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Overcoming the Game of Grades with Your Students

Jun 15, 2021

I’m betting you’ve had a student come to you at the end of the semester or grading period to ask if there’s anything they can do to improve their grade, and your answer is, yes, you could’ve cared and done your work months ago - but caring now is too little too late.

Or maybe you’ve had a student come to you about how they were only one or two points away from an A on the test, after you had already slightly rounded up their score, and now they were asking you to round it up more.

I’m betting you’ve had any number of experiences like these whose true, underlying meaning is that the student cares more about the grade they receive in your class than they  do the learning experience.

This is not a one-classroom, one-school, or one-region issue.  This is a systemic, culture-wide issue inside of education that I will say, I’ve seen some improvements in over my years in the classroom, but I’m not sure will ever truly go away.

I mean it when I say that I don’t think the game of grades will ever cease to exist completely in education, but I have made the commitment inside of my own classroom, and would love to help you make the commitment as well to absolutely centralize LEARNING over grades inside my classroom.

And that’s what we’ll dive into in this episode.

After listening to this episode you’ll feel ready to take your classroom culture by the horns and make it reflect the messing process of learning as the reward, rather than the game of grades, teaching our students a much more valuable life lesson than any grade can.

So let’s get to it.

Let’s start off with a story that I may have shared with you before whether on this podcast or our blog at, but even so it deserves retelling for the purpose of this episode.

I’m a second year teacher who was giving 5 points per completed reading guide to my students in my AP Psychology class.  This means that if a student completed the outline notes I provided them using their textbook (or, let’s be honest, their neighbor’s paper who completed it before them), I was giving them 5 points, which equaled about a third to half the value of any one unit test. 

So, reading guides, along with other completion activities my students’ were very  much overcompensating for their tests which means they could be epically falling below mastery of the standards, but their grade would not show that to students or parents.  So they would be blindsided when the unit tests and big tests at the end of the year came around.

I decided to make a change.  About a third of the way through the school year, I reduced the amount of points I was handing out for the reading guides.  Most students didn’t care or were even relieved.  It was less pressure to complete something that they either didn’t do honestly anyway, or allowed them the head space to focus on other aspects of the course that aided their learning better.

But there was one student who cared, and one parent who cared.  And they sent me an email letting me know that my decision was a huge error when it comes to motivating students.  He drew parallels between the classroom and the workforce, saying that no person would do the work of their job if they weren’t being paid to do so.  Meaning that no student in my classroom was going to do the necessary work to learn and master the standards unless I was paying them with grades to do so.

Total sidebar here, but this singular event is what spurred my interest in grades and why I eventually wrote my master’s thesis on the meaning of grades.  

I was kind of shocked as the naive, 22-year old teacher that I was, and wasn’t sure how best to respond when this parent questioned my classroom decision, but how I responded isn’t really important for this episode.  Plus, it’s something we get used to as we gain more years as teachers, and I just wasn’t there yet.

But what is important for this episode is that this parent’s response, and ultimately the response of his child is evidence of the deep seeded collective-conscience we have about grades that we teachers must combat in our classrooms in order to provide meaningful learning experiences for our students.

And that is what Ii would like to help you do in today’s episode… is to combat the paradigm that is the game of grades so that your students can experience authentic learning in your classroom that will enable them to experience learning for the rest of their lives.

Your Mindset Matters

How you feel and what you believe about grades absolutely matters. You can’t just say that “I want my students to value learning more than grades.”  You have to go deeper.

You have to dive deep into the culture of your classroom and what it is portraying to your students.

Do you want a classroom that tells your students that as long as they show up and behave, then they’ll get the grade, as if the grade is a reflection of their ability to play the game of school?

Or are you striving for a classroom culture that shows students that they have to actively engage with content in order to truly understand it, and that the benefit in doing so gives them power beyond anything a grade can provide?

Do you want a classroom that exchanges currency for labor, as if your grades is a form of money we’re paying for our students’ work?  If only it were that way, and we got to benefit like business owners rolling in the dough when their employees do their jobs well.

Or are you striving for a classroom environment that embraces the messy, individualized nature of learning in a way that empowers our students to own the process a bit more and take steps towards their unique futures?

Get real with yourself on these topics, which is hopefully the easier part, especially if you're nodding with me as we chat, but now it’s time for the harder, but necessary work.

Talk the Talk

Now it’s time to talk-the-talk.  And you have to talk-the-talk before you can walk the walk which is up next, so this is an important step.  Just thinking you want to overcome the game of grades in your classroom isn’t enough.  You actually have to talk to your students about it, and be prepared to talk to parents about it as well.

At the beginning of the school year when you are going over your syllabus or doing some beginning of the year stations or scavenger hunts, you should absolutely take time to have students reflect on the meaning of grades.

This will be rather foreign to them, so you’ll have to walk alongside them on this.  Even have them dig up old, yucky feelings they have about grades, treading lightly that you don’t pass judgement on their beliefs or the behaviors of their parents to encourage their child’s good grades, and ultimately the game of grades as well.

Talk about the fact that communicating their success, or lack thereof, to parents and others via grades is important, but it is not meant to mean any more than that.  Their grade is not their value.  Their ability to master standards is not their identity.

Tell them that you are NOT the owner of a factory, and they your workers whom you  pay with grades to get the work done in class.  Not only is that demeaning to them that they are just meant to sit and work on meaningless tasks at their desks in exchange for payment, but (and you can even joke with them here), you aren’t benefiting from their work the way a rich factory owner is, so the gig is up.

Show them the messy process of learning by allowing mistakes to be made and even encouraged in your classroom.  Instead of asking for the right answer, ask a student to answer with a viable but wrong answer instead… then discuss why it’s wrong, out loud, in front of the whole class, without any judgement or emotion.

And when a student is daring enough to raise their hand or speak up in class to offer  an answer or idea, and they  come up short on what is correct, seize the opportunity to show students that you are truly, genuinely thankful for their wrong answer because in sharing it, everyone else in the room was able to have an advantage, and you hope that each one of them pays that student back at some point in the school year.

Rick Wormeli, a kind of guru when it comes to grades, showed in his research that learning without mistakes is learning, but learning is  heightened, more solidified when a  mistake is made and we improve because of it.

Take Rick’s quote and plaster it on the walls of your classroom.   Reward the sharing of authentic, honest mistakes in learning that allow everyone to benefit from, because knowing what the answer is not is just as valuable as knowing what it is.

Walk the Walk

Next up is that you’ll have to walk-the-walk, not just talk-the-talk.

The old adage that actions speak louder than words really rings true here.

Every decision you make in your classroom, especially those around assignments and grades must reflect your beliefs and philosophies about grades.

What constitutes a grade in your class?  Do completion assignments, homework or even classroom assignments and projects outweigh the impact of assessments or how iit is your students prove mastery?

If that’s the case, then you’re not walking-the-walk.  

This is where the rubber meets the road, and where parents start to pay attention, and that’s why getting back to tip number one, making sure you know exactly what you believe is imperative.  Equally imperative, then is your ability  to communicate that to parents now that you’re going to walk-the-walk.

Send communication home, I like doing so in a Parent Video at the beginning of the year, kind of like their very own flipped lesson, that clearly communicates your belief behind grades and what that means for students, and most importantly how you’ll support them in the process. 

Let them know that you’ll be supporting them in the messy process of learning, giving them chances to prove their mastery, and welcoming honest mistakes along the way so that everyone can learn and be better for it.

Let them know that 90-100% of their child’s grade will be made up of their child’s mastery of standards, and nothing else.  Inside of Flipped Classroom Formula and some other programs we offer, I teach about how I have two kinds of tasks or assignments, and ultimately grades for my students.  One is their Process Grade.  Anything my students do that helps them in the process of learning the standards is part of their process grade, and constitutes only 10% of their overall grade.  The other 90% is their mastery. Simple as that.

Anything less than this simply is not walking-the-walk.

Alright teacher friend, what do you think?  Think you’re ready to overcome the game of grades just yet?

Well, I hope you are feeling stronger about it after having listened to this episode and that you’ve got a couple strategies to implement in order to do so, but your journey in truly overcoming the game of grades begins now that you’re done listening.

Please join us inside the Sustainable Teacher Podcast Facebook group that you’ll find linked in the show notes below as we dive into this topic a bit more, and then don’t forget to save your seat for the 3 Insights to Flipping Your Classroom: Being More Sustainable in your Teaching Life workshop that is starting today at the time that this episode will air.


You’ve got this teacher friend, you can make impact with your classroom culture and it will last way  longer than anyone grade ever will.

I’ll see you right here, same time next week.  Bye for now.



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