What happens to student engagement when you take away grades?

I wrote this during my last year as a classroom teacher. Now, as a college professor, I continue to see this trend of grading leading to risk aversion.

What happens to student engagement when you take away grades?

The short answer is “nothing.”

You can go ahead and quit reading the post now. I know. Shortest. Post. Ever.

My third block class is my intervention period. I have students for three to four weeks at a time and design projects that are meant to provide enrichment or support with particular standards. We have no grades in that class. We have no district assessments.

Conventional wisdom suggests that student motivation would stop in that class. After all, with no grades or points or badges, what is there to make students get their work done? The short answer is, “nothing.” The class has nothing in place to make a student finish the work. I know of a few intervention teachers who tell students, “I’m still grading this” or “This is pass / fail and I can fail you.” But I don’t have anything like that in my class. Kids know that we don’t have any grades and they still work.

On the other hand, they aren’t necessarily working harder or staying more engaged than students in my graded classes. I still have some kids who tune out. I have kids who are slow to get to work. I have kids who don’t care in the moment. This sort-of surprised me because of what I have read from the anti-grade folks. Take away the behaviorism and make it meaningful and kids will naturally want to learn. Engagement will be a non-issue, right?

Not really. See, the things that cause students to disengage exist in both classes. There are kids who get bored. There are kids who are hungry. There are kids who get distracted — if not by something in the class than by something in their world. There are kids who find a specific task too monotonous even when it’s part of a cool project. There are kids who get frustrated and want to give up.

I guess this shouldn’t surprise me. I battle all the same issues in my own learning. My mind wanders when reading a book. I get frustrated when writing a novel. I hop onto Facebook when there’s a line of code that I can’t crack. These things are present in project-based classrooms, whether grades are present or not.

The Real Difference

While engagement remains the same in the two classes, there is a distinct difference. The students in the non-graded class are far more creative. Part of it may be the relaxed vibe of the classroom. A grade-free room tends to feel a little less like school. But I have a hunch that there’s another reason.

Kids aren’t concerned about compliance in a non-graded classroom. Don’t get me wrong. There are deadlines. There are creative limitations. There are routines. I believe that limitations can be a part of what makes creativity thrive. However, when grades are gone, students are less likely to worry if they are doing things the “right” way.

I’m not hearing questions like, “How much do I need to get an Exceeds?” or “How much do I need to do to be done?” I’m also not having students call me over and say, “I’m I doing things the right way.” In other words, students are far less risk-averse when grades are a non-issue.

There’s a freedom to make mistakes so long as they are making something. This, in turn, leads to positive risk-taking and helps create a growth mindset. Without the fear of getting a B instead of an A, students are trying new things. They’re doing things differently.

So, while engagement is fairly high in both classes, creativity is thriving in the class without grades.

creativity and assessment If you enjoyed this post and your curious about this topic, feel free to consider the following:

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

2 responses

  1. I tried the same thing with my 10th and 11th graders. The only thing that changed was the grade mongering that high school experiences. The kids attribute it to stress from parents and being told that grades determine the rest of their lives. They're not told that, but it's how the kids process what they are told about the importance of education.

  2. I have been teaching middle school for the last 20 years and have found that very few students are truly motivated by grades. While I cannot completely take grades off of the table, I have been trying to get my students to appreciate "the journey" more than a one-time destination such as a quiz, test, or project. I want them to enjoy learning for the sake of learning. To understand that true power and independence comes from knowledge gained by experience and we obtain that experience through practice. We as educators need to shift the grading paradigm and focus on the experiences. Only when students feel secure, will they be ready to trade that one "right" answer for an unknown commodity such as creativity.


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