Don't Grade Student Behavior: Grading Epiphany 1

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled Grading: What Is It For?, in which I wrote briefly about the beginnings of my journey to a better way to grade students.

Today, I’m following that up with the first in a series of posts about my Grading Epiphanies: those big realizations I had that permanently changed my classroom practice.

Disclaimer: it’s very likely that all of these epiphanies will stem from Ken O’Connor’s work, since a) he’s good at this stuff and b) that’s where my grading reform journey began.

I strongly encourage you to check out his books How to Grade for Learning and A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades.

Without further ado, here’s Grading Epiphany 1: Don’t Grade Student Behavior. This is a mainstay of O’Connor’s work - in fact, it’s his first fix in the 15 fixes for broken grades. So let’s break this down.

What do I mean, “student behavior”?

Student behavior is anything a student does that is outside of their actual demonstration of knowledge or skills. This could include effort, participation, or even whether or not work is submitted on time.

Wait - so I can’t have a participation grade in my class?

Well, you can do whatever you want - truly - but no, I don’t include a participation grade in any of my classes anymore. There are a variety of reasons why, but the biggest one is this: in the classes I’ve taught (at least in the past - I’m about to teach Drama, so that is a slightly different ball game), my subject area is not Participation.

In order to be considered a skilled student in the discipline of English Language Arts, one does not have to raise one’s hand every class period.

One does have to demonstrate a specific level of reading, writing, and speaking ability.

And that, my friends, is what goes in my students’ evaluations and grades.

Wait - so effort and responsibility don’t count anymore?

Uh… no, not really. At least not in grades. Here’s the thing: when you include effort and responsibility (or lack thereof) in a student’s grade, your grades become super duper subjective. There is no common standard against which students’ skills are being evaluated.

And that gives you two potentially misleading scenarios:

  1. Little Sally isn’t the most adept reader and writer, but golly - she sure does work hard on every single assignment. Her work is always carefully done and is never late. Surely she deserves full credit! Only problem is, when she gets an A in my class and then goes on to Mrs. Dinwiddie’s class next year and earns a C with her mediocre skills, she’s completely baffled. Confusion abounds.

  2. Little Jimmy is actually pretty dang bright, but shoot - he just doesn’t seem to have his act together. He never turns his homework in on time, and sometimes he doesn’t turn it in at all. When his work is late, it receives reduced credit - sometimes as low as 50%. And when his work is never turned in at all? A big fat zero. This means that, even though he does well on his unit exams, he gets a D or an F in my class, because those dang zeros just add up after a while. His irresponsibility (and lack of support at home) have dug him a hole he can’t get out of.

When I read scenarios similar to these in Mr. O’Connor’s books, my mind was blown. I honestly had never thought of grading in this way, but once I did, it all made sense.

Suddenly, I realized that the grades I was giving students didn’t actually communicate what I thought they were.

And that was a big problem.

Because ultimately, if a grade doesn’t accurately communicate the depth of a student’s knowledge and skills, then it might as well not be given.

Grades are a communication tool - nothing more. If you can’t communicate clearly, then don’t communicate at all. That’s my mantra when it comes to grades.

So… What do I include in my grades?

The short answer is, you include those things that communicate a student’s academic progress and proficiency in your subject area.

What that looks like in my classroom is this: I have a set of standards - a reduced set of the Common Core State Standards - that are the underpinnings of everything we do in my class. A bulk of the students’ grades are determined by their skills on the final outcomes of each unit, whether those outcomes are literary papers, presentations, or other projects.

Within each individual final outcome, there are typically 3-5 standards I’m assessing, and so in the gradebook, a student will see 3-5 entries, each with its own score.

For example, let’s say I’m assessing a batch of student essays for evidence of the following skills:

  • Write an argument to support a claim, using valid reasoning and sufficient evidence

  • Gather relevant information from multiple sources

  • Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences

Each essay would receive three scores - one for each of the skills.

This type of grading takes a bit of explaining throughout the year, to both students and their parents, but is so worth the time and effort it takes.

When you grade and report to students in this way, it solves a host of problems.

Remember Little Sally and Little Jimmy? Using the method of grading I’ve described, Little Sally would have received a grade more reflective of her actual skills in my class, and therefore wouldn’t have been confused when she went to Mrs. Dinwiddie’s class the following year.

In fact, with this clearly communicated information about her skills, she would have had a better chance of understanding what she needed to work on and might have made more improvement before even getting to Mrs. Dinwiddie.

And Little Jimmy? If the bulk of his grade were determined by his scores on final outcome tasks, he’d pass with no problem at all, which is appropriate, given that his skills are on track.


Yeah, this is a tough one. I know it seems like factoring in students’ effort or timeliness into their scores teaches them responsibility and makes them more employable in the future, but here’s the problem: research doesn’t support that common-sense conclusion.

Using grades to reward students for good behavior or punish them for bad behavior just doesn’t actually work. We have a lot of research to prove this. (Don’t believe me? Go read Ken O’Connor already!)

Besides, there are plenty of structures you can set up in your class that teach students responsibility and the upside to putting in one’s full effort besides doling out zeros left and right. We can talk more about that whole side of things another time.

For now, just… think about this, will you? Consider the impact it might have on you, your instructional practices, and your students if everything in your gradebook was tied to a skill or piece of knowledge students must acquire as part of your discipline. Think how focused and powerful that would be.

And then try it.

And then let me know how it goes - in a comment, or on Twitter.

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Erin Dickey2 Comments