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Academic learning is an especially challenging experience for many students. They may struggle to grasp concepts, become confused, and make mistakes that set their learning back. They can find themselves off track and so far behind that they choose to give up. 

Unfortunately, many common grading practices can inadvertently make these challenges even more daunting. One or two low grades can drop averages to the point where achieving hoped-for grades is no longer within reach. Early grading when students are struggling to learn a new skill can mask later learning growth, leaving students with a low grade despite later progress. Life circumstances may result in students being unable to complete assignments and projects on time. Confusion regarding expectations or assignment completion requirements can result in low grades even though students learned key concepts and skills. 

Any of these circumstances can leave students who otherwise would invest continued effort and work feeling despair. Students often choose to give up rather than struggle when they see no possibility of success. These are times when students need a lifeline to give them hope and make their continued learning efforts worthwhile.  

We might find ourselves taking the position that life is not always forgiving and that students must learn to deal with reality. However, we need to remember that their learning is our top priority. Our students will have plenty of opportunities to deal with the harsh realities of life. While teaching students to manage their time and deal with difficulties is certainly important, we need prioritize their core learning success.  

Fortunately, there are several steps we can take when students are at risk of giving up. These “lifelines” can make the difference between having students fall farther behind and lose hope and continuing to put forth effort and be willing to struggle in the face of learning setbacks and challenges. Here are five strategies to consider:  

  • Postpone grades and focus on feedback. Quality feedback in the absence of grades leads students to focus on the steps and strategies that lead to success. Once grades are assigned, students are more likely to shift their focus and stop struggling. We need to wait as long as possible before assigning a grade to student work.  
  • Include learning growth in grade calculations. Students who struggle often begin their learning with little background knowledge and related experience. They face the reality of having to learn more than students who come with these advantages. Yet, traditional grading practices often ignore this aspect of learning. In fact, students who achieve the highest grades are not necessarily the students who learned the most. Including recognition of learning growth in grading can be a good way to recognize and encourage the students who may have struggled.  
  • Provide flexibility in completion timelines. Obviously, we need to provide clear expectations regarding the submission of completed assignments and projects. Nevertheless, offering reasonable flexibility can maintain engagement and commitment from students who face circumstances and challenges that might otherwise lead them to give up.   
  • Throw out the lowest grade(s). Over the course of a grading period, students may experience distractions and circumstances that interfere with their learning. Or they may just have had a bad day or made a poor choice. The result can be outcomes that are not representative of their body of work. Our willingness to throw out unrepresentative work products and performances, or offer such an option, can be a source of hope and continued commitment for students.  
  • Permit learning reflections as evidence of learning. For a variety of reasons, there are times when the quiz, test, and assignment performance of students may not be representative of what they have learned. When we suspect that students are caught in these circumstances, we can offer opportunities for students to submit reflections on what they have learned, present a portfolio to supplement the information we have, or make a presentation to explain and demonstrate the learning they have gained.  

It would be wonderful if we did not have to deal with grading systems and could instead focus on learning as the essential measure of progress. However, for most educators, this prospect is not near-term reality. Consequently, we need to do what we can to encourage and support students to keep learning, even when the assignment of grades threatens to distract and discourage their efforts.  

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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