"What you measure affects what you do."       — Joseph Stiglitz

"In this class I never had to worry about my grades.  I knew that if I did all the work that was available to me (and there was always more than enough to keep me busy) and tried my best, the grades would just work out.  But what was more important was that I actually learned a lot."          — Lauren C., student

"Learning for a grade is seriously pointless."         —Mady M., student

“What do I need to do to get an A?”  How often have you heard a variation of that theme?  Does your heart sink when you hear it? It should.

Academic materialism is an unmistakeable symptom of doing school: the desire to be “successful” in school by accumulating the best grades.  For the student who asks this question, learning has become a fringe benefit of doing school efficiently. She is in the thrall of grades, and as a result, she is missing out on the experience of self-directed learning.

Most of us take for granted that grades are a necessary and important part of school.  Certainly they are not going away anytime soon, since they are an integral part of a much larger system   (college admissions spring to mind). But more than any other factor, grades push students into the bad habits of doing school.  No one intends this to happen, but it is a ubiquitous problem in our educational system nonetheless.

Successful students often identify with their grade status — I have seen students weep bitterly at getting less than an A on a test — while the corresponding damage that low grades do to the identities of unsuccessful students is incalculable.  

One of the central goals of our new paradigm is to break the spell of grades by redefining their purpose.  Rather than being a system of rewards and punishments, an external motivator, or a way to sort students along a bell curve, grades can become an important and useful part of the learning process.  

This change can be accomplished in part by creating a classroom culture that focuses relentlessly on self-directed learning and deemphasizes the importance of grades.  But structural changes are also necessary. This chapter will explore three broad strategies for redefining the meaning of grades: Disentangling feedback from grades, having students self-evaluate their work, and participating in grade conferences with students.

In order to know why we need to implement these strategies, however, it is important first to carefully consider what functions grades currently serve, what meaning they have, and the inadvertent damage they can do.