To Grade or Not To Grade…Is That The Question?

“Educated individuals like Thomas Jefferson, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, Galileo, and Plato were never given grades.”

This quote came from an article written by THNK on why “grades are bad.” (If you are interested, go check out the full article.)

While the likes of these great minds referenced in the article may not have been given grades, they also were not in crowded classrooms of 30 to 40 students. They certainly were not in schools of hundreds, if not thousands of students. No grades were needed back then. 

For the foreseeable future of education, the question may never be whether or not students should be assigned grades. And by no means does this short blog post even attempt to unpack that. 

In schools today, grades are viewed as an efficient way of delivering feedback to students. It gives us a way to communicate both strengths and weaknesses for students to reflect on. 

So how can we take THNK’s critiques of modern grading and help shape feedback to students? How can we better inform students about their progress and areas in which they can improve? 

Putting It In Perspective:

We decided to take one teacher’s grading rubric and break it down in the context of THNK’s main arguments. Rusty Fuller, High School Strength and Conditioning Coach and Physical Education Teacher, was kind enough to share his grading rubric and thoughts with us.

For context, Fuller has up to 30 students per class ranging from freshmen to seniors, including athletes and non-athletes. Students are given personalized workouts based on their experience in the weight room. Each student is expected to get through the assigned movements and log their workouts using the PLT4M app. 

At the end of class, each student receives a grade out of 10 points. The daily grade evaluates students on a variety of metrics in hopes of informing them for future classes. 

“I think it is very important for students to receive positive feedback from me on my 5 pillars. Seeing progress made for each student and passing expectations is far more important to me than anything else.
Students need to be taught these 5 valuable life lessons as it stretches far past the classroom. When students enter the real world, they need to be taught on how to develop a positive work ethic, how to hold themselves accountable for their actions, how to be disciplined, how to be prepared, and how to be prompt.
All future employers will look for these traits in our students and it is my job to instill these traits in them.”
– Rusty Fuller

 Breaking It Down: Fuller and THNK

So let us break down the three major critiques from THNK’s article within the perspective of Coach Fuller’s class and grading rubric. 

In a quick summary, THNK’s article argued the following: 

  1. Grades create risk-averse behavior
  2. Grades have become the end goal
  3. Grades are an inadequate form of feedback.

1) Grades create risk-averse behavior 

In other words, THINK argues that schools should be a place where mistakes are made. Schools should be a place where a student’s decisions are not dictated by the fear of failing.

Physical education has traditionally been a place where the ‘athletically gifted’ succeed, and others are left on the sidelines feeling insecure or embarrassed.  The weight room gives every student, regardless of their athletic ability, a chance to come prepared, challenge themselves, and positively impact others. Because Fuller’s rubric is designed to reward students on those things they can control, each student has an opportunity to succeed.

For Fuller, making mistakes is okay, but the overall goal is to identify when they are made and fix them. While mistakes can and should be made, there is value in rewarding the ability to correct and adjust. 

2) Grades have become the end goal 

In the era of “Teaching to the Test,” students often focus on a letter grade and not the process of learning itself. The more consistent daily grades in Fuller’s class allows for continual feedback centered around weekly improvement. 

The focus of class for every student is to develop appropriate skills. Nowhere in Fuller’s rubric does it ask if the student can achieve a perfect push-up, back squat a specific number of pounds, or perform any other movement for that matter. Because the goal is not to end the learning process with a particular library of movements but to constantly be building and growing as an individual. 

In fitness, there is always room for improvement. Once a student masters a movement or achieves their goal, there is always an opportunity to move onto a new movement or to continue developing skills. The idea that we can always strive for better is an innate value of Physical Education and is reflected in Fuller’s class. 

3) Grades are an inadequate form of feedback

Lastly, THNK argues that grades signal an end to a learning process and can be extremely one-dimensional. 

To prioritize the commitment to overall education within his strength and conditioning class, Fuller uses attendance, effort, discipline, accountability, and influence as his 5 pillars of evaluation. These pillars help shape not a test of right and wrong, but behaviors and habits that can carry beyond Physical Education class. 

For Fuller, students are informed in several ways and are by no means limited to a 10 point daily rubric. They receive feedback via the app, Coach Fullers teaching, and the peer-to-peer instruction fostered in class. 

Since Fuller incorporates technology that delivers curriculum digitally, he is free to help navigate his busy classroom and give more individual feedback to his students. When students struggle to meet the standards of class or a movement, Fuller can use the rubric to better shape conversations and interventions. Grading is only a small piece that is used to promote larger “teachable moments.”

What Would Shakespeare and The Gang Say?

Looking at both THINK and Fuller, the question shifts away from ‘to grade or not to grade?’. In the spirit of Shakespeare, that is not the question.

Instead, how can we productively use grading to highlight student’s progress and areas in which they can improve? 

So no, Jefferson, Descartes, Shakespeare, Galileo, and Plato did not have grades. But, if we asked them their thoughts on being assessed by Fuller’s 5 Pillars, they just might hear us out.

Acknowledgements

Rusty FUller

Special thanks to Rusty Fuller for helping to create this article! 

Coach Fuller is a Physical Education Teacher, Football Coach, and Strength Coach.

He is also a PLT4M Coaches Club Ambassador and featured on Chalk Talk.