Making the disconnection with grade-based learning

Making a failing or disappointing grade can discourage students in their endeavors. By creating a grade-free system, students are encouraged to learn, as opposed to earning a number.

Grades are a problem. Not to say that they aren’t necessary, but grades greatly affect the amount and direction of effort that students put into their education.

Grades seem to be a paradox of a motivator and a destroyer. On the negative side, they can decrease the self esteem of students and remove their willingness to work for their grades if they seem hopeless. A more positive side of the grading system encourages students to work for something and to set goals that they reach. However, the grades themselves are not the problem, but the way in which they encourage students to learn.

Students learn for a grade. They learn material for a test, only to forget it soon after. They memorize, rather than comprehend. They don’t take risks, for fear that it will affect their grade. But learning isn’t about measurable achievement — it is about the improvement and growth of the individual.

One teacher, Adam Holman, wanted to challenge the grading system by eliminating it. He wanted to see the difference it would make in the amount that students learned — and it made quite a difference. He made his classroom a more comfortable environment for students to learn by encouraging students to “get” a topic, rather than to “get” a grade.

Holman built trust with his students — he made it so that his students felt like he was truly there to help and teach them. By establishing a mutual relationship with his students, he motivated them to learn and involve themselves, and this improved their capabilities.

Most of all, this method helped the students to find comfort in the classroom. There was no fear of a bad grade — there was no fear of failure, the most common reason for students lack of willingness to take risks in education.

According to an article on Holman’s classroom setup, a former student of his, Kate Nunke, said, “Students clearly learned in Mr. Holman’s class, and he never pushed fear.”

This is not to say that Holman’s class wasn’t incredibly difficult. It was said to be harder than an average class: But this wasn’t a bad thing. This difficulty in the rigor of the course meant that students were actually absorbing the concepts of the course, instead of merely memorizing material for a test. They weren’t robotic in their learning endeavors, they were intentional. By opening themselves up to true instruction, rather than accepting a bulleted list of information, the students grew academically and logically. So, the challenge that Holman’s classroom style presented was not in vain.
“I think many students didn’t realize that they could learn without a textbook or without step by step instruction. At times I felt that Mr. Holman’s physics class was the hardest class ever because I didn’t get a step-by-step instruction. We are used to being handed the answer, thus not necessarily learning, just being told,” said Nunke.

Teachers often just hand information to students so that they can “teach to the test,” and students who work hard will earn the good grades they desire. While grades can be a good thing, they also serve as a barrier between the knowledge that students can achieve without pressure. Essentially, grades can make students scared of failure. This fear can prevent kids from achieving at their maximum potential.

By purging his classroom of this fear, Holman created a safe and productive learning environment. If our school system could adopt some of Holman’s ideals, then maybe students would become a little more fearless in their learning environment — and in turn, give and receive much more within the classroom.


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