The Pressure of Grades and Success

I presented a scenario to each of my classes a few weeks ago. They had to imagine they were taking a test in math; a subject they struggled in. They had studied for the test and felt confident. Everything was going well until the last problem (worth 20% of the test). They blanked and couldn’t remember how to solve it. Luckily, the answer was right in front of them in the form of a someone else’s test. This someone else was a math wiz, so they knew the answer was right. I asked how many would cheat if no one would ever find out?

Most of my students raised their hands. I appreciated their honesty.

“Why cheat?” I asked.

“Because no one would know.”

“Because it could be the difference between a good grade and failing grade.”

“But can’t you revisit and retake any quiz or test if you don’t do well?”

“Yeah, but still, we don’t want to fail.”

A student who hadn’t raised their hand chimed in, “But I wouldn’t feel good about the grade because I didn’t really earn it, and plus the teacher would think I understood something that I didn’t really know…”

With their responses focused on failing and grades, I asked them the same question, but this time I told them the test wasn’t worth a grade. It was for the purpose of seeing how well they understood certain concepts. Only 1 or 2 students raised their hands.

“So why the sudden change? Why not cheat anymore?” I asked.

“It’s not worth a grade anymore, so there’s no reason to cheat.”

“Yeah, we wouldn’t feel the pressure of failing the test and getting a bad grade, so why cheat?”

“So comparing these two scenarios, what’s this tell us about cheating?”

Awkward silence.

“That we tend to cheat when there’s a grade involved. We’re afraid of failing, so if the answers right there and no one will know, might as well cheat.”

“But if there’s no grade and we cheat, then we’re showing the teacher we understand something that we really don’t know.”

“Exactly,” I said. “So the pressure of failing, or getting a low grade tends to cause us to cheat.”

I went on to share my opinion on cheating. Every single student was focused on me, no fooling around, no side conversations, they were locked in. They were listening to every word I spoke because it was a topic they were a part of.

Cheating is something that most students will do, regardless of their status. Some studies have even shown that high achieving students are more likely to cheat due to the pressure of succeeding. I told my students that I cheated in school as well and for the same reason. Luckily, most of them understood the negatives of cheating: it’s misleading and doesn’t lead to actual learning.

What stood out to me the most, is that all of the teachers on my team allow for retakes if a student does poorly on a test or quiz. Despite this, students still feel the need to cheat. It shows just how crippling a low grade or failing can be. Students don’t want to fail. They’d rather steal someone else’s answer than make a mistake because of a numerical value.

But can we blame them for wanting to succeed so badly in a world that values A’s and 4.0 GPA’s above all?

The purpose of an assessment is to measure or check a student’s understanding. I don’t give tests or quizzes. I don’t like them as a form of assessment. I know firsthand how stressful they can be. I know how misleading they can be, especially if a student cheats.

Instead I give an assessment and ask students to show me what they know or how well they can perform. I explain the purpose of it and how making mistakes shows us where we can grow. It removes the temptation to cheat. Not entirely, but for the most part. There’s little reason to cheat when a grade isn’t involved. In fact, I asked my students earlier in the year if they ever cheated in my class and the consensus was “No because we don’t really have tests or quizzes; there’s really no reason to cheat.” While I’m sure some still cheated at times, I believe it’s far less than other classes.

As an ELA teacher, another common form of cheating that comes to mind is fake reading. When students read for a grade, especially a piece of text they could care less about, they tend to fake it. They’ll seek out answers online or read summaries rather than the actual text. I know because I fake read my way through high school.

Failing or making mistakes is unavoidable and for good reason. It’s how we learn. Students need to understand how to fail, reflect and grow. Unfortunately, the fear of failing still paralyzes our society. We treat failures harshly. Students are expected to pass a test the first time or else they feel dumb or stupid. They’re expected to say the “right” answer the first time. They’re expected to pass everything ever given to them.

As evident from our discussion, part of the problem is grading. We don’t need grades to learn. This isn’t anything new. We’ve know this for a long time. Remove them from education, and yes things get more difficult for us as teachers, but the end result would be a shift towards more learning and less “So how do I get an A?”

Grades are an easy way to label a student’s effort or ability. I cringe every time I have to assign a numerical value to student writing. Grading has never felt right or natural to me. Grading has never felt like an accurate reflection of a student. Not to mention everyone grades differently. An “A” student isn’t the most intelligent. Often times, they’re the one playing the game of school correctly, the one cheating, the one doing the extra credit, the one studying until 1AM the night before a test.

Instead of wasting time on grades, we should be giving students more feedback. Showing them how mistakes allow us to grow, how they shouldn’t be avoided. Most things I try in the classroom only get better over time. I reflect on what went well and what needs to change. Without this reflection, I would be the same teacher I was during my first year.

Removing grades takes many teachers out of their comfort zone. It requires more than adding up points on an assessment. We rely on grades far too much. Remove them and you’ll have parents and students still ask what their grade is. They’ve been a measure of success for far too long.  It’s unfortunate. It’s crippling. It’s wrong and it needs to change. Not tomorrow, not next week, but right now. I don’t care how much effort it requires. I don’t care if grades are how we’ve always done it. I do care that grades cause high levels of stress and unnecessary cheating. Worst of all, it labels students inaccurately and in extreme cases brainwashes them into believing it’s who they are.

Let’s face it, education isn’t about learning, it’s about the grade and that’s a huge problem. Because now more than ever, students need to know how to learn, not how to obtain an A.



A Jaw-Dropping Book-Talk

I watched as her jaw slowly dropped open. Her eyes widened, moving faster and faster. I knew what was happening. Her jaw continued to sink towards the floor. I waited. She slumped back in her chair. Her arms dropped by her side, one holding onto the book. She stared into nothingness, trying to process what she just read. Her eyes looked over at me and I smiled.

“Whaaaaaat!” she yelled.

Everyone else looked away from their books to see what was happening. The class had just settled into their 10 minutes of reading, and normally I wouldn’t like such a disruption, but this student was experiencing one of those oh-my-god moments. One of those I-can’t-believe-this moments. One of those this-book-is-awesome moments. It’s the moments we live for as readers. The ones we never see coming. The ones everyone should experience.

“Surprised?” I asked her.

“This is the second big twist. I can’t believe it.”

“I told you it had a few surprises, don’t spoil it for anyone else.”

Another student, waiting to read the same book, looked on with jealousy; envious of the experience.

The book in her hands was Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. A book that disappeared from my classroom library a couple months ago. With the recent movie release, it seemed like everyone was asking me if I found it yet. I couldn’t resist giving my readers what they want so I purchased four more copies. They were gone the minute they came in. There’s now a long list of students waiting for those four to finish.

Typically whole-class disruptions or yelling out can cause problems, but today’s disruption served as the best book-talk there is. Everyone watched and listened as one reader experienced the true joys of reading.

A Writer’s Notebook: Life-Changing

Writer’s Notebook, Day 1: I stared at a blank sheet of paper. My mind searched through topics worth writing about, dismissing one after another. I placed the pen to the page, stopped and lifted it back up again. I was in my third year of teaching ELA, struggling to write in a notebook. Doubt crept into my thoughts. Part of me wanted to quit already. I finally scribbled some prose onto the page, the actual ideas long forgotten. My inner voice laughed at each word I wrote down. Writing froze my thoughts on paper. It was awful. I didn’t want anyone to read it.

This day marked one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

A little over a year ago I sat down to read The Essential Don Murray: Lessons From America’s Greatest Writing Teacher. A book that showed me what it meant to be a writer. It set me down a path of discovery and lead me to keep a writer’s notebook, or as Don calls it, a daybook.

When writing about his daybook, Don wrote, “It’s a private place where you can think and where you can be dumb, stupid, sloppy, silly; where you can do all the bad writing and bad thinking that are essential for those few moments of insight that produce good writing.”

He made it sound easy: get a suitable notebook, sit down everyday and write. A simple process that looked effortless from the outside. Don stressed how much bad writing needs to happen before we can find the good. Yet, when I first started keeping one, it was a struggle. It felt awkward writing for myself. Most of my life I wrote for academics. I’d include an intro, body and conclusion; I wrote whatever was required for an A.

I started waking up ten minutes earlier to write in my writer’s notebook. I reminded myself that it was a form of thinking on paper, that it was for me and no one else, but I still criticized every word I wrote. I didn’t like recording my thoughts. Writing them down made them visible, almost tangible. This paralyzed me.

Don’s words showed me I had much to learn about writing. I read more books on the writing process, or books about how writers write. Most agreed that they wrote because they had to. They used their writer’s notebooks as a way to experiment with language and thoughts. I was envious.

My morning writing sessions quickly disappeared, instead I wrote in my notebook whenever I felt guilty about not writing. I could feel less resistance when putting pen to paper. My inner critic eased up a bit and although I wasn’t writing in my notebook everyday, my mind was starting to shift towards that of a writer’s. Throughout the day, I caught myself randomly asking “should I try writing about that?”

A few months after my first writing entry, I listened to Linda Rief speak about her use of a Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook in her 8th grade classroom. I read over pages from her students, mesmerized by not only the quality of writing, but the level of thinking they were producing. They were asking relevant questions about their lives and writing to discover the answers. I quickly devoured her book, Read Write Teach, in which she thoroughly describes her amazing classroom. It invigorated me. I wanted to show my future students the power of a writer’s notebook. I thought, if I want them to keep their own, I first needed to improve mine.

WRN PageI started writing about anything and everything. I wrote about the books I read. I wrote about any question or idea worth exploring. I wrote about writing. I wrote about not having anything to write about. I wrote about how I was taught to write in school. As the days went by, the pages of my notebook filled up with my language experiments. Most were random, but let to some kind of discovery. Such as realizing that if I had such difficulty writing when no one else would see it, my students couldn’t be blamed for sometimes sitting and staring before they write, or even not writing anything at all.

Last month was the first time I wrote in my notebook every single day. I wrote because I needed to. Even if it was just a line or two. I’ve traded in my inner critic for a teacher.  Now I’m an observer, searching for things to record or explore.

I also look at words differently. Whether on a billboard or spoken out loud, I find myself paying closer attention, even recording them. I view pieces of text through a writer’s lens, noticing the craft the author used and it’s effectiveness. I record down pieces of writing worth imitating or that I wish I had wrote.

Writer’s Notebook, Day 414: My pen struggled to keep up with the thoughts pouring out of my head. Paying little attention to structure, organization, or conventions, I wrote about failures. Eventually the words lead me to my writer’s notebook and the amount of times I failed while attempting to write in it. I reflected on the year long struggle to find my voice as a writer. It’s the entry that lead me to write this blog post.

Keeping a writer’s notebook has forced me to better understand how writing works, but more importantly, how to better help my students identify as writers. Writing is about discovery and learning. It’s not something we do for academics. I used to believe that being a writer meant having published a successful piece of work, but that’s better defined as an author. Everyone can be a writer, or rather, everyone should be a writer.

Looking back on the process of keeping a writer’s notebook, it’s one of those things that I thought I would never accomplish. It felt like a chore, like something I was forcing. Day by day, I felt little change, but now, a year later, I know that keeping a writer’s notebook is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. It’s the reason I’m the person I am today. It’s the reason I’m the teacher I am today. And it’s the reason that I’ll continue to grow and learn.