Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

About midway through my first 18 years in education as a high school English teacher, I had mostly de-graded and de-tested my courses except, of course, for having to comply with mandates such as midterm/final exams and course grades.

At some point, my students and I began to openly parody grade culture in a sort of wink-wink-nod-nod way that included my saying “Minus 5!” any time a student offered an incorrect answer during a class discussion.

We all smiled and laughed.

As I approach the same amount of time in the second wave of my career as an educator, now a university professor at a selective college, I continue to use that skit, adding at times a “Plus 10!” with exuberance when someone offers something really thoughtful.

My college students are hyper-students, having been very successful in school for many years while receiving as well as expecting high grades because of the student-skills they have developed.

Despite my careful and detailed explanations upfront that I do not grade and do not give tests, these college students struggle, some times mightily, in a de-graded classroom. Once, for example, a student emailed me about how to make up the “minus 5” I had taken away in the class discussion.

This semester in my educational foundations course and an upper-level writing/research course, many of the greatest flaws with grading culture have sprung up once again.

Even as we approach the end of the semester, I have had several students email me asking for extensions on submitting their major essay. I have to carefully reply that the concept of an extension isn’t relevant in a course that doesn’t grade and is grounded in the requirement that all assignments must be completed fully (and ideally on time) and resubmitted in a final portfolio.

In all of my courses, essays must also be submitted in multiple drafts or I cap the final course grade.

I explain repeatedly to my students that we are here to learn and that if I focus on artifacts of their learning while requiring that all work be completed fully, I have no option other than accepting late work, and they have no real option except to submit work late if they cannot meet deadlines.

Yet, my college students often cannot fathom any other system except the culture of grading that they have navigated quite well for many years.

Broadly, as an educator, I am daily disturbed by witnessing my students trapped in a grade mentality and not a learning mentality. As I have explored many times, the rewards/punishments elements of grading discourages risk and even effort in students and thus weakens the learning process that often requires a series of flawed efforts by students combined with mentoring from a teacher who requires and encourages informed revised efforts.

School at all levels, however, is just a statistical wrestling match between students and grade culture in which some students persist, hoping to excel, and many students simply try to survive in order to find some sort of freedom at the end.

Over the past couple of weeks, my educational foundations students have been submitting their major essay. I purposefully scaffold this assignment by having students present in groups earlier in the semester; those group presentations include focusing on students finding high-quality research for their topics and (for many) learning some basics of APA citation (the preferred style sheet in education).

I refuse to provide groups feedback on the group presentations until the group submits a correct and adequate references list for their sources used. This strategy lays the groundwork for each member having a start on sources for their individual essay and for my students to become somewhat acclimated to my minimum requirements approach to assignments (contrasted with grading).

Major cited essays are powerful windows into how a culture of grades degrades learning.

Students are provided a sample APA cited essay with notes and several checklists for preparing and revising an essay using APA citation; much of this is meticulously covered in class as well.

I also schedule some workshop time in class to help students with both trivial and significant elements of preparing a document in Word (headers can be a nightmare using APA). Then, as the first submission due date approaches, I stress that I will not provide feedback unless students submit a full first draft that includes some fundamental elements of formatting and citation [1].

However, as I experience every semester, several students submitted essays that were unacceptable (let me emphasize here, that when I reject these essays, the only recourse is that students address this problem by submitting a minimally acceptable draft as soon as possible, and I will meet with them if they are unsure how to do that despite the ample support I have already provided).

This included essays submitted without adequate sources (I stress the need to use peer-reviewed journal articles as the foundation of their sources, but also encourage a variety of sources), without a references list on the document, with a reference list but no citations in the essay, with some jumbled hybrid of MLA (usually the references list labeled “Works Cited” and then the bibliographies a wild Frankenstein’s monster of formatting), or as a document clearly in an early stage of brainstorming—what they would consider drafting—such as huge gaps between paragraphs, different colored fonts, and their own comments to themselves scattered throughout.

I have this happen despite stressing repeatedly they should submit the first draft of the essay as if they can never revise.

These dynamics in a degraded class that emphasizes authentic artifacts of learning and provides students ample opportunities to revise their work with my feedback in the form of comments on their work and conferences highlight that many students are unable to break free from a culture of grading, even when provided the opportunity.

Most students simply have their grades lowered when they fail to format and cite properly; that process tells them that these things really do not matter.

Yet, in my work as a scholar, I know that part of the authority a writer gains if from the trivial (formatting documents) and the essential (finding, understanding, and incorporating high-quality sources).

A culture of grading allows both students and teachers to be lazy about the things we claim to care about the most, such as authentic learning that translates into the so-called real world.

Once again, I have watched as several students have become angry at me and deeply frustrated by a process that is both requiring and supporting them to learn, in some cases for the first time, aspects of being a scholar that benefits them across their work as students and then in their lives after that.

What some are framing as “mean,” however, is a tenacity on my part that often results in students coming to understand and then apply the very things we sought to learn. But that process is unnecessarily painful because of the culture of grades that, in fact, asks less of students and teachers.

The culture of grades remains incredibly powerful in formal schooling, and as I discover time and time again, it makes the work of teaching and learning nearly impossible.

In the wake of this essay assignment and many of my formerly happy students struggling, my “Minus 5” rings a bit hollow these days among the tense faces of really bright young people more concerned about their grades than anything class has to offer.


[1] From my checklist, for example:

Checklist for Revising Cited Essay

Format in APA

[ ] Entire Word document (including header) is in Times New Roman, 12 pt. font, and double-spaced

[ ] Cover page has “Different First Page” checked, and running head formatted as follows:

Running head: RUNNING HEAD IN ALL CAPS                                                                1

[ ] Page 2 and beyond has running head only, as in:

RUNNING HEAD IN ALL CAPS                                                                                        2

[ ] Except for new paragraphs, do NOT format page breaks (cover page to page 2 and final page to references) with returns and do NOT format hanging indents or block quotes with return>tab.

[ ] Include a few subheads to organize the essay, but a subhead should be several paragraphs (not one), and avoid “Conclusion” as your final subhead (be interesting and specific).

Style and Citation in APA

[ ] Do not announce sources (avoid referring to the author[s] and titles of your sources when citing research) in your discussion.

[ ] Prefer synthesis of multiple sources and discussing the conclusions (patterns) from those sources—and thus, avoid quoting and simply cataloging one source at a time.

[ ] Take care with proper APA parenthetic citation; note the use of commas, page numbers with quotes only, and the placement of periods, for example:

Ironically, of course, we almost never hear a word of protest about the abundant misinformation found in our U. S. history textbooks (Loewen, 1996; Zinn, 1995), primarily because the misinformation better supports the meritocracy myth our schools are obligated to promote for the good of the society.

While Greene (1978) argues that “democracy is and has been an open possibility, not an actuality”—thus requiring “the kinds of action [by teachers] that make a difference in the public space” (pp. 58, 59)—the reality of school’s focus on socialization is that we are committed to capitalism above all else, even at the expense of democracy (Engel, 2000).

Recent scholarship on this concern for diversity and the achievement gap among races and socioeconomic groups has shown that when we attempt institutional approaches to “critical issues,” the result is corrupted by the system itself, resulting in a widespread acceptance of the work of Ruby Payne (1996), work that has no research supporting the “framework” and work that reinforces the assumptions (deficit thinking) about race and diversity that are common in our society (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008; Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2009; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2006a; Gorski, 2006b; Gorski, 2008; Thomas, 2009).

[ ] Parenthetical citation of paraphrased or synthesized sources require including the author(s) last name and publication year the FIRST time in each new paragraph, but multiple uses after that include ONLY the last name. Do not have several in-text citations over multiple paragraphs if all of the citations are paraphrasing. For example:

Greene (1978) is exploring the central dilemma offered by John Dewey, a dilemma that has been misunderstood at best and ignored at worst: Dewey “knew that optimism, demands for conformity, and ‘riotous glorification of things “as they are”’ discouraged critical thought” (p. 62). In U.S. society, and thus schools, critical challenges are popularly viewed as outright rejections. Within critical pedagogy, the challenges to assumptions are seen as fruitful, an essential part of process toward emancipatory practice, toward the ideal of democracy as “an open possibility” (Greene, p. 58).

[ ] Do NOT include hyperlinks in bibliographies in your references lists from your library searches (ebsco, galegroup links) or from jstor for hard-copy sources (includes page numbers).

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