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Should effort be a part of a student's grade?

Earlier this week I attempted to answer this question with a brief response. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that such a big question was deserving of a big response, so here's my long answer.

I think effort is important, REALLY important. The reason that I had such a hard time answering this question is that I really, REALLY think grades are overrated. A good grade might get a child free tokens at the pizza place down the road, but otherwise, what do they really mean? I've often heard teachers say something to this effect, "It's almost the end of the quarter and I hardly have any grades in my gradebook." The point of assessment is not to fill a grade book with of out-of-context numbers.

The point of school is to learn. Assessment helps us both drive learning and measure learning. These are known as formative and summative assessment. I had a hard time wrapping my head around these terms until I stumbled upon the following analogy:

"When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative."
~R. Stake

Grades are an over-simplified way of communicating summative assessment. In an attempt to easily communicate learning to parents and students, our system uses an unfair process of collecting out-of-context numbers on assignments and quizzes, often averaging these numbers and correlating it to a letter.

These letters don't communicate what a student knows and can do at the end of a unit of study or quarter. A letter on the page can't communicate, to students or parents, learning strengths and weaknesses. And the letter on the page can't recognize effort, so my short answer on Monday was wrong: Grades cannot communicate effort.

What's a better solution? We can surely agree on the importance of communicating growth to students and families. What if we communicated more anecdotally? Consider the following examples:

~Mark's fluency has improved this quarter. We will continue to work on reading with expression and paying attention to punctuation.

~Tyler's fluency has improved this quarter. He is now more likely to notice and correct words that he reads incorrectly. His hard work in studying the sight words has transferred into his ability to read more smoothly.

A common argument to this approach is that it takes longer, but the fact is that teachers not only already know these things, they have documentation and data to prove it. A good teacher "tastes the soup" along the way, adjusting teaching to maximize student learning and focusing on what students can do in the end, when the soup is served.

This is a lofty ideal, I admit. Student and parents have come to expect that the point of school is to earn A's, but hiding our professional insight behind a letter grade discredits our professional insight and expertise. Yes, we need to measure performance. Yes, we need to communicate performance (and effort) to parents. Is there a better way? Yes.

(There weren't any questions submitted this week for Wondering Wednesday, which kinda worked out well since I've had some second thoughts regarding my answer to the question: You can submit questions, anonymously if you wish, to

Stake, R. cited in Earl, L. 2004. Assessment As Learning: Using classroom achievement to Maximize Student Learning. Experts in Assessment. Corwin Press Inc. Thousand Oaks, California.

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Comment by Karren Colbert on February 23, 2010 at 5:35pm
I completely agree that we shouldn't be grading at all, which was the reason that it was so difficult to answer the original question. I think it's impossible to put a grade on effort, but do think it's important to recognize and honor effort. In most cases, if the student is putting forth effort then he/she will continue to make progress and learn perseverance. Some of the people who've made great contributions to the world, such as Albert Einstein, did so because of tremendous effort and determination, despite many failures.

Jessie, I appreciate you sharing your perspective. I would encourage you to read this article, by Alfie Kohn, on the topic:

Comment by Joe Bower on February 23, 2010 at 11:36am
I blogged today on the topic of effort and grading. Take a look:

Personally, I think we have more to lose than to gain when grading effort. But I also have argued that we shouldn't be grading at all:

And how I think we should replace grading:
Comment by Jessie Bindrim on February 18, 2010 at 7:34pm
I am in a special place right now where I am a student, but also a teacher. As a student, I admit that I strive for A's and take comfort in good grades. I have also gotten A's for a "half-assed" effort in a class I took to be easy and A's in classes that I've put in my best effort and really worked to deserve them. As a teacher, this fact worries me and I agree that grades are so shifty across the board that they really don't mean anything (though I always loved extra coins at Chuck E. Cheeses for A's). Though there are plenty of students who would love to do away with grades, you have to consider that for many students (myself included) grading is a motivation factor. I am motivated by the desire to get good grades so I do what I have to do to bring home A's. If it was a matter of improvement and effort, I'd start the year real bad so it looks like I made leaps and bounds, when really by the end I could be at the same level I always was.

Just another perspective to chew over.


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