How 'grade obsession’ is detrimental to students and their education

Focusing on grades or scoring doesn't help students learn and retain information and causes pressure and stress. (Unsplash/Elisa Ventur)

Grading has been central to most education systems for over a century.

During the 1800s, students’ achievement in school was communicated to parents through oral progress reports (typically through a visit from teachers to the student’s parents at home). These oral reports were later transformed into written reports and then into grades, first in secondary school, then in the elementary years.

Grades were initially seen as an efficient way to communicate student achievement in school to parents. Grades are meant to represent, using letters or numbers, the quality (and at times, the quantity) of student learning in a subject, either on assignments or on report cards.

It’s a common perception that students “earn” grades for their achievement at school; in this way, grades have become the primary currency of learning.

Read more: Educators must commit now to tackle grade inflation

But students’ grades have serious consequences for their lives. Universities and colleges select students and award scholarships based primarily on grades.

Higher grades lead to more post-secondary education opportunities, which can result in higher paying jobs. Having better grades can also open opportunities for studying in new countries.

Given the consequences of grades, it’s no wonder many students and parents are grade obsessed.

In a recent survey of teachers from around the world, our ongoing research has found that respondents identified “grading obsession” as one of the top challenges in education. Teachers felt that many students, parents and other educators primarily focus on grades over feedback to improve learning.

The results of our study to date suggest that the grading obsession poses a significant threat to student well-being, learning and equitable education.

Negative outcomes of grading obsession

A fixation on grades can lower students’ self-esteem and life satisfaction. Grades encourage comparison and competition among students, potentially harming their relationships with their peers and teachers.

Testing, one of the main tools used to generate grades, has been shown to increase student anxiety, which can actually lower student achievement. In serious cases, students have reported experiencing suicidal thoughts associated with testing.

A young man is seen from behind as he writes an exam, pen in hand.
Testing has been shown to increase student anxiety, sometimes to extreme degrees. (Unsplash/Ben Mullins)

Grade obsession changes how students learn. When students are mainly motivated by getting good grades, they tend to focus on memorizing information instead of deeply understanding new concepts, establishing connections and making creative extensions.

They are also less likely to take risks in their learning — an important part of growth and development. Focusing on getting the correct answer may overshadow deep learning and integration of teacher feedback.

Of particular concern, when grades are constructed from narrow measures of student achievement — tests, for example — they stand to marginalize groups of students and limit diverse ways of knowing.

For example, Indigenous perspectives see learning as a balance between cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual and physical development. Current grading practices in western school traditions prioritize the cognitive element without fully recognizing the role and importance of other dimensions of learning.

Read more: Indigenous basket-weaving makes an excellent digital math lesson

The role of parents and educators

Grades affect parents and teachers too. Parents rely mainly on grades to know if their children are doing well in school — they often find it difficult to assess their child’s educational success without grades.

Parents are also interested in how their children compare to their classmates. Understanding the consequences of grades, it is understandable that parents can encourage their child to focus on grades.

Across the Greater Toronto Area — Canada’s largest metropolitan zone — students’ grades are increasing, which has been a general trend stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, a phenomenon known as compassionate grading.

Read more: Are 'top scholar' students really so remarkable — or are teachers inflating their grades?

This trend may put additional pressure on parents to help their children get competitive grades.

In countries where students’ results on national or state tests impact teacher pay, teachers often feel they must “teach to the test” rather than focus on broader learning goals, a practice called “washback.”

In fact, the grading obsession is caused by educational accountability systems and competition for post-secondary placements — not parents, teachers or students.

Nonetheless, many educators are aware of the negative impacts and are fighting back.

A teacher leans over the desk of two students and looks at the notes of one.
Teachers sometimes feel compelled to ‘teach to the test,’ a phenomenon known as washback, but are beginning to fight back. (Shutterstock)

Tackling the grading obsession

Our study has found that the obsession with grades prevented teachers from using assessment in ways that would support meaningful learning.

Teacher feedback is one of the most powerful influences on student learning. However, if students do not prioritize teacher feedback, it cannot support their development. Ironically, focusing on grades tends to lead to lower grades while focusing on teacher feedback can support better grades.

Teachers wanted to dedicate class time to student self-assessment and peer assessment activities. These activities are important for helping students develop independent learning skills. However, they felt pressure to instead dedicate class time to covering graded content.

Ironically, the answer to the pervasive grading obsession may be in doing more assessment.

“Assessment talk” was articulated by teachers in our survey as key to combating the grading obsession. Teachers explained that assessment talk involves communicating openly with students, parents and other educators about their approaches to assessment.

It involves re-centring the priorities on formative assessment — assessment practices known to support deep learning — including self-assessment, peer assessment, setting clear and attainable learning goals, questioning and providing feedback.

Embracing the value of feedback

Many teachers began their school year by explicitly teaching students about formative assessment to counter the dominant focus on grading. Formative assessments allow teachers, students and parents to understand how students are progressing in their learning and to choose appropriate next steps.

Teachers used peer and self-assessment activities to help students see the value of giving, receiving and using feedback. Instead of competing for grades, students focused on co-operating to help each other improve.

Teachers also discussed formative assessment with parents in parent-teacher conferences and on curriculum nights. They found ways for parents to be a part of the assessment process, in ongoing ways.

A man and his daughter, who has long brown hair and bangs, talk at a desk with a teacher, who is seen from behind.
Teachers are finding ways for parents to be part of the assessment process. (Shutterstock)

Some created digital learning folders that parents could access, sometimes daily, to see their child’s work and the teacher’s feedback. In some cases, parents were invited to comment as well, creating ongoing assessment talk across students, parents and teachers.

Such an approach is far more powerful to support learning and informative compared to waiting for a term-based report card grade. Assessment shifts from something that happens to students towards an ongoing process that students, parents and teachers engage in together.

Through assessment talk, students can have their cake and eat it too: better learning and well-being should ultimately lead to better student grades.

Alex Hemmerich, a Bachelor of Education student at Queen’s University, co-authored this article.

Andrew Coombs receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Christopher DeLuca receives funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Danielle LaPointe-McEwan receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Nathan Rickey does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.