For some time now I have been toying with the idea that grading student work might just be one of the biggest barriers to improving student performance. Sound strange? Let me explain……..
My theory is that as people (young or old) we have been programmed by society to look for a grade, result or classification on anything important we do in life. This grading system then informs us of our level of success. What we aren’t good at processing though is what we need to do to improve. Take for example your driving test – When you heard the words ‘passed’, did you pay any attention to your ‘minor faults’ or what you weren’t that good at? Or did you just want to grab the keys and get going? My point is that students rely too heavily on their grades and view these with far more importance than their improvement comments.
Historically it’s a problem that we have created for ourselves. Everything is graded, everyone has targets and as society and an education profession we all jump to the beat of a numerical measure or a league table. But is this really helping our young people? If we recognise that the grades are getting in the way of the students really understanding and taking notice of their improvement comments, then surely we need to do something about that. Think about the last time you gave back a homework task or a piece of coursework that you had painstakingly marked with detailed comments and a grade – what was the atmosphere like? Were the class all silent, conscientiously reading their individual improvement comments? Or were they discussing what grade they got with the person next to them or even across the other side of the classroom? Imagine if all that time and effort you are putting in to writing individually detailed improvement comments is a total waste of time because the students are just concentrating on the grade! Now switch your focus to the mind of a student. Imagine you have a potential of a C grade in a certain subject and you receive a piece of work back graded at a C, “job done” is what I imagine most of you are thinking. But what about all of the things that could have made it so much better? Our mindset rarely gives this the importance that it deserves because we have subconsciously accepted that we have met our target.
With this in mind I set about doing some of my own research and came across ‘The Classroom Experiment‘ by Dylan Wiliam. In episode 2 of his two part experiment, he looked at removing grades from student work in a high school to see what effect this may have. His results were extremely interesting and very much in line with my own thinking – the students were far too hung up on their grades and did not see the true value of their improvement comments. The students really did not like it and it caused quite a stir because they felt that their work was not being marked properly, leading to them not learning anything from it. In essence, all they cared about was their grade, nothing else.
I therefore decided that as part of my NPQH professional learning, that this was a topic that I wanted to research further by conducting my own study in my own school. We see so many reports on research projects, but I think that it’s always good to conduct a small study in your own school to get a feel for the theory in your own context. We all know that just because it might work in an inner city London school, doesn’t necessarily mean it will have the same outcome in your school. After discussing this with a fellow trainee head teacher on my NPQH course (a primary colleague), we decided to run the same research in our schools so that we could compare and contrast the potential differences between primary and secondary.
With the idea buzzing around my head, I needed some help with the research. Stacey Reay from the English Department at Woodham Academy agreed to work with me on it and use her top set year 8 class as the guinea pigs. The idea was to observe the class being handed back two different types of marked work – one with a grade and one without. Due to the nature of the subject, the class receive feedback regularly, so it would be an easy piece of research to carry out over a short period of time. At the outset, Stacey spoke to her class to let them know that their next piece of work wouldn’t include a grade and the reason for that. Just like in the research conducted by Dylan Wiliam, this cause quite a stir – and as Stacey noted, especially from the boys. On the face of it, boys seemed to be the ones who craved a formal grade and were less interested in their improvement comments – an interesting theory considering the data from that class tells us that the girls are the ones making the most progress.
My observations focused on comparing the classroom atmosphere during the time in which the students received their written feedback. Would there be a significant difference when we removed the grades? For this to happen, I ensured that I sat in the back of the class when the class had their books returned. Here is what I observed on two separate occasions:
No Grades – The room was completely silent for approx 2-3 minutes whilst the students read through their improvement comments. Students seemed to be reading these comments very carefully and upon questioning, were fully understanding of what they had to do to improve.
Grades – Very different atmosphere. The room was quiet for approx 20-30 seconds before students started asking each other what grade they had got and were clearly using their grades as a badge of honour in the class pecking order. Very little attention seemed to be paid to the improvement comments and when questioned, students struggled to be very accurate on what they had to do to improve.
Although brief in it’s length (and with only one class), this practical piece of research had backed up my initial feelings and the study that Dylan Wiliam had conducted. Both myself and Stacey were amazed at the difference in classroom atmosphere and the level of attention that the students gave to their improvement comments by just making a subtle change in how the feedback was communicated.
My fellow trainee head teacher, Anna Coulson, tested out the theory in her primary school. This would be very interesting research as it would enable us to see if there were any similarities in terms of age range.
Throughout the course of Anna’s research she saw a different picture and concluded that grades were important in her class. Anna felt that due to the significantly younger age range of the students, they needed a simple grading system so that the students could easily identify if their work was better or worse than their last piece. Anna also noted that in her school, students were used to comparing their work with examples of work at varying levels. It was therefore important for her students to be able to see what a level 4 piece of work looked like and without grades or levels on their own work, she felt that this would have detracted from this learning experience.
In summary, Anna thought that in a primary school, it was beneficial to feedback with levels and grades because it was easy for students to understand, however, she did make a point of stressing that it all comes down to what you do with the levels though. The levels and grades themselves only served a small purpose, it was the work that the teachers did in comparing graded work that was the real importance.
Things to be careful of
Although this all might sound very interesting and something that you might want to experiment with, you need to be aware of the following:
Ofsted, external inspectors, local authority advisors, senior leaders and parents will all expect your students to know where they are in relation to their targets. You can not simply dismiss this. Formal assessment of student work against NC levels must take place and this must be communicated to your students. However, my research suggests that this does not have to be for every piece of work that your students complete. As a country we seem to want to assess everything and continually place students into deciles, quintiles, quartiles or whatever the latest trend is. After completing this research, my advice would be to formally assess every few weeks, but in the intermediate term, concentrate on high level individual qualitative feedback, thus promoting a classroom climate that every piece of work could be improved and that nothing should be seen as “job done” just because it matches somebodies target.