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To grade or not to grade?

The arguments for not writing grades on pupils' homework are generally familiar. They include the fact that pupils tend to look at their mark and ignore other corrections and feedback, that poor marks can be dispiriting and that high marks can encourage able pupils to coast. Teachers these days are encouraged to always get the pupil, whatever their ability, to realise what they need to do to improve and to set short term and longer term targets.

We used to discuss this in our department quite often and, in the end, decided to keep a system of grades in place, along with occasional targets for improvement and written feedback in English (we felt this carried more weight with students and was a more personal form of communication).

So why did we keep grades and what form did they take?

Pupils usually like to see a grade and it can be argued that attaining a good grade is motivational. The very able student is keen to keep getting A grades and the average student will be pleased to get above a C. True, many students take a quick glance at their grades and then close their exercise book, but this is easily overcome if you simple tell them to spend two minutes reading corrections and comments.

The most important aspect of any homework task or classroom assignment is that pupils take it seriously and work at it. If they know it will be graded it is likely they will take it more seriously.

The clever, conscientious student will usually do their best and, if occasionally they do not, you can always pull them up on the bit with a mean mark. Next time they will do much better to impress you.

But we also decided that we wished to reward effort as well as quality of work. To do this we used to write in an effort grade next to a letter grade for the quality of the work. A good teacher will nearly always know if the student has made a good effort (by the quality of handwriting, attention to detail, presentation of the heading). I would automatically knock off a mark form the effort grade if the heading was not underlined or the date was missing.

We used to ask students about the issue of grades and they definitely wanted to see grades, although they also appreciated useful feedback. Let's not forget, of course, that a grade is a shorthand way of giving feedback and is therefore a great time saver. Teachers do not have the time to put detailed feedback on every piece of work and many routine tasks just require ticks or can be marked in class.

Just for the record, this is what our students had to stick in their exercise book:

A          Excellent work. Amongst the best we would expect to see at RGS. Accurate and, where
A-         relevant, a very good range of language.

B          Good or very good. there may be some mistakes but the work was well understood and
B-         had, where relevant, a good range of language.

C          Reasonable work. there might be quite a few mistakes, but the task was understood
C-         on the whole.

D          Work not properly understood. Too many mistakes.

E          A very weak attempt at the task.

Effort     1 = very good     2 = good     3 = mediocre     4 = poor     5 = very poor

Pupils were also told that if a homework was not done they had one "life". For a second no homework they would get a departmental detention and for a third a school detention. The record was wiped at the end of each term. I would run these lunchtime departmental detentions which was one way for me to monitor pupils who were not working. Repeat offenders would get a letter home.


  1. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for your always sensible and highly useful posts. Love reading your blog!


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