Don’t work for marks

In my experience, I was always very good at getting good grades in school. Near the end of high school, I received the comment, “You do so well in math, that you must really understand the work”. This caused me to think and led me to find the truth was quite the opposite. I had succeeded if the goal was to memorize a bunch of facts, but failed miserably if the goal was to really understand.

Recently, I gave my class an extra math problem to solve, which was not for marks, and observed what happened. In some cases, students who previously showed little interest in solving problems, when given lengthy assignments that were for marks, were now fully engaged in solving this problem. Perhaps they saw this as more of a puzzle to solve, as opposed to just work that was heaped on them. Or maybe it was the fact that they knew they wouldn’t be judged on their performance, so they were able to simply have fun.

Studies have shown that giving incentives or rewards, often makes people less motivated, and marks can be seen as a reward. Students quickly learn to do the minimum in order to achieve a certain mark, just wanting to get things done, but not to do them to the best of their ability or take many risks. Studies also have shown that when marks are accompanied by comments, students often focus on the mark and ignore the comments.

When students focus too much on their marks, they are not focused on learning from mistakes in order to make improvement. They see the mark as being final, perhaps because it is branded on their paper in red ink. When students constantly receive similar marks they begin to accept their results, never realizing that a change in their approach would see their results improve.

We need to do a better job of encouraging students along their lifelong learning journey, giving them many opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. At times students are just passed along from grade to grade, not ever having mastered anything, but simply because they scraped by with a passing grade. Students quickly determine that they need to get 50% of the marks in order to move on to the next grade level. If you came up to a toll-booth with $10 in your pocket, and you were told that you needed to pay at least 50% of your money in order to pass, what choice would you make?

A system of caring for and working with students rather than one that judges and ranks them is needed. Such a mastery system would show students that their current results do not define their potential for success in future. In my opinion, we need to seriously consider the effects of marking on young people and the damage it can cause to their progress.

Students, never let your grades define who you are. Never for a second believe that failing at something makes you a failure in life. Do not be discouraged by low marks, since you can always learn from mistakes so you turn each one into a positive. Use a low mark as fuel to cause you to take action to keep moving forward and never give up. Stay positive, keep making your best effort to improve your understanding and your results will improve over time.

Please let me know in the comments section what your thoughts are. Particularly, how could we reduce the importance of marks, so that we focus on mastery instead?

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