Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

The Unintended Consequences of Grading "Effort"

CJ Westerberg, September 21, 2011 11:32 AM


Published The Daily Riff December 2010 - A Classic

"Grading effort is a precarious endeavor that teachers need
to think long and hard about before
passing judgment on something so intangible."

Grading Effort: Unintended Consequences

by Joe Bower

There are so many issues with grading. A teacher's entire slate of professional development could be spent discussing and investigating how to properly tinker with their grading practices. Inevitably, teachers end up talking at some point about effort, and whether we should be grading effort, and if so, how do we grade effort (notice the question is never should we be grading at all).

I have some serious issues with grading at all, but if you do feel the need to grade, it is important to remember the unintended consequences of grading a student's effort.

Think about these situations:

Johnny works his tail off on a social studies project, but in the end, his project really wasn't that good. Despite the lack of a final product, Johnny actually ended up learning a lot from his mistakes, but not soon enough, as the due date demanded he turn his project in. The teacher ends up failing Johnny on the content portions of the scoring rubric, but recognizes Johnny's effort and gives him a very high grade for his effort.

The teacher does this because we think it will bode well for the future. We want Johnny to keep working hard because we believe that his perseverance will pay off. However, what if that isn't the message he receives? He might say:

"Even when I try really hard, I'm still dumb."

This situation may be more serious than you first comprehend. I've written about Bernard Weiner's research before on how important it is that children value their effort as an important factor in their intelligence. A child who is graded highly for their effort but poorly on their intelligence and skills may ultimately come to see external factors as being more influential on their learning. We don't want this.

Carol lollygags her way through another math assignment, placing little to no effort in her learning. Despite her lack of effort, Carol follows the instructions and produces what the teacher wants. The teacher marks Carol very well on her content and (wrongly) assumes she must have placed a ton of effort into doing so well on this project.

My fear here is that Carol knows far better than her teacher how little effort she truly put into her learning, and that Carol receives a message that sounds something like this:

"I can do really well even when I don't try."

Grading effort is a precarious endeavor that teachers need to think long and hard about before passing judgment on something so intangible. We would be wise to remember that we may have more to lose than we have to gain when it comes to grading effort.


Joe Bower is a sixth grade teacher in Alberta Canada and and will be following up with an upcoming guest post on how he does assess his students.  You can check out his blog "for the love of learning"  tagged "I haven't 'graded' in six years, yet I assess everyday."   Post originally appeared in Bower's blog.

Related in The Daily Riff:

Parents:  Are we Sabotaging our Kids' Own Math "Ability"?

"The Day I Abolished Grading"
by Joe Bower

"Fires in the Mind: Youth Mastery & Motivation"

"Are We Wrong About Motivation?  Daniel Pink thinks so."P

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