Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

Possibly my greatest commitment while teaching public school English in a rural SC high school for 18 years was listening to my students, and by that, I do not mean listening to them during class discussions or in conferences (I did that also).

I mean listening to students when they didn’t know an adult was listening.

Some of those moments that have shaped my teaching include the following:

  • Student comment: A student walking into class told a friend that she had just failed a pop quiz in the previous class after studying all night, and from then on, she wasn’t going to waste her time studying. My lesson: Pop quizzes often taught students the exact wrong lessons intended; thus, I very early on never gave pop quizzes (leading eventually to giving no tests, for similar reasons).
  • Student comment: Two students were leaving my class once at the end of the school day. One asked the other if they had any homework in another class; the friend replied, “No, we just have to read.” My lesson: Students did not see reading as homework, and after I asked what the students meant, I discovered that students had learned they did not need to read since teachers told them everything they needed in class the next day. This profoundly impacted how I invited and required student reading in my classes, including offering adequate time in class for them to read, increasing choice in their reading, and adding an artifact of reading (response journals, annotating text, notes to classmates, etc.) to any out-of-school reading expectations.

Some of the listening I did, however, took much more time and required inference on my part. But it is that sort of listening that ultimately shaped my understanding that grades, averaging grades, rubrics, and grading policies contribute significantly to student opportunities to avoid being engaged with learning.

Let me explain.

Over a long period of time, and while carefully listening and even asking questions, I learned that many students gamed their math classes so that they passed math courses while never passing a single math test or exam.

Students had discovered that playing the game of averaging grades and manipulating the impact of non-test assignments (homework, projects, class participation, extra credit) on those averages allowed students to pass the course with a minimum of studying or learning the material for quizzes, tests, and exams. And, yes, the irony here is that students used math to avoid being engaged in actually learning math.

Since students were armed with detailed grading policies, many would keep a running record of their averages, weigh that against the extra credit and non-test grades they could compile, and then maintain cumulative averages just at the passing barrier (often something they learned they could negotiate near the end of the course, as well).

This is just one example of “school-only” practices and “student” behaviors that have guided my own teaching policies that seek ways to end both: I don’t want my class to be “playing school,” and I don’t want the young people in my classes to behave as students.

This came to mind as I exchanged emails with Peter Smagorinsky about a recent post of mine, Email to My Students: “the luxury of being thankful,” lamenting giving grades at the end of the semester.

I want to clarify what I do and why, but also add how I have course policies that delay traditional grading but are driven instead by minimum requirements for course credit that support engagement.

First, some may have assumed that my non-grading practices are somehow related to my teaching at a selective university where that is possible. But I must emphasize that I started de-grading my classes early in my career while teaching in a rural SC public high school, and I did so with all levels of students.

My practices are not about idealized students or settings.

Next, de-grading a class is not about being soft, or easy, or asking less of students. De-grading is about demanding more from students, notably more engagement.

In my courses (then and now), students had/have to participate fully in all activities and assignments [1]. To put this in traditional contexts, students are not allow to “take a zero” on an assignment and then just pass by on the resulting average.

There is no, “I just took zeros on my papers last year and still passed English.” (And, again, many students told me that when I was teaching public school.)

Again, then and now, when students are required to write four original and drafted essays over a grading period or during a course, that means several minimum requirements: initial submission of each drafted original essay (made directly observable during writing workshop in class), required conferences with me after each initial essay submission, and required essay revision meeting minimum expectations of revision (a detailed revision plan we created in each conference).

Don’t fulfill minimum requirements, and you do not receive credit for the grading period or the course (and, yes, I did this during my public school teaching career).

I balance those demands with other important policies: (i) students are allowed to continue revising their work as much as they want and time allows, and (ii) late work is not only accepted, but necessary.

The de-graded classroom is about engagement in the learning process and artifacts of learning. There is nothing soft or easy about any of this, and these are not practices suitable for only some students.

And students are not allowed the manipulation of grades and averages that I have witnessed and continue to witness in traditionally grade-driven courses where students focus on the grades or passing and not engaging with learning.

Minimum observable requirements for student participation trump significantly traditionally graded and averaged testing in terms of creating genuine student engagement in learning.

I want to end by emphasizing , again, that these are not idealistic practices or claims; I also practice concessions to the reality of grades in formal schooling.

The “de-” in de-grading of my classes is best framed as “delayed” because I do invite students to discuss the grades their works-in-progress deserve throughout the process and, of course, I do assign grades at the end of each course.

While delaying grades, however, I am increasing the quality and quantity of feedback my students receive and of student engagement in learning for the sake and advantages of learning.

[1] As an example, here is my minimum requirement statement from a first-year writing seminar:

Minimum Requirements for course credit:

  • Submit all essays in MULTIPLE DRAFTS before the last day of the course; initial drafts and subsequent drafts should be submitted with great care, as if each is the final submission, but students are expected to participate in process writing throughout the entire semester as a minimum requirement of this course—including a minimum of ONE conference per major essay.
  • Demonstrate adequate understanding of proper documentation and citation of sources through a single well-cited essay or several well-cited essays. A cited essay MUST be included in your final portfolio.


  1. Chewie

    Another quality post!

    “I discovered that students had learned they did not need to read since teachers told them everything they needed in class the next day. ”

    Yes indeed. Kylene Beers makes a similar point in her book _When Kids Can’t Read_. She writes about overhearing one of her students tell another something like, “If you just listen to the teacher before she hands out the story, she tells you all the important things.” She changed her style after that.

  2. Pingback: Morgan’s pinboard for 16 Mar 2015 through 25 Mar 2015 | Morgan's Log
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