Grading Smarter Not Harder

Dueck, Myron. Grading Smarter Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn. Alexandria: ASCD. 2014.

21887152Of all the complaints I myself have and hear from my colleagues, grading is probably the most frequent and most frustrating topic. Low achievers are unmotivated; high achievers care only about “points”; and parents get upset with us when their kids fare poorly. And we stress out as we “stick to our guns” on our policies for late work and cheating penalties.

In the best case scenario, we take comfort in our principles, but feel the wrath of students and parents who feel neglected and/or wronged. Even if we agree that the results aren’t ideal, we can’t imagine an alternative policies and practices that seem fair and consistent to all students. Dueck to the rescue.

Grading Smarter is an excellent read for teachers who feel frustrated with their grading policies and practices and yearn for fresh alternatives. By redirecting the scoring focus exclusively to the learning goals, Dueck points the way past inaccurate and inappropriate grading practices that have pretty much been the norm in my 25 year classroom experience.

For example, penalizing students for situations out of their control (abusive home situations, poverty, mental illness, executive function issues, etc.) is inherently inappropriate. And doling out zeros won’t help. The key to change is found in distinguishing between scoring your learning goals (such as “causes of the Civil War”) and behaviors (such as “turning work in on time”).

I know. You want to teach your students good habits like punctuality. Me too. But grades aren’t the way to do it, and Dueck provides evidence to back up this claim, as well as a slew of alternative practices that more successfully encourage those behaviors.

The shift to emphasize learning goals is really a shift to Standards Based Grading. Grading Smarter doesn’t drill down into this topic, but there are plenty of other authors who do (Robert Marzano is probably at the top of the list.) That’s a long leg up on the climb to grading smarter and one that will take a significant amount of additional thought and time by most teachers. So the initial shift probably is more time-consuming than staying the course.

But as the title implies, most of the necessary changes don’t require more of your time, just a reallocation. That’s because Dueck’s practice shifts the teacher’s efforts from tasks such as scoring homework, to tasks such as re-scoring some summative assessments revised by students who want to do better. Before you balk at the thought of giving kids a “second chance”, think about how you yourself learn anything worthwhile. Learning takes time and practice. Expecting kids to get it right the first time, condemns many of them to failure (or a B, or a C, or a D).

For Dueck, assessments are generally traditional tests: multiple choice, short-answer, essay. Allowing students a chance to re-do a portion of a test (using some pretty clever time-saving, but accurate techniques), will be a significant shift in the common wisdom of many teachers. But frankly in my experience, the common wisdom hasn’t worked well. That awful feeling I’ve had about students who fail, or merely limp along with a D or C-, when I know they could be doing much better, tells me these are techniques to embrace. They are practical and doable.

I know. You want to teach your students good habits, like punctuality. Me too.


There are two ways that I think Dueck’s work could be improved — but they may not be for everyone. First, Dueck uses pen and paper to carry out some of his practices. As a techie sort of person, I have already converted these to Google Forms and Docs and have provided links on my course website. Students have ready access to use these without the need for me to photocopy and store them in my shared classroom(s). And I don’t need to collect and organize completed paperwork from them. I can find them all on my laptop.

Second, and more importantly, although Dueck does suggest projects as an alternative, he seems to emphasize traditional tests. I believe these significantly narrow the range of students who will ultimately succeed — even with Dueck’s practices. I’m a strong believer in project-based learning (PBL) because it provides more opportunities for student engagement, deeper and more personalized learning opportunities, and signficant practice with skills that are more transferrable.

Nevertheless, there are no conflicts between PBL and Dueck’s smarter grading techniques. Grading Smarter is a fresh approach to some age-old schoolhouse dilemmas. In the slow crawl away from the factory schooling model, Dueck provides the means to take a big step forward.


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