“Is this for a grade?” “Does it count?”
If you’ve been counting, you are well aware that you could retire early if you got a dollar for every time you heard one of those questions. The constant barrage of them may even have you believing that if you don’t grade something, your students won’t do it.
However, I’m going to try to convince you that this doesn’t have to be the case.
Let’s start with this very important fact: I am not writing to try to sell you on a theory that I read about somewhere in a book or online. I’m not writing about a trendy topic to get viewers. No, like most of what I do, I’m here to help you create a climate for learning, so you and your students can make your time together meaningful – and you can have a life outside of school.
I am here to convince you of something that I firmly believe based on my thirty-one years in the classroom. I had all of the students you have. I had high achievers and kids who never finished school. I had ones who were keen and always pleasant and helpful – and ones who were none of those things. I had great successes and lots of failures. I watched as our clientele changed with the times – for good and for bad. I cringed over the ways that the expectations of admin, parents, and even society increased over my three decades in the classroom. In short, I’m just like you.
But, I had most of my students doing work that they knew would not be graded.
There was a time, though, when I would have insisted that was a crazy idea. In fact, I was pretty vocal in my dissent when, years ago, our district said we needed more formative assessment. But, I tried it. And I changed my mind.
Now I want to change yours. Not because I’m on a mission, or feel the need to make people believe what I believe. No, I want to change your mind because I saw what a difference it made for not only the learning in my classroom, but the relationships I had with my students.
In this post, I’ll tell you how you can get students to do work that’s not graded by:
- Creating a climate of learning
- Appealing to intrinsic motivation
- Doing some backward planning
- Using scaffolded skill-building activities
- Aiming for active, not passive, learning
- Giving feedback that feeds forward
This is going to be a long post, so strap in. Changing your students’ attitudes is going to take time and effort – starting with the time it’s going to take you to read – and think – about this. And, if you have questions, or “ya buts,” please leave them in the comments or email me – I will be happy to address them!
Create a climate where work gets done:
So, let’s begin. Students will do work that isn’t graded – or even given feedback. They will. But you need to create a culture in the classroom that inspires them to do that. And that takes time, effort, and determination. It won’t be easy – but it will be so worth it.
Imagine that you decide you want to get healthier. You want to change your diet and exercise at least twenty minutes a day. You start with great intentions and excitement, but the demands of your family, your job, and the ticking clock make it very difficult to carve out the time you need. It’s hard, and you start to feel like it’s unrealistic for you at this time to start your new regime.
Or maybe you decide that you want to spend less time on your phone because you’re avoiding other more important things, and social media just makes you feel bad or angry anyway. So you tell yourself you’ll only check it once in the evening. And… that doesn’t go so well. You feel bad about your failure to reduce screen time and decide that it’s pointless; it’s the world we live in right? Everyone else is welded to their phones, so why fight it?
Both of these scenarios are over-simplifications, but I’m trying to paint the picture of habits we may try to break. If you haven’t been exercising and eating well, or if you spend too many hours on your phone, you can’t just change that over night. Better to try to go for a couple of walks a week and build up to twenty-minutes a day. Easier to spend fewer minutes on your phone each hour than to put it away for the evening.
It’s the same with creating a culture in your classroom where students do the work you want them to do. It takes time and effort, and quite frankly, a sales job.
Let’s start with the sales job. We often need to “sell” ideas to our students, and we can’t do that unless we believe in them. If you were going to buy a piece of exercise equipment and the salesperson said, “It’s a great bike, but…well…I doubt you’re going to use it much, but give it a go” – would you be excited about buying it?
To create a culture where students do assignments, you have to act like you fully believe students will do the work – even if you don’t. Fake it ‘til you make it.
And you will make it if you put in a concentrated effort to tap into your students’ intrinsic motivation.
APPEAL TO INTRINSIC MOTIVATION, NOT EXTRINSIC
Students who are externally motivated by grades (or any outside pressure), will do the work. Full stop. But we all know – and have shaken our heads over – students who don’t seem to care about grades. That can be because they are not extrinsically motivated – a 65% is enough. It got the job done, right?
However, most of us are intrinsically motivated to do things. And most of us will do something that is going to help make our life better. Ask yourself this: if you were given the option to go to a PD session on a Saturday for $50, would you go? Or would you go for free if you knew that i t would make your whole school year better and easier?
Or what if your admin asked you to do something because they – or the district – want you to try the latest “thing” versus introducing you to a strategy that will free up your time and make your life easier?
My guess is that more of you would choose the second options because in both cases, your teaching life will be better. Those who are motivated by the extrinsic factors will do it – but may grumble about it or do it half-heartedly
Students are the same. Some teens will respond to grades or “because I said so,” but many won’t. However, you can get them on your side if you show them how doing an activity or assignment will be better for them personally.
Let’s look at some examples: if your students need to write a persuasive essay, ask them if they’d like to be able to get people to see their point of view in discussions? OR to convince a parent to extend a curfew or a teacher to give them an extension on an assignment. Of course, they would. Then, once you tap into some of that intrinsic motivation, you can launch into the activities that students will need to not only hone that real life skill but will help them write a better essay.
If you are doing literary analysis, and characterization in particular, ask students if they’d like to get better at reading and understanding the people around them. Ask them if they have clues or “LOOK FORs” when they are trying to figure out how a loved one is feeling. Do some activities around that before you dive into analyzing characters in your texts.
I could also convince my students of the importance of non-graded work when I used analogies, particularly to sport or art or music. The basketball players know that they need physical conditioning and lots of practice shooting before the game. The artists know about all the mistakes they make on the way to a piece they are proud of. And the musicians remember the first time they picked up an instrument and the terrible sounds they made before they practiced over and over.
Even if students don’t participate in any of these activities, they can relate to the message of the analogy: anyone who wants to improve needs to practice before the game or the concert. So it helps to use some of those comparisons in your sales pitches.
Backward Planning & Skill Building Activities
Whether you are trying to get students to do their work, or you just want to do an effective job of teaching, backward planning just makes a whole lot of sense. Start with the end in mind: what do students need to do by the end of your course, and what skill do they need to get there?
Once you can answer those questions, you make a purposeful plan, a map to guide your students to success. Nothing will turn a teenager off quicker than pointless activities. They need to know that what you are doing in the classroom is going to help them in the long run (and it’s even better if you can connect that to real life and not just an assessment!)
Skill-Building Activities are one that I did regularly in class that were designed to teach students a skill or to provide practice. It could be a written response in class where students had to write their thoughts and include some sensory imagery, or write a compound and a complex sentence. It might be a close reading session, or a collaborative one where students worked to figure out the theme of a short story. It might have been a mini-seminar. None of these were passed in for a grade.
When you plan the lessons and activities that your students will do, be sure they are purposefully scaffolding the skills they need for success because – and I’m going to let you in on the secret to everything here – most times, students don’t do their work because they don’t know how to do it. Or they are afraid of looking stupid. Yes, they will choose not to do something to avoid the frustration and fear they might feel by doing it.
If your students will be doing a speech – something that strikes fear in the hearts of many – plan a number of activities that will give them the skills and confidence they need to be successful. Read about how I did that here. If your students need to write an essay, take it slowly, model the steps, and give them time to practice. Click here to get an exercise I did that showed mine how and why to write a good outline before they started (probably one of my most effective activities ever!)
“Is this for a grade?” “Does it count?” The questions will still come, but you will be able to answer them differently. “No, it’s not for a grade right now. However, it does count because you will be building the skills you need for when I DO give you a grade.”
I have a blog post that goes into this concept in more detail. Open it now and read it when you finish this because you will get more tips on how to motivate students to do their work.
Aim for active, not passive, learning
Here’s the big question I ask myself when I’m planning a new lesson or activity for my students: will it allow each one to be an active learner or just a “passer-by”? If the activity will not provide opportunities for everyone of them to engage in the learning, I go back to the drawing board.
When I say active and engaged, I’m not just talking about activities that get them up and moving around my room (although I do love those); I’m referring to ones that require all students to think, rather than passively absorb – or ignore – information.
We humans want to be engaged (note I said engaged not entertained). Monotonous work with no variety can cause even the most mature individual to zone out. So, when students sit at a desk all day, doing the kind of work that doesn’t get their brains actively engaged, they may decide not to do it.
(This blog is full of ideas for you to employ active learning strategies so look around or check the bottom of the post for links).
Students will do the work when feedback feeds forward:
This is one of the biggest, most important factors that will change the climate in your classroom and get your students completing work that isn’t graded.
One of the best ways to get more students to pass in their work is to provide feedback that empowers them, that makes them feel like they can be successful. And a paper with a grade and vague comments doesn’t always do that – especially if we’ve pointed out so many things that they don’t know where to start.
Instead, students need specific, actionable feedback that shows them how they can do better. You need to develop your ideas doesn’t help when they don’t know HOW to do that. But if your students know that when they do a skill building activity you will give them verbal or written feedback, feedback that really helps them improve, you will be pleasantly surprised at how many do it.
You can read more about using feedback effectively in #4 of this blog post and on these: Tips for Giving Written Feedback, and Making Feedback Descriptive and Meaningful. All feedback doesn’t have to be written either. Good feedback comes at the side of a student’s desk. Or you can use conferences too: Tips for Conferencing with Students.
Ultimately, most of. your students will attempt to rise to the expectations you set for them. Not all will. Nor do all have the skills or background to be able to meet them. But when you set the bar high, they have a whole lot of room to grow. And if you provide them with the scaffolds they need to reach that bar, they will reach higher than if you set it low.
And that includes what you expect in terms of completing work – grade or no grade.
REMEMBER: this will NOT happen overnight. It may not happen in two weeks or a month. But a slow and steady approach to changing the climate will get you there. I’ve included some strategies you can use in the meantime:
MORE TIPS AND STRATEGIES TO GET STUDENTS TO DO WORK THAT’S NOT GRADED :
The following are some ideas that you can use, especially in the beginning when you are building that culture:
✅ Give students completion grades. This works well with response journals. They could receive a grade for having all entries complete. Then, you can select one or two to read and grade – but you don’t tell them which ones so all have to be done well.
✅ You can do something similar with longer writing pieces. They need to complete it for the completion grade and you only read one paragraph – or assess one thing like focus or organization (or whatever skill you’re working on). You can choose this “in secret” or let the students select the paragraph they think is best.
✅ Use writing or class folders. All work goes in these for a completion grade, and you just have to use a checklist to ensure it’s all there. I used to do this with my general classes and it worked beautifully. We would have a “catch-up” day at the end of every unit, and students could complete work they missed.
You made it to the end of this long post! Phew! I hope you got some inspiration and help. The truth is, you will never get all students to work or to work to their potential. However, by following these steps you will get most of your students to do work that’s not graded.
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