"My grade was never handed down from above, but was one that I believed in and so did you.  I had just as much a say in it as you did, which made it equal and fair.  It also brought you a little farther down off the pedestal of teacherdom, too.  Too many teachers are so far removed, so almost celestial, bestowing grades upon us and never saying why or how.  This was real, and very personal."     — Katherine J., student

In many traditional classrooms, the question of what factors contribute to a grade means balancing test scores with other factors such as homework completion.  However, if we are in fact preparing our students to live their lives well, we must also value other, less quantifiable, aspects of a student’s performance. Perhaps she has become a more self-directed, metacognitive learner.  Perhaps she has assumed a more adult posture of responsibility and is managing her time more effectively. If such things matter, they should be a part of the grading system. Given the personal and subjective nature of such factors, it is appropriate to engage students as an integral part of the process of evaluating them.  

The end of a marking period is an opportune moment to stop and reflect with our students what they have experienced (and not just academically).  It is an appropriate time to discuss how they can learn from their experiences and become better, more self-sufficient learners. It is time, in other words, for a meaningful conversation.

Grade conferences serve a number of important functions:

  • Conferences provide you with a deeper, more meaningful understanding of a student’s experience than any other source of information you may receive.

  • Conferences boost a student’s self-awareness of her strengths and weaknesses.

  • Conferences offer an opportunity to model the skills of setting goals and learning from mistakes.

  • Conferences hold students accountable, particularly when conference grade summaries are reviewed from one marking period to the next. By looking at comments from a previous conference, students can see whether they have followed through with agreed-upon changes in how they work and learn.

  • Conferences boost the student’s sense of ownership.  The very fact that there is a discussion to be had, rather than you “giving” them a grade, redefines the traditional power structure in a healthy way.  This is a part of the student’s academic life where having a voice is particularly important.

  • Conferences teach students organizational skills and responsibility for maintaining the collection of their work.

  • Conferences allow for the appropriate level of flexibility in determining grades.  There are important but non-quantifiable aspects of the academic experience, and a grade conference can incorporate those aspects into a final grade.

  • Conferences generate trust between you and your students, because conferences require trust from both parties.  This, in turn, deepens the working relationship between you.

I found grade conferences overwhelmingly to be a satisfying experience.  I rarely disagreed with my students’ self-evaluations and even more rarely found myself engaged in a power struggle about finding an appropriate grade.  The conversations were often the most personal and meaningful to the students that I would have with them and regularly transformed and improved my working relationship with them.  Grade conferences established the idea that both the student and I were working for her success and growth.