I think we have been conditioning students to focus on the wrong things. We often place a single quantity on a paper and then lament the fact that students only care about points or grades and not on understanding. Well this is kind of predictable behavior if we distill all of their thinking into a single quantity. Many of us portray this grade as an objective measure (I am not sure an objective measure is possible). We hem and haw over a point or two on a problem and think about how students might react to the score. Enough is enough. I am encouraging you to not put a grade on papers (at least some of the time).
I know, I know, grades are necessary. Most of us have to assign grades. However, let’s think about a formative assessment type assignment. What is the purpose of such an assignment? Is it to see how your class is doing so you know how to change your instruction? Is it to understand how well students are understanding the material? In either of these cases, if you give the student a single grade how does that help them or you? You could see that many students are doing well, but doing well with what? If you instead gave some qualitative feedback and then note trends you will have a lot more to build on. Similarly, if you are trying to communicate how well they are doing, is it more meaningful to give a 7 out of 10 or to say you seem to be a bit unclear about the rate of change and how it varies? When giving such quantitative feedback, it also forces you to think through what a student understands rather than just whether their answer is right or wrong.
Recently, I have put only qualitative feedback on papers. This has made it so that my students don’t focus on points because there are none! It also means I can ask them to process that feedback and then reflect and revise based on it. I can even give them a rubric or ask them what score would be appropriate based on my feedback. I have found this really does change the focus of the students upon receiving my feedback.
So what do you say, are you game for trying, even if it is just for one assignment, to not put a grade on it? Let me know your ideas below.