St Leonard’s College: Learning, achievement and grades

Students, teachers and parents all want the best possible learning outcomes for every individual. But, to what extent is an unhealthy focus on the grade or the final outcome interfering with the quality of the learning experience along the way?

“Throughout the year, I cannot count how many times both my colleagues and I have been inundated with student questions such as the following: How much is it worth? What grade did I get? Will this be marked? Will this appear on school-box? What percentage goes to my final grade?” revealed Jacqui Coker, Director of Professional Learning at St Leonard’s College.

“You might rightly ask if there is anything wrong with this focus on achievement. Isn’t it good that students are interested in how they are going? But really, how healthy are these questions and what insights into their thinking and beliefs might they provide?”

She added that are many questions that can arise: Have we, as a society, developed an unhealthy obsession with grades and scores? Does this filter down to our students, who fail to see the importance of the journey of learning because it is obscured by the focus on the end result? To what extent are our students defining themselves by their grades? Are their mental health and emotional well-being suffering because of this? To what extent does this focus on grades help in the learning journey that students embark on throughout school and their lives beyond school?

Are grades paramount to achievement?

Of course, students, teachers and parents need quality information about how each child is learning at school. “We all want them to achieve success but what do achievement and success mean for each student?” said Ms Coker.

She added that this year, St Leonard’s teachers have addressed the unhealthy focus on the final grade or outcome and the ways in which this was interfering with the quality of the learning experienced along the way. “They have attempted to focus on giving feedback to students that moves learning forward and to explore the attributes and approaches to learning that leads to success. Effort and grit are hugely important to academic success and achievement. Research has consistently shown a high correlation of 0.7 between effort and achievement. In addition to this, there are many learning dispositions that are significant in determining student success including the following: effort, academic resilience, self-regulation, persistence, creativity, academic risk-taking, capacity to think and reflect.”

Growth is a better thing to focus on than the grade alone

Is a numerical evaluation more informative and meaningful than frequent written and spoken descriptions? Is the product of learning more comfortable and affirming than the process of it?

“Research continues to show that providing students with a number or letter, in addition to quality comments, prevents them from reflecting authentically on their learning. It is also held that quantitative grades diminish interest in learning, reduce academic risk-taking and decrease quality of thinking. Beyond academics, we also need to consider the potential negative impact that an unhealthy focus on grades can have on a student’s mental and emotional health,” added said Ms Coker.

When grades are put on the back-burner, teachers and students are freed up to focus on authentic communication of the actual learning and growth of the individual and what they can do to move forward.

“Of course, there is a need for students, parents and teachers to know where the child sits within a particular cohort or where they are in the learning at a particular point in time; however, it is more important that the student can clearly understand what they know, can do and understand and where they are heading. Grades do not always achieve this. Helpful conversations between teachers and students, and students and parents, need to be had frequently where constructive feedback is provided to students about what they can do to move forward. While it is sometimes difficult striking the balance between telling students where they are at a particular point in time and what they need to do to improve, this is what we need to do to make learning meaningful and to develop student capacity to be learners for life,” Ms Coker added. “A willingness to learn for its own sake represents intrinsic motivation and in the long run, the intrinsic love of learning supplants the drive for high grades.”

As report transcripts for each student become available, she said we can think of the sorts of questions we can ask that might take the focus off the final grade and allow them to reflect on their learning. How might we engage students in conversations that allow them to gain greater insights into how they are developing as effective learners?

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