Five Ways to Make Grading Systems Better for Students in Remote Learning

In the last week, I have watched my sixth-grader struggle with the online message of grades, surprised to see he was failing three classes. I then heard from a friend whose seventh-grade daughter is fraught with spiraling anxiety after failing all her classes in the world of remote learning. Until then, she had been a straight A student.

This story is familiar. I have seen it for years in the stories of kids who became disenchanted with school, often in middle-school years or the start of high school. As a parent, I have had the privilege of having a son who has not struggled… until now.

For years, I have been saying to school leaders and teachers that students need to see grades not as verdicts of failure but as guideposts to success. In this entry, I suggest five ideas for educators in the world of remote learning to make grades work for their students, borrowed from the thinking of great teachers and leaders in schools serving students who have been behind.

For starters, admit it: Grades are a weird, weird thing. Sure, we can grade milk and grade roads. But grade kids? Pause and think how your relationships would feel if you were given a number grade once a week. Every time you got that 85 or 95 or 100 from your lover, you’d be delighted. But what about when they gave you a 70 or a 60 or a 50? It truly hurts to be judged and stigmatized by others, and while all of us experience those judgments occasionally, it is exceedingly rare to experience them as a single, weekly, soulless number.

(True, in the world of social media of “likes” and “claps,” such constant grading is not as rare as it once was, but just watch The Social Dilemma to see where that has gotten us.)

The anxiety of being judged is being exacerbated in the world of online learning. If students and teachers were meeting in person, surely caring teachers would have the heart to say: Hey, did you forget about this assignment? But in the online world, that tap on the shoulder, that friendly reminder is absent.

Instead, teachers are sending grades into the cyber-ether, leaving students to search for guideposts in the dark. Students see grades of 0 and 60 in crimson red, and aren’t sure what has happened. They become frustrated. Frustration becomes another assignment missed. Another grade down. Now they become absolutely destroyed. Confidence is shot.

Even worse: The teacher, tending to dozens of students on-screen and off to and no way to sense emotions online, may not even realize it.

It is time as a teacher to do something about it.

1. Personally reach out to any of your students who have an average below 70. Check. Now. You should know who every student is who is failing or on the cusp of it. Ask them how they are doing. Ask them what they are enjoying and not enjoying in class, and in life. Connect with them as humans. If they have seen grades racking up that all point down a road of failure, and you haven’t sought to empathize, then make no mistake: it is you who have failed them.

2. Offer students genuine praise for a single, specific strength, and one specific concrete way they can improve. If they showed improvement on a skill from the last assignment, then tell them how proud you are of the growth they have made on that skill. Be specific. That is what will stick. And if they did not show improvement (or they did not even turn in the assignment), tell them how much it will help if they can, and ask how you can help them do that.

If you don’t already offer opportunities for revision, ask why you don’t. Isn’t the ability to revise and improve at the heart of learning? If you don’t already offer ways for students to talk to you about a poor grade and, by talking to you, to have the grade improved, ask why you don’t. These are the things that actually lead to learning, and if you want your grades to be guideposts and not verdicts, you should do them.

Important note: this is not as time-consuming as it may sound. Ask yourself what is the one (and stick to just one) skill a student could exhibit that would have led to a better grade (and please don’t have that skill be: handing in work!) and talk to them about that skill not about a stigmatizing abstract number. I have seen strong teachers do this very effectively in 3–5 minutes. (In fact, here’s a great activity: Role play the conversation you’d have with a student and time it for 5 minutes. You will see just how much can be discussed in that time. There’s more good stuff on this in the feedback section of the Eskolta Learning Center.)

3. Stop giving zeroes. Just stop it. If you need to be convinced, take a look at this article. If you grade on a 5-point scale, give 1–5. If you grade on a 100-point scale, give 50–100. If you are comfortable with the math, recognize that one zero averaged with three B+ assignments still results in an F, and that is outrageous! If you feel uncomfortable with mathematical concepts, then just believe me: getting rid of zeroes is the fair thing to do.

4. Ask yourself how students who are getting good grades can be resources to those who are not. Peers can be a huge and compassionate source of support, if you set it up right. Ask the students who have those low grades which student they would be interested in being paired up with, and then make those pairs. Ask the students to talk about three ways they have managed their time and work goals online. You are helping your students build support networks.

5. If you want to really think big, ask yourself: Why am I even using averages of number grades? If they are meant to be guideposts, then an average of a bunch of numbers makes no sense: you just don’t average guideposts. If you are saddled with a computer system that translates grades into averages, turn that feature off. Instead, set up your grading system so that as long as students keep improving (or at least hold steady) from one assignment to the next, you will give them their “final” grade, not their “average” grade. You will give them a score that reflects where they have arrived at the end, not where they were along the way. (There’s more good stuff on this on Robert Marzano’s website. Or check out the Eskolta Learning Center on mastery-based learning.)

I fear that in the world of remote learning, too many teachers — well-intentioned, caring teachers — do not realize the stultifying impact of the number grades their online systems are laying at the feet of tweens and teens day after soulless day. If you can think about it differently, maybe you can help students see the road to success.

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.