As the slow crawl toward standards-based grading makes it way into classrooms across the country, in defiance of the drill-and-kill mentality brought on by high-stakes standardized testing, one of our most important jobs is to educate the families affected by this sea change in grading practices.

I have made this transition two years ago with much success.  I no longer dread the “Meet the Teacher” night at the start of the year when I introduce myself to parents.  A clear explanation of the philosophy and purpose of my grading system convinces nearly every parent immediately.  Some assignments are practice and don’t affect a student’s grade (although they are scored and lots of feedback is included).  Other assignments measure mastery and determine the student’s grade, with multiple attempts.  The child will be judged as below standard, at standard, or above.  It makes sense.

The part that confuses (and even frustrates) some is the focus on mastery.  Skills not directly related to mastery of the curriculum will not affect a student’s grade.  Work habits like assignment completion and study skills, while critical to academic success, will not be factored into the grade.  Instead, they are reported alongside content mastery and reinforced in the classroom through other means.

The question that I often get asked is, “If my students/my child/the youth of America don’t lose points for failing to complete their homework, why would they do it at all?”  It looks like I’m not the only one receiving these comments.  A recent article in the New York Times (“A’s for Good Behavior“) resulted in some interesting responses from readers.  One reader writes,

“What kinds of lessons are we teaching children if we tell them it’s O.K. to ignore deadlines and that there are no real consequences for being disruptive or unprepared?”

Responses like these frustrate me because they demonstrate a real misunderstanding of the system.  There are real consequences to misbehavior and poor work ethic, but these consequences do not include grade penalties.  To put it simply, grades should not be used as a motivator for behaviors.  And behaviors include anything that is not mastery of the curriculum.

So, how do we motivate those students who don’t have baked-in (intrinsic) desires to engage with the learning by completing assignments and participating in class?  The same way we motivate students to stay in their seats, raise their hands to contribute, and follow other classroom policies.  If we start to think of incomplete work as just another behavior that needs to be modified, the potential responses become plentiful and obvious.  In my classroom, the consequence for most inappropriate behaviors includes a written reflection and loss of privileges (such as seat choice in the cafeteria or weekly game time).  For missing or incomplete work, consequences always include focused time to get the work done.  To quote a colleague,

“The punishment for not doing work is… to do the work.”

How do we help the public understand that we aren’t lowering the standards?

7 thoughts on “Work Habits are Behaviors

  1. I like this grading system (and I see a lot of them in my line of work) . It teaches that there is no escape from the work. You will do it and failure is not an option! They are learning (haven’t achieved yet) good work ethic – and, after all, isn’t that what we’re after – developing our future. We want our future to be full of people who see a problem and go ahead and fix it ….. because they know that if they don’t fix it now – they’ll have to fix it later and there will be consequences.


  2. I really appreciate how clearly you lay out your philosophy. I’m glad to hear that your parents are understanding the process. I noticed that you are a middle school teacher which makes me think that–if it works with your young adolescents, it will work for all students! Thanks for sharing.


    1. Actually, in some ways, I think that this grading system works best in middle school. High school teachers have to deal with many factors that we “in the middle” don’t. Also, their proximity to the “real world”, makes it difficult to argue that grades should be all about mastery. Then again, would colleges rather have separate measures of academic skills and work behaviors?


  3. You write that “work habits like assignment completion and study skills, while critical to academic success, will not be factored into the grade”.
    I think one of the ways to motivate students to engage in the work behaviours that will lead them to success is to help them make the connection between work behavior and mastery.
    Prior to the activities that will count for a mark and will be used to demonstrate their mastery of the content, I give the students LOTS of practice opportunities which are done in class. The students who waste their time, and don’t bother trying to complete the activities are the same ones who don’t do well on the performance assessments. So I use our school Flip camera to video their in class work time, and then, when they’re moping about their poor performance assessment mark, I play some of the video clips where they’re off task, or wasting time, or not asking questions and seeking assistance, and then I play some clips of their peers who were successful and DID demonstrate successful behaviours. Watching the light bulb go on, and then having some conversations about what they need to do to “turn things around” is always a very enjoyable process for me.
    So… I might not factor their behavior into their grade (homework is not allowed to be part of the student’s grade in our board, and practice done as formative assessment shouldn’t be used for a grade because it makes the kids fearful of trying) but their behavior definitely does become a factor in their grade and the sooner they make that connection for themselves, the faster they start to take some steps to demonstrating mastery.

    I have some trouble with this: “For missing or incomplete work, consequences always include focused time to get the work done.” because in some of my cases it becomes quite rewarding for the student. I have some students who don’t want to interact with their peers, and would prefer one on one tutorial-like sessions with me, and that’s NOT the way I’d like them to learn. If I give them focused time to get the work done, such as lunch or after school, they LIKE that, so it isn’t such a good consequence because their behavior doesn’t change.


    1. Janice,
      Thanks for the feedback. I love the idea of using pocket video cameras to capture student work behaviors and then use them as a teaching tools.

      As for the appeal of one-on-one time to complete work, I agree with you that for some students this is not a motivator to get their work done. However, to get this time my students have to give up their only free time of the day: their lunch time. They must log in what they will work on and make progress, or they are not invited back. I find that this is a pretty good system for the great majority of my students. But, you are correct in that there are some who are more inclined to not do work if the consequence is to get some small group time. I haven’t yet found the best way to encourage them.


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