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Quarter grades—a roadblock to growth mindset and learning?

October 11, 2011

I think I’ve developed a pretty healthy classroom atmophere that promotes mistake making and allows students to learn from those mistakes. I have pretty good evidence of this from the student feedback I collect, like this:

I have definitely developed a more growth mindset in this class and I am really enjoying the way we learn. So many of my classes are so stressful! Everything must be perfect all the time! Physics feels like a nice low stress class where we learn for fun! That is the way I wish all of my classes would be like! Mistakes are a part of learning and I feel like the other classes that I have don’t recognize that. I am having fun in this class more that anything and I believe that that helps boost my understanding and my wanting to learn.

But in the past week or so, I feel that one thing has unraveled much of the progress we’ve been making as a class—quarter grades. In one week, I’m required to give every student a 0-100 grade along with a comment. Suddenly, even though students have been taking assessments every Friday, making mistakes, learning from them and improving their understanding on a student initiated assessment the following week, these assessments count, and they seem to be worthy of much more stress, which at least anecdotally based on my students’ work, is getting in the way of their showing understanding on the assessment.

Here’s what’s frustrates me—imagine your local high school play, halfway between the first rehearsal and opening night. Odds are, the play is terrible right now. Actors still don’t know their lines, the stage is probably completely unfinished, no one knows their cues—it’s a disaster. But everyone knows what they need to do to get better, and no one is discouraged. To put on a great play, you have to go through that stage where you put on a truly terrible play. It just seems like it’s baked in to high school theater. And no director would ever listen to some outside entity coming in and requiring public reviews be written of every actor halfway through. Were a parent to come in to a rehearsal at this point, he or she would also likely be very understanding of the fact that the play is still in a very early stage, and forgiving of all the mistakes he/she sees.

Why can’t it be this way in my classroom? My students all know exactly what they need to do–they get detailed feedback every day through formative assessment, and every week through our weekly assessments. They can check their progress on each standard at anytime through ActiveGrade. And yes, at this point, some students still haven’t mastered some fundamental things that would be akin to knowing your lines or cues. Like good actors, they know that if they don’t figure these things out, the result will be a terrible play (or in our case, a poor exam and a low overall grade). But like a confident director, I have little doubt that my students will master these things. I just worry that giving them a low grade next week because they haven’t mastered these things will do more harm than good in this process.

Why again, can’t we develop students who approach academics the same way they approach their extracurricular pursuits like sports and theater—open to mistakes, cognizant that they won’t be perfect on the first or even second try, and confident in the knowing that focusing on the process will lead to the outcome they want?

I’m also wondering what if anything I can say to my students and parents in comments that will help them to understand this process. Are there words I can say to help parents to help them see my classroom and their child’s progress more like that of a high school theater production where mistakes are an expected and essential part of the journey?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2011 7:16 am


    You make total sense and I love your theater analogy. It is so true!!! We need to let students practice, make mistakes, make adjustments, struggle to improve, see the progress and start the cycle again until they have mastered the concepts (mastered the lines, stage directions, etc.). Then the performance and the audience reaction.

    Maybe grades at the end of the journey! (in May)

    Why can’t we get this work done? Is tradition of excellence the obstacle?


  2. October 11, 2011 10:13 am

    Any chance you can just give them all a Pass? I teach middle school but a Pass doesn’t have a numeric score so just doesn’t factor into their overall GPA.

    • October 11, 2011 11:32 am

      If only it were so easy. I’m afraid I’m obligated to give a 0-100 numerical grade at this juncture.

  3. October 11, 2011 10:30 am

    Exactly! I had to give quarter grades and I was swamped by students coming in to reassess, “because I have to have at least a C or I can’t play sports,” or somesuch answer. The growth mindset i have been struggling to foster was completely gone.

    “Which assessment are you ready to re-try,” I would ask.

    “Whichever one will make my grade go up the most,” was the reply…

    I’m going to tell all my students when the 2nd quarter starts next week after fall break that I will show them the door if they come to me with that request.

    I had to give letter grades last week for the quarter…4 weeks ago I gave every one of my 193 students a “P” for passing instead of a letter. I had to field dozens of emails from parents asking what this “P” meant and I simply said that their son or daughter doesn’t have enough data in the grade book for me to provide an accurate grade. They seemed happy with that response so early in the year, but parents and administrators demand letter grades by the end of the quarter.

    But I want to ask the parents and administrators, “What does this B- tell you about what Steven knows and can do in the classroom? What does it tell you about what he’s great at? What does it tell about what he’s struggling with and improving toward?”

    I’m afraid the response will be, “Well, he’ll be allowed to play sports…”

    • October 11, 2011 11:36 am

      I think linking academic performance to sports is one of the most destructive things we do to young students. See that thing you love, and makes you totally engaged in the process of learning and improving. Well, we’re going to take it away from you unless you get your grades “up.” Sure, I get the intent, but I’ve seen countless examples of athletes seeing better performance, not worse performance when they are most committed to a sport. And at my school, it’s easy enough for me to have a student miss a practice or two if he/she really needs to make up some assignment or work on a particular concept. But the thought that one of my students couldn’t play a sport simply because they hadn’t had sufficient time yet to master all the concepts we deem fundamental to this class and necessary to pass? I’m not ok with that at all.

      It seems like giving a P would be a nice compromise, but that’s not possible either. And again, my students have continuous access to their progress, so I’m in no way trying to hide their failures from them. I simply want students to have the chance to work through these failures so that they become understanding.

  4. October 11, 2011 11:32 am

    Parents need some feedback about whether their child is on track or not. You may not like using a single summary grade to provide that information, but providing less information (pass/fail) or too much information (20 SBG grades) does not help the parent with decision making (does the child need to spend more time on this subject? on school in general? can they be allowed another extracurricular activity?)

    Delaying that information until the end of the year is not helpful.

    • October 11, 2011 12:06 pm

      I see your point, but I think this is why we write detailed and specific narrative comments at the quarter to describe the progress a student is making and offering specific advice on how to improve. It seems to me that this is far more useful than ’85’, which doesn’t really address the questions you raise. There are schools, like St. Ann’s that manage to do away with grades entirely, with no negative side-effects.

      And I would be happy with the grade if I could be assured that students, parents and even other teachers could properly interpret its meaning, however experience shows me that this is often not the case.

      • October 11, 2011 4:30 pm

        I’m not a huge fan of grades. I teach at a University that until a few years ago made all grades be student option (but now has one of the strictest requirements for grades of any school). I even voted against requiring grades.

        As a parent, though, I appreciate a concise summary that let’s me help my son set priorities. Comments are useful (is this A- because my son hasn’t been doing some of the work? because he makes careless errors? because the teacher doesn’t give a higher grade?), but just comments without a calibration point doesn’t help much. I already know that he is smart, doesn’t like most writing assignments, and sometimes is impatient with the slower students. Telling me that again provides no new information. Telling me that he failed to turn in some homework or that he did not do a lab assignment correctly would give me useful info. Telling him that his mistakes are dropping his grade might give him incentive to be more careful.

        Students can always do better with more work, but someone has to decide how much work is justified for each class. If the student is already earning an A+ in a class, they could take some of the time they are spending on that class and apply it to a class in which they are earning a B-.

        Incidentally, theater classes give quarter grades also. They tend to be based on how well students have been participating and whether they have been making adequate progress on learning their lines and blocking. It isn’t necessary to wait until the show is over to see whether students are doing ok work (though final judgements do depend highly on the final performance).

        • jsb16 permalink
          October 11, 2011 7:43 pm

          If you’re going to evaluate a stock, you don’t want a single number (price). You want at least a few numbers (price, price/earnings ratio, recent change). Kids’ academic achievement is so much more complex and individual than a stock. Why would you want to reduce that complexity to a single number (85%, which begs the questions: “of what?” and “how different is that from 86%?”)?

  5. October 11, 2011 5:47 pm

    I’m getting into the same boat in the next couple of weeks. My kids have access to ActiveGrade, they know exactly where they stand, but I’m required to put an A through F letter grade. What am I to do with the kids who haven’t mastered a handful of Core objectives? I need to double check my school’s software but I think I can enter comments along with the mid semester grades. I’m hoping to write up a paragraph blurb about my grading practices and tag it on to the grades that go home. I think I’ve got a vibe going with my kids and parents that they’ll mostly get what’s going on. It helps that my school only ends up sending off year end grades to colleges, so there’s some built in structure to the “this grade doesn’t matter” argument. But I’m still two weeks out, perhaps the grade-grubbing toxins won’t be released for a little while yet.

    One of my big concerns is my seniors in AP Physics. For most of them their college applications will include a transcript with a copy of this mid semester grade. How do I want to treat core standards when there’s been pretty limited time for growth and mastery?…I can tell I have more to say about this, but it’ll have to wait until after dinner.

  6. October 11, 2011 11:43 pm

    I encounter this same issue only I don’t have the option of providing any feedback other than canned comments, which I don’t use at all. While I get to talk to many parents during parent-teacher conferences, I end up relying on the students to explain their progress to their parents. This is a good thing, but I wish there was something more.

    When I’m feeling particularly frustrated and mischevious, I’ve considered reporting mid-term grades as F for every student and explain that they haven’t demonstrated an understanding of enough of physics to warrent a passing grade. I bet that would start a discussion with someone!

  7. October 24, 2011 4:35 pm

    I think the biggest thing you need to do is to kick out political correctness if you are trying to develop a growth mindset.

    I come from a sports coaching back ground and as a growth mindset coach I have bumped into fixed mindsets and unless you know whats going on it can be a frustrating experience for all concerned.

    In my coaching experience and life in general I have found that a political correctness attitude cultivates a fixed mindset.

    When it comes to progress development, Leonardo Da Vinci never put the Mona Lisa on public display when he was only half finished.

    • October 25, 2011 11:44 pm

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean by political correctness. Could you explain?

      • October 26, 2011 5:33 am

        Political correctness is the use of words or terms so you do not offend or upset the feelings of people, which I have no problem with as it is always good to be kind and courteous to your fellow human beings, though what has happened is, people have become overly sensitive and taken political correctness too far.

        Originally political correctness may have started out with good intentions, as improvements had to be made, but it has ended up having negative consequences in a lot of areas and gone too far.

        From my own perspective, political correctness has led to the socialization of competitive sport with its core aims of winning and improvement being replaced by participation and fun because people have looked at the negative side, being: win at all cost, stress, pressure and un sportsmanship behaviour and applied political correctness to it.

        The result of this has seen the dumbing down of competitive sport. Which is a shame, for if you train correctly and with the focus on the positive aspects, such as work ethic, commitment, discipline, learn to overcome adversity, time management, goal setting and perseverance, this benefits people and society as a whole as people have to look at ways to improve themselves, get better and work and co-operate with others to make it happen. With participation and fun as the aims of competitive sport, this does not happen, it actually promotes mediocrity, thus standards drop and we end up giving everyone a certificate or medal because they merely turned up and had a go.

        Hope this helps.

        • October 26, 2011 12:55 pm

          Thanks. I’m aware of the term political correctness, but wasn’t sure how you saw it applying here. I now understand, but I want to assure you that my dislike of quarter grades really has nothing with PC. I am all for giving student specific and direct feedback on what they do and do not understand. I’m also all for letting them know that if they don’t master skill X, that will ultimately result in a failing grade. But I’m not ok with interrupting the middle of practice and suddenly giving out single number grades that convey much less than the information I have already provided, and tend to inspire panic (on the part of parents and students) more than progress.

  8. Mike M permalink
    October 13, 2013 1:21 pm

    Is there a way to correlate your 0-100 point scale (or even better, 50-100 pt scale) to overall proficiency levels of the objectives taught during the term? A rubric of sorts that connects how well objectives were learned to a score range. Could students then be given opportunities later in the year to demonstrate increased proficiency in those objectives to have the score changed?


  1. » Blog Archive » I feel Your Pain…A collective Sigh
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