If I don’t grade an assignment, my students won’t do it. But that can be so overwhelming. What can I do?
I Can’t Grade It All
Dear I Can’t Grade It All,
M&M’s. The answer is M&M’s. It’s a familiar scenario: I walk by a bowl of M&M’s and think to myself, “I’ll just take one or two.” Then I tell myself, “I might as well just have one of each color.” Soon I rationalize, “They’re so small, almost inconsequential. A handful won’t hurt.” Before I know it, I’ve justified eating a better part of that entire bowl. And frankly, more dangerous than the candy itself, is the habit of justification I keep feeding.
I’m sure you’re wondering what my chocolate habit has to do with your very real, very common dilemma about how to keep your students motivated to do the work without grading everything. I think it comes down to what happens when we feed the monster of justification. Somewhere along their experience, we’ve taught students that their education is a commodity. You know what I mean: they write words, we give them points. They write more words, we give them more points. But education isn’t a commodity to own, it’s an experience one must earn.
I know you’re used to working late into the night and getting up early in the morning to feed that monster. You’re grading everything, assigning points, using this to keep students engaged in their learning. Yet, each point is becoming more and more like one of my chocolate bites: seemingly inconsequential, a sweet rationalization, a lulling into justification. I know you have your students’ very best interests in mind, but without realizing it, you may be undermining yourself and them.
What would happen if you didn’t grade everything? At first, it might be rough. They might complain, push-back or flirt with disengagement. Some may even withdraw, believing there’s no longer a reason to do homework. But this is exactly where you get to be the amazing teacher I know you are. This is where you teach them that grades are ambiguous and they are above ambiguity. Here’s where you tell about the time you got an “A” in a class and didn’t learn anything and that other time you got a “C” in one and learned more from that teacher than any other.
This is where you dig and find the real purpose for what they’re learning. Help them see they’re not doing this assignment for points or because it will be on the test or because they’ll need it next year. Those are M&M reasons and they need intrinsic ones. They need to know how this works their brain in a new way, how this will help them think for themselves, how it will help them make connections to other subjects and in their own lives.
I don’t grade everything. I can’t. I try to give feedback every day, though. Some days it’s to the whole class about a pattern I’ve noticed in their collective work. Some days it’s going around group to group re-directing or asking new questions. Other days it’s one-on-one conferences or through the written feedback I offer on the work they each turn in. Most of this is ungraded because I’ve learned that once I put a grade on an assignment the Godfather principle takes hold: it’s dead to them. That grade is a crossed finish line when we’ve only just begun.
I’m sure you’re thinking what I do at the beginning of every school year: this sounds nice, but it won’t actually work with real kids in a real classroom. It’s true, some kids won’t do their work at first, but they probably weren’t going much beyond compliance before. As you come to believe it and act upon it, your students will follow your lead, especially when they get used to hearing each day why they’re actually learning this.
Early each semester I give this grade talk to my classes that gets really specific about how I merge my own belief system with the reality of assigning points and grades. I also think back to former students, many of whom were incredibly resistant during class, who reach out later to tell me they finally “got it.” I hold onto words like Ben’s, a former student I recently interviewed, who started telling me about the danger of grades.
And no matter how hard it is to resist, I remember that my students can’t earn their education if I hand it to them like a bowl of M&M’s.