To grade or not to grade?

Last year I was asked to give my opinion on whether removing grades from the feedback you give to students was a good idea or not. It was in response to action from the Royal Welsh College who had started to remove marks from student feedback because they said that “students were concentrating on their mark and where it placed them in their cohort, rather than taking on board the written feedback.” 

I understand the impact that stress, pressure and worry have on young people and it is causing an increase in mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. It is a problem that we urgently need to tackle in an open, honest and sincere way.

However, I am not convinced that one way of tackling this problem is to stop giving students marks or grades altogether. 

It is important for students to know the marks they got for a test, the current grade they are on or the grade they are projected to get. There are several valid reasons for this, ranging from communicating progress to parents to helping young people plan for their future. The most important though, is it helps put written feedback into context. It gives students a specific goal to works towards rather than just “to improve” or “to get to the next grade” (without communicating what the next grade is).

It should not just be about the grade. We need to find a way of stopping students obsessing about the grade and help them to focus on their feedback instead. Students will always compare themselves to others, and to some extent that is healthy as it also provides context, but if we can remove any positive or negative connotations associated with grades that would go a long way to help. For individual students, education should not be a competition against everyone else. Students need to be encouraged to compete against just themselves, to try to match or beat their own target(s), rather than compete against the rest of their cohort. 

Last year I took part in a small project in my school that removed the grade from the feedback. I understood the importance of this, and indeed it did obviously stop the students from obsessing about their grades. However, knowing their grades was still important. They needed to understand where they were in the assessment criteria and have an idea of where they were heading. The solution to this was to give the students their feedback first. To give them time to act on the feedback. To even attempt to look at the assessment criteria and self assess their work in light of my feedback. But at the end of the process before we started the next one, they would be given a grade. What was good about giving them the grade then was that the mystery and excitement of it had gone.