Monday, April 4, 2011

When no mark is better than a mark

Recently, it was report card due date.  In the past, I would input the marks into my grade system then attach comments to the grades and submit my marks to the appropriate people.  Afterword, I would go home and enjoy a drink.
This year I decided to do things a little differently.  I inputted the marks, just the same, however after I decided to take a closer look.  Between my three classes, I noticed four students who were not meeting success in my course.  Instead of ignoring the failure, and attaching the canned “Please see me at parent teacher interviews…” comment, I took a different approach.
Before, I failed to realize that the failing mark was actually destroying the self-confidence of the student and informing him/her “You are a failure.”  This year, and in future years, I am no longer sending this message home to parents and, more importantly, to the students themselves.
This year, I removed all the marks of the students who were not meeting success in my class. Instead of sending a mark of 40%, 34% or 48%, I sent a mark of “—“ home.  Instead of having the “you are failing the course” conversation, I sat down with each student and had this conversation with a student:
Me: Suzy, currently, you are not meeting the expectations of my course.
Suzy: I know, and my mark is low.
Me: How about this?  Instead of giving you a mark we will leave it blank and over the next two weeks, you and I will review the first three units until you can truly demonstrate the knowledge at an acceptable standard.
Suzy: Huh? What is my mark?
Me: Do you feel like you understand the material I have covered in class?
Suzy: No, but I really need to pass this course.
Me: Alright, then does it really matter what your mark is?
Suzy: No, but I don’t think I will be able to pass the class, because I am pretty sure my mark is really low.
At this point Suzy started to cry.
Me: That is my point.  I don’t want you to think that.  We will wipe the slate clean, spend some time going over the material and then reassess you.  If you can demonstrate the material next week, then I will ignore the first month.
Suzy: Wow, can I give you a hug?
Me: Ha ha, no but a high five will do!
All the conversations went very similar to this.  Also, when I phoned home, EVERY parent thanked me profusely.  
Marks are not causing problems solely for failing students, but for more students than you are probably aware of.  This year, already, I have had multiple students drop a class of mine because their midterm mark is lowering their average.  Every student, when talked to, informed me that he/she enjoyed the class, has learned a lot, but he/she is too concerned about their average mark.
The students were dropping my pre-calculus class, which runs as a first year post secondary class.  Some would argue that this is a positive experience as I am “weeding” and “opening the eyes” of my students to the true post-secondary experience.  When I hear comments such as these, I want to join Suzy crying!
Even my high-end students are being negatively effected by these midterm marks.  I have heard, several, of them say similar comments such as: “I have to make sure I stay on the honor roll, and since I am well over that, I can stop trying”.
Education should NEVER be about destroying confidence, weeding students out, or informing them that they can stop trying, but unfortunately this is the message sent home when we become marks orientated.
At first, I believed for failing students “no mark is better than a mark”, but as I listen and talk to my other students I have concluded that for EVERY student “no mark is better than a mark”.  Imagine what we could accomplish if, instead of giving a mark, teachers just had to answer one question “Will this student be successful at the next level?”


  1. Midterms here are S or U. Satisfactory or UnSatisfactory... although they can see their marks on our LMS

  2. David,

    Thanks for such a great post!
    Often times, due to the mass processing of marks we forget about the emotional impact and pressure that marks can have on our students. Your post serves as an excellent reminder to us all to consider how our students will respond to the marks and feedback that we assign. We can probably add to this the question of what a mark or letter grade actually means and whether or not they actually provide any useful information. I applaud you for providing your students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning. More than anything, you are providing them hope. Given the opportunity, I'm sure they will do their best to come through for you!


  3. David:

    Thanks for your post. This is something I am working towards in my practice. In BC we can assign a student an "I" letter grade (incomplete) which is accompanied with a plan for how the student & teacher are going to address the areas the need improvement -- a formal way of doing what you are doing.

    I share your dream that instead of giving a mark, teachers just had to answer one question “Will this student be successful at the next level?”. My work around is to have students generate, and own, their end of term marks using a DIY report card (blog post under construction).

  4. David,
    Thanks for your post. It made me think of those students that are in the same situation as Suzy. Sometimes it's a bit hard to go 'against' the standards of a school, nonetheless, we have to bear in mind the outcomes of a failing grade.

  5. Failing is not an option--what better way to improve student learning! Richard DuFour documents the success of this method in his book "Whatever It Takes: How Secondary Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn". When educators remove the choice to fail, students will rise to the occasion!

  6. This reminds me of what Ray Golarez, a past school superintendent in Indiana said about grades. Algebra teachers at the end of the grading period assigned grades of NY - Not Yet to those students who needed a little longer to meet expectations. Everyone of them met expectations by the two week mark into the new term.
    Wouldn't it be great if we had more flexibility to vary the time as well as help students focus more on learning and less on grades?
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

  7. You show how easy it could be to just let go of the constraints that bind teachers and students! Why does it seem so hard, so against the grain, and then prove to be so easy?