How numbers and letters punish students

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During our nine-week grading periods, I never put a  number, percentage or letter grade on any activity or project that my students complete. I supply detailed narrative feedback, asking students to return to activities and demonstrate mastery, if necessary.

When our quarters end, my school requires a letter grade for a report card. Instead of arbitrarily supplying a grade, I invite my students to participate in this evaluation process and tell me what their grade should be. Most students are remarkably accurate with this process. Some, however, are so stuck in the world of numbers and letters, that they can’t comprehend how to come up with a grade, without the aid of points and percentages.
A powerful lesson
In an attempt to demonstrate the problem with grades, I tried a new approach, and we revisited the the points world at the end of the third marking period. I gave my students a list of all activities and projects and arbitrarily applied a point value (years ago, I never understood how strange this practice is). I then asked my students to put a point value on their production for each activity.
As the process ensued, there were plenty of sighs and groans around the room. Some students looked for ways to circumvent the system, because the math didn’t provide any wiggle room. Fifty percent on a major project, crushed their overall grade. It didn’t matter that they may have gone above and beyond in other areas. Many hated the process and literally begged to be “let off the hook.”
Of course, in the end, seeing how clearly the numbers and letters punish students, we left the points world, returning to the comforts of the Results Only Learning Environment, where punishment is abandoned in favor of real  learning.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series -- books and other series that provide right-now solutions for teachers and learners. Mark is the author or publisher of dozens of books, including Bestseller Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Join more than 150,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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