I’ve always liked the way a nice fat “A” looked on the top of an essay.  It said to me, “Yes, you are a rockstar.  You worked hard, and you succeeded.”  But lately, I’m starting to doubt the usefulness of the letter grade system.

I’m not the first one to feel this way.  There’s an endless amount of literature on the subject of grading.  Theorists from far and wide have argued for the abolishment or continuation of the letter-grade system.  In the grand scheme of the education world, I don’t matter, but I’ll throw in my perspective just for the record:

It’s just too risky.

Today a student of mine came to our writing center very disappointed by her latest grades.  She failed a public speaking assignment, and the reflection paper associated with it.  These grades came one right after the other, so she feels she’s just been told that she is a lousy speaker and an equally lousy writer.  She thinks that her professor has it in for her, and I know exactly where she’s coming from.

In high school I did well on most assignments because my teachers were very good–but I also succeeded because I’m the kind of student who, when given a failing grade, immediately set to work finding out how to improve it.  But for students who have less confidence in their overall academic abilities, the reaction is a lot less positive.  They’re more liable to put their walls up and resist the rest of the teaching that they receive from the professor who gave them the F.

I think the solution lies not in abolishing the letter grade system, but in teaching teachers how to grade more effectively.  I know this student worked incredibly hard on her speech, and I know that it was better content-wise that all of her previous speeches, but her numeric grade went down.  Effective grading would have respected her improvements and shown her that her effort had paid off.  Even if her efforts hadn’t resulted in a much-improved final product, at the very least she deserved some positive feedback to show that her efforts were recognized.

Instead, the professor has probably turned this student off for the rest of the semester, and her enthusiasm for learning is damaged.  Way to go.  Now, I understand that I don’t have the right to tell teachers how they should grade their students since I’m not a teacher myself.  But I’m going to ignore that, and do it anyway, with a simple three-part process.

1.) Remember that learning is the primary goal.  If your grading style will damage a student’s desire to learn, something is wrong.

2.) More corrections does not equal better teaching.  From experience, I know that students are likely to stop reading your corrections after the first page of strikethroughs and margin notes.  Less is more.

3.) If you feel that a student has done a bad job on an assignment and put in no effort, then grade without mercy.  But if you feel that they’ve tried and failed, let them know where they succeeded so they don’t give up completely.  Hold your students accountable, but don’t kill their confidence.