“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is a common saying among teachers. No matter a teacher’s qualifications, commitment, or experience, her success (and therefore, her students’ successes) depends on the student-teacher relationship, and at the heart of a caring relationship is trust, but to ask students to trust their teacher is no small request. To trust someone means to take the risk to be vulnerable—to reveal weaknesses to someone who could do harm to you. For students, that vulnerability means to disclose their gaps in knowledge or skills to an adult who has the power to call out those weaknesses. For students who have experienced school as a place where they feel shamed for their low academic performance, and particularly for students in communities whose experiences with schools (and other institutions of power) have led to distrust, there is a caution, even a mandate, against showing vulnerability. Convincing them to trust and show their weaknesses—academic and otherwise—is much more difficult, and at the same time all the more critical, to effective teaching and learning.
To decide whether to trust teachers by revealing their academic weaknesses, students search for clues in the teacher’s behavior and classroom environment that signal how mistakes are treated. Students assess what might be gained or lost from showing vulnerability. The student wonders, “If I make mistakes, or reveal that I don’t know how to do something, how will the teacher respond? With understanding? Intolerance? Support? Ridicule? Indifference?”
Students have to be trusting enough to reveal their errors because those errors provide critically valuable information. In fact, teachers depend on students taking risks and making mistakes in order to know how to help them. The message to students has to be: show me your mistakes, and I’ll help you learn from them. The teacher’s job, and the student’s success, depends on it.
The Problem with Today’s Grading Practices
The problem is that our traditional grading practices send a quite different message: that mistakes are not okay, that students will be punished if they make mistakes. Here are three examples:
#1: Students take tests to show what they know, and their scores and grades reflect how much they’ve learned. If students make mistakes, they lose points. This makes sense at the end of the learning process when it’s time for students to be evaluated. However, in many classrooms, students lose points during the learning process, during the part of the process when they should be making mistakes. Students lose points for errors on every homework, in-class activity or worksheet, discussion, and any task that the teacher presumably designs to help students learn the content. These scores are entered into the gradebook and are included in the overall, final calculation of a student’s grade. If every answer a student gives, regardless of when it happens, can result in a loss of points and a lower grade, when are mistakes allowed? If mistakes are always attached to some penalty such as a loss of points, then students will be discouraged from taking risks and revealing their weaknesses. It’s understandable that many students would choose to simply opt-out of, or copy, assignments rather than make errors.
#2: In many classrooms, students are penalized in their grade for making not just academic mistakes, but behavioral mistakes: downgrading a score if an assignment is late, subtracting points from a daily participation grade if a student is tardy to class or forgets to bring her notebook, or lowering a group’s grade if the group is noisy while they work. While some might argue that this is simply accountability—“I asked the students to do something, so it has to count”—teachers paint themselves into a corner. In this environment, it’s impossible for students to trust someone who is judging and awarding (or subtracting) points for everything they do. The more assignments and tasks that receive a grade, the more difficult it becomes to build a trusting relationship and positive learning environment in which students try new things, venture into unfamiliar learning territory, feel comfortable making errors, and grow.
#3: In traditional grading, students get a single opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge on a test—and if they make mistakes, those mistakes stick with them. There are no possibilities to learn from those mistakes, for students to redeem themselves. Tests become high-pressure, stressful events that exacerbate anxieties and discourages the less confident students.
The message when everything is included in the grade, and there’s no opportunity for redemption, is clear: you are always being judged, and you have to give your absolute best performance in every respect—academic and non-academic—every day. If you make a mistake, or even are just having a bad day, it’s going to count against you. Imagine the pressure and exhaustion. There is no room for error, no safe place to make mistakes. The sword of Damacles hangs above each of them, and we expect them to trust us?
Some Better Grading Alternatives
But there are better options in grading—ones that promote risk-taking, allow for mistakes, and offer the constant promise of redemption:
- Don’t include a student’s performance on homework in the grade. If homework’s purpose is for students to practice their learning, then we can no longer punish them for their mistakes during that time. Invite them to do their best, and if they can’t complete any of it, then revealing that it is penalty-free and just as insightful to the teacher.
- Exclude categories such as “participation” from the grade. Rather than award or subtract points for students’ behaviors, use other feedback strategies that build relationships (such as conversations and reflections).
- Allow redemption from mistakes. Just as many schools are talking about “restorative practices” for students instead of simply suspending them, we should similarly allow students retakes and redos of exams and other high-stakes assignments. Just as the person who fails the driving test, or bar exam, or teacher credentialing test, uses a failing score to learn and improve for the next demonstration of competence, we should allow the same in our classrooms.
We know the importance of connecting with our students and building a sense of trust and safety, but our traditional grading encourages us to create a pressure-cooker classroom where they are constantly judged. If we’re going to build trusting teacher-student relationships, our grading must create classrooms where students can take risks without penalty, disclose weaknesses without being judged, and have the crucial knowledge that they don’t have to perform perfectly day in and day out. Equitable grading practices exclude homework performance and student behavior (“participation”) from the grade, and allow retakes and redos. Teachers who begin to use these practices find that their students are more willing to reveal academic weaknesses and they build closer and more productive learning relationships with them. This is what caring teachers do, and the students know it.
 Pianta, R. C. (1991) Enhancing Relationships Between Children and Teachers. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.
 Ennis, C. D., & McCauley, M. T. (2002). Creating urban classroom communities worthy of trust. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 34(2), 149-172.