Home»Teaching»Could changing grades change how students approach learning?

Don't be mistaken, changing how you grade is a big deal. But it might be worth it.

What about a grade of “Not Yet”?

Psychologist Carol Dweck suggests it in a TED talk where she says:

. . . if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade “Not Yet” you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.

It drives me nuts when I hand back tests or papers and the first thing my students do is ask one another, “What’d you get?” I want them to look at their learning and see where they can improve – which on papers, of course, means look at my comments. Instead, they zoom in on their grade.

Dweck frames this in terms of helping students abandon the need for constant validation, where bad grades indicate that they are failures. Instead, students should be encouraged to develop a “growth mindset,” which is rooted in the knowledge that you can change your brain – make it smarter – through effort.

After getting a poor grade, students with a “fixed mindset” say they’ll cheat next time or that they look for someone with a lower grade, so they can feel better, Dweck says. I suspect that that’s what

Children doing seated calisthenics. (Library of Congress)
Children doing seated calisthenics. (Library of Congress)

is at work in my classrooms after a test. This irks me all the more because I’ve been downplaying tests and emphasizing low-risk quizzes and hands-on projects in an attempt to encourage learning instead of grade-grubbing.

Dweck points to brain scans done when students were presented with an error they’d made. Some students’ brains showed nothing, as if they froze up (that’s my description of it, not hers). But others who had the “growth mindset”:

They engage deeply. Their brain is on fire with yet. They engage deeply. They process the error. They learn from it and they correct it.

A grade of “Not Yet” could replace D’s and F’s and would put the emphasis on mastering concepts and skills. That fits in to a whole movement that’s afoot in academia that recognizes that we need to do a better job of assessing learning. But shouldn’t the rest of the grades be replaced, too? Perhaps “okay, but not nearly as strong as I’d hoped for” for C. Maybe “this shows a full range of learning, definitely ready for more” might take the place of A. As for B, would “good indication of moving towards mastery” work?

If I do try this next semester – well, I can already hear the students howling. Where are my grades? How are we supposed to know how well we did? But that’s the point, to get the students to move away from a fixed mindset.

From my experience over the last few years, teaching students that their brains change and rewire themselves and that learning involves strengthening neural networks (which is done not by cramming but by spaced repetition) does work. The freshmen in my neuroscience of learning classes say that learning these things is a real eye opener. I’m not 100 percent convinced that my class yields a miraculous transformation – the pattern established in four years of high school is hard to break – but it’s clear to me that there is an impact.

Before I can switch to a “Not Yet” system, I have to solve another problem.

If I return assessments like the ones above, how do I generate students’ end-of-semester grades? Some universities are moving towards an assessment transcript that describes how well students did mastering specific concepts and skills, but that’s not widespread at the moment.

Do I just assign number grades of 1, 2 and 3, with a certain threshold needed for each end-of-semester letter grade?  And let’s be clear: a change of this sort involves a lot of work redesigning classes.  It’s not something you approach lightly.

I should be able to turn to other faculty who have tried different grading systems, but faculty have a frustrating habit of not talking to one another about what they do in the classroom. But the growth mindset of faculty – fearing to open themselves up for assessment – is another issue that needs addressing.


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