Focus on Feedback

Why the current grading system needs to change

November 18, 2020

In a questionnaire completed by 33 Long Reach High School staff members, teachers were asked, “If you have used feedback, have you noticed a positive reaction from students?” The results showed the majority (63.6% of teachers) felt they noticed some improvement in student achievement, and all teachers noticed at least limited improvement. 

So why is the focus still so firmly on grades? Grades have been linked to a decrease in student motivation to learn and a decrease in student mental health. Even though this grading system is deemed necessary for measuring and communicating progress, schools should begin to prioritize feedback over traditional grades.

[Feedback] especially helps with being able to take risks because I can get feedback if that risk is worth taking.”

— Sophomore Grace Drasin

Many studies have concluded that the current grading system has led to increased stress and anxiety. Because grades are a key factor in applying to colleges, many students feel preoccupied with getting the best GPA possible. Sophomore Mayah Kennedy comments on the current system, “I care more about feedback, but society and my parents care more about grades, so that makes me have to care about grades.”

Some students have admitted to cheating or going the safe route as a way to make sure they do not get points deducted on assignments. As a result, students rarely feel encouraged to take risks on their work. If trying out a new approach can lead to a point deduction on an assignment, students would rather follow formulaic directions provided by the teacher, leading to a “sure thing” for a final grade.

Additionally, students’ motivation to learn has decreased because many are worried more about getting high grades than the learning itself. When students know that an assignment will not be graded, they can lose their internal drive to do the work. Students perceive ungraded assignments as “not worth” the investment when the external reward is removed, which contradicts intrinsic learning. 

Grades also perpetuate a system where students temporarily memorize as much information as possible the night before a test in order to score high. Students may earn the grade they hope for, but forget all the information after the test. 

I really appreciate being able to redo an assignment. It helps me identify my mistakes and understand how to better my work.”

— 10th grade student

On the other hand, feedback has shown many positive effects on students and their learning. 

Unlike grades, when implemented effectively, feedback motivates students to learn and improve their work and understanding. Positive feedback offers praise which can encourage students to keep working hard. Since grades can hurt students’ motivation to learn and take risks on their work, feedback should replace traditional grading while students are learning content. 

Teachers can use feedback to discuss strengths and weaknesses, signify where students have made a mistake, advise students on how to improve from their current understanding, and open a pathway to success on future assignments.

Sophomore Abigail Blandford corroborates, “I prefer feedback [over grades] because I would like to know why I lost points. It’s kind [of] hard to improve if you don’t know what you’re doing.” She values the importance of feedback as a student who is focused on the learning process. 

In a “Case Against Grades,” Alfie Kohn, an American author and lecturer, asserts that when the focus is on feedback, students experience less fear about getting a low grade. Junior Sara Jones feels, “A focus on feedback before the final grade would actually allow me to take a lot more risks because I would not be worried about the score I would be getting. I would be more concerned about how I can be critiqued and how I can be improved.” 

In a 2018 study conducted by several university researchers, students reported that when the focus of the class shifted to feedback instead of grades, there was a lack of academic dishonesty. The students were less inclined to cheat as the focus of the class became learning and progressing.

Feedback would allow for me to know what to improve on for the future. In addition, I would stress less about grades because I would know what the grade meant. ”

— Junior Kelly Song

Furthermore, with a system of feedback, students are able to have a deeper understanding of what they are learning, which is the goal of education. Professor of education Valerie J. Shut’s article “Focus on Formative Feedback” describes this process:

Feedback creates new pathways for students to evaluate their current knowledge. They can address previous misunderstandings and adjust their knowledge as new questions arise and more feedback is provided. 

When assignments are focused on this process, memorizing information for an exam or resorting to cheating no longer applies to student success. 

Grades are not effective at representing student learning. It is vital to find new and better ways to improve this dated system. Feedback provides the support that many students want and need but may not ask for. During the learning process, students need teachers to be coaches instead of referees. After all, when is the last time you were graded on soccer practice?

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