came to work in the banking sector right after they finished high school and this is just a snap shot of what I experienced in relation to scoring/grading:

    1) The scoring system at school negatively affected the way they understood and used the Performance evaluation system of the organization.
    2) Some managers intentionally or otherwise misused (there are different ways of misusing but for now let's say just used numbers that affected the staff financially) the performance evaluations system which resulted in the majority of staff members seeing it as the stick and saw it as unfair, biased etc.. The system used a scale from 1 to 5 with 1 being the highest and 5 the lowest or the other way around depending ont he organization (there are other systems that used 1 to 7).
    3) After attending workshops to learn how the system was really designed, the purpose and intention behind it, how it can be used for the benefit of the staff as well as the organization etc. how it fits with a bigger performance management system etc., the staff felt more in control, even those young adults were able to accurately evaluate their performance during the training and on the job. In some cases staff under evaluated themselves and when asked I discovered that their expectations of themselves were higher than what their managers expected.

    The system was never perfect but the success usually depended mainly on two things:

    1) All those involved understood the system and how to use it and what it means to them. This included not only understanding that there are scores but also what the scores meant in terms of expectations, behaviors, skills, knowledge etc.
    2) The quality of the human interaction and communication that took place at the time of the review of the performance. There are several factors that influenced the interaction and one of the biggest was the intention and whether it was positive and if it was perceived as such.

    I think the problem is not the scores but more what the scores and the intention behind them are and in many cases what kind of human interaction and agreement goes around them. For the managers and their teams it was a lot of hard work to use the system effectively at the beginning but for those who continued it made a lot of positive difference.

    On a personal note as a student/learner and later as an employee and a manager I felt and saw the difference that a teacher or a manager can make in understanding and even if disappointed with a score not getting demotivated by it but realizing where help is needed or something different to be done.

    I hope this makes sense to whoever reads it :-)I am fairly new to blogging and to online discussions.

  4. Lovely post. This is a significant finding commenting vs grading. Thanks a lot.

  5. Thank you for your comments. You raise just the right issues and provide some useful context for the "grading" conversation raging through the blog and twitterverse.

    The central point that resonated with me was "what kind of human interaction and agreement goes around them."

    The fact that I see is there is no agreement about precisely what a particular "grade" is meant to signify. The easier conversation is to eliminate them completely.

    The much more fruitful conversation in my mind is to face squarely the necessity of building a precise community conversation - between teachers, parents and children -- to reach Explicit understandings of what Grades do and do not mean.

    There are a number of initiatives in the States on precisely that issue. My feeling is that as the smoke clears, that will be the topic at hand.


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