The Year I Stopped Giving Marks

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For a lot of my years of teaching, I believed that marks were the great motivator.  I believed that the ultimate prize, whether it was an “A”, “100%”, or later a “Level 4” was what made students do their best.  Obviously, some parents thought so too.  Some parents went so far as to pay their children cash for high marks!

The problem with seeing marks as the motivator is simple.  A high mark may inspire a student to keep working, but a low mark rarely inspires a student to try harder.  I’ve drained the green ink out of many marking pens through the years writing notes similar to this:

“Level 2 — If you see me tomorrow for a review lesson on ___

you can re-write this quiz/test/assignment and earn a higher mark!”

Sounds great right?  Another kick at the can.  The problem is, too few students ever took me up on the offer.  My theory is that most students see the low number and never read on.  They’re too busy balling up the paper, getting angry with me or with themselves, or thinking “I just don’t get it, so why even bother trying?”

So this year, I decided to try an experiment.  I don’t give my students marks.  By this I mean I don’t write marks on their work.  I give written and verbal feedback, and lots of it, but no numbers. I still record their marks for later reference, but all they see is the written feedback.

As I began this “experiment” I was curious.  How long would it be till someone asked me for a mark?  I honestly figured it would be within the first few weeks.  September passed, and no one asked.  Eventually, partway through October, one student did ask about one particular quiz.  I gave her the number.  She was happy, since she had done well.  Then I asked her if the number had told her anything that the feedback hadn’t.  She paused, thought carefully about it, then said no.  She continues to be a highly motivated student, but now she and her classmates get the information and affirmation they need from written feedback and conversations during class about the work.  No one else has ever asked for a mark!

The real surprise came from my not-quite-so-high-achieving students.  When they get feedback such as, “You can add and subtract integers, but please come see me for a review of multiplying integers” some of them now want the help! They choose to learn, even when the test is behind them!  Instead of seeing a low number which tells them “you can’t”, they get feedback that tells them “with a little more work you can”.


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