Sunday / May 19


Are the grading actions you are currently implementing leading to greater levels of student learning and desired behaviors?

Professor John Hattie notes clearly that building students’ assessment capability has the potential to best impact their learning. But just what does assessment capability mean?

Assessment capable students:

  • Become their OWN teachers
  • Articulate what and why they are learning
  • Can convey their next learning steps
  • Develop resiliency and grit
  • Set mastery goals for themselves
  • Actively seek feedback
  • See errors as opportunities to learn and grow

This list encompasses almost every characteristic and trait we want all of our students, as well as our own children, to develop. Is it a surprise Hattie’s evidence conveys clearly these traits lead to the highest levels of student learning? One simple yet complex issue often gets in the way of teachers fostering these traits in their students: Grading. The question then becomes: With many traditional grading and reporting systems teachers and entire schools utilize to report student progress, how can we do this?

Monitor grading and practices for impact!

Hattie challenges us through his Visible Learning research and messages to above all know thy impact! We must, as educators, view the impact of our actions based on how they increase student learning. Grading actions should not be immune to this challenge. Teachers must monitor existing as well as changes or adjustments to grading actions by determining if they are having the desired and expected impact on student performance—both academically and affectively.

The following are grading strategies and approaches that help develop student assessment capabilities, foster deeper levels of learning, and build resilience through preventing student failure.

Strategy 1: Early in learning, cultivate deliberate practice

During the beginning of a new unit or set of lessons, students are often learning new concepts and practicing new skills. To develop mastery, they need practice—the deliberate and intentional kind to refine these new skills and make new connections.

Students learn at the highest levels when they embrace errors as the best way to do so. Mistakes often originate from taking risks when trying something new & should be expected and welcomed when learning something new. When students are evaluated (graded) during the early stages of learning new material or content they learn to avoid taking risks. This often leads to undesirable behaviors such as submitting work for completion (points alone) and not focusing on the actual learning…or avoiding work altogether. Teachers then lose valuable glimpses into student understanding where feedback can be most effective. Students cannot benefit from deliberate practice when they are always are made aware of their errors in red pen.

Training Tasks

A strategy teachers can implement is using training assignments early in a new unit of study that are not graded for points or marks. These would be used for developing a skill such as math probability in a high school genetics class. While not graded, students must demonstrate a certain degree of proficiency before moving on to larger tasks such as examining how genetic disorders are passed on in populations (Nagel, p.179). This grading approach allows students to learn through errors, develops necessary skill proficiency, and minimizes the amount of work teachers have to grade and score.

Suggestion for Monitoring: After implementing training tasks early in a unit over skills students need deliberate practice, monitor if more students are demonstrating improved mastery & understanding of these skills / concepts later in units on summative assessments, projects, etc.

Strategy 2: Separate product and process success criteria

The power of feedback is maximized when teachers help students make the link between feedback and their progress towards clear success criteria (Hattie, 2012, p.16). There are two types of success criteria as potential feedback and grading targets: Product & Process.

Product success criteria are the specific demonstration of skill/performance or creation of a proficient artifact. It is commonly understood that product success criteria will end up in the form of a grade at some stage. Examples would include a terse well-argued speech a student gives to his class or his final lab report that clearly conveys solid reasoning for how his conclusion supported or refuted his hypothesis. For feedback, and ultimately grading, to be effective for learning, teachers must help students become aware how close or far away their work is to anchors or exemplars.

Suggestion (question) for monitoring impact: During a unit of study, do your students more consistently begin to take the lead in making necessary changes or adjustments to reach expected criteria for their tasks (speeches or lab reports)? How does this convey their level of true understanding of the success criteria?

Process success criteria are the strategies or tools teachers provide students to guide them towards the development of product success criteria. Examples would include: graphic organizers used to develop his speech, guidelines for writing his science lab report, or specific homework assigned to help him practice small skills to build towards these larger targets (speeches, reports, etc.). Shirley Clark notes the importance of teachers defining process success criteria as tools that could help students achieve learning objectives, but are not 100% necessary to do so (2005, p.37).

Tools like graphic organizers could help our students create a top-level speech or a terse and well-defended conclusion in biology, but rarely do they provide the only path to get there. Some students may use these tools exactly as their teachers provide them, while others may find different ways to adjust them to best fit their learning needs. These are not essential elements to learning goals and do not provide teachers with sufficient evidence to what the students next learning steps are (Nagel, p. 110).

Teachers should use process criteria (organizers, help charts, etc.) to cultivate assessment capable skills. Students do so by determining and realizing how they are helping them towards the larger goals—not by completing them simply for points or marks.

Finally, students need to be able to differentiate if feedback teachers are providing them is related to the specific task are completing (product success criteria) or the strategies they are using to get there (process success criteria). Providing grades or points for process elements confuses students and reduces the potential impact of feedback teachers provide. If grades (points/marks) are used synonymously for both the actual work product they must submit and the strategies used to build towards developing the product or performance teachers are likely diminishing helping students develop their assessment capabilities.

Suggestion (question) for monitoring impact: As a unit of study progresses, do students focus more on the quality of their final product or performance and use the processes (organizers, note cards, etc.) as a way to help them determine if their product is ready for submission? If so, this likely indicates they are more aware of the real success criteria teachers desire them to meet.

Grading students using points or marks related to process success criteria is evaluating students on the path they are following for their learning. Use feedback for learning on their journey—Save grading for when they arrive at their destination.


Clarke, Shirley. (2005). Formative Assessment in Action: Weaving the elements together. Abington, Bookpoint Limited

Hattie, John A. (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York, Routledge.

Nagel, Dave. (2015). Effective Grading Practices for Secondary Teachers: Practical strategies to reduce failure, recover credits, and increase standards based/referenced grading. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.

Dave Nagel will be presenting at the National Visible Learning<sup>plus</sup> Conference.

Written by

Dave Nagel is an international educational consultant and researcher. His educational career started as a middle school science and high school biology teacher. His administrative experiences involved being a middle school assistant principal, high school associate principal, and director of extended day and credit recovery programs. In his former district, Dave was instrumental in implementing power standards and performance assessments. He was honored numerous times as a “Senior Choice” winner, with graduating seniors selecting him as someone who dramatically affected their life in a positive way.

Dave has been a national and international presenter and consultant to schools for over 10 years. Using his experience and expertise, he has presented and helped schools, from pre-K through Grade 12, implement effective practices leading to gains in student achievement. His main focus when working with schools has revolved around assessment, instruction, leadership, and effective collaboration. He has worked specifically with schools in implementing the following topics: prioritizing standards, common formative assessments, building authentic performance tasks, effective use of scoring guides, data teams, rigorous curriculum design, and effective grading practices.

Dave is the author of Effective Grading Practices for Secondary Teachers.

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