The Kinds of Grading Mistakes that Haunt Students

Amy Jessica McMillan

Heick, T. (2014, September 21). The kinds of grading mistakes that haunt studentsTe@chthought. Retrieved from

Blogger Terry Heick makes a strong case for the harm caused by our traditional grading system. According to Heick, letter grades are motivating for two types of students: 1) Students who see themselves as smart and like to work for grades as rewards, and 2) Students who hate school and only keep their GPA up in order to participate in extracurricular activities. Therefore, says Heick, “They [grades] don’t work for anyone.” In other words, our grading system does nothing to promote learning. Heick lists some common mistakes teachers make with grading, such as grading too much, highlighting the weaknesses instead of potentials for growth, waiting too long to grade, and not using the data. Finally, Heick argues that grades are really the teachers’ “best guesses” and that our system needs to radically change in order to be more student centered and supportive of actual learning.

This blog post is part of an ongoing discussion about problems with our traditional grading structure. Yes, letter grades have been problematic for a very long time. Currently, I see students who just want A’s regardless of the quality of their work or the effort they put into it. This causes top students to avoid taking risks as they try to regurgitate what they think the teacher wants. That behavior is anathema to learning. On the other end of the spectrum, students who continuously receive D’s and F’s reasonably decide to give up because they can’t see a way to possibly be successful. Letter grades do not support their growth as learners. While Heick doesn’t have a solution to our current grading dilemma, he does give very useful suggestions about how to work within our current system. 

Randy Nelson on Learning and Working in a Collaborative Age

Amy Jessica McMillan

Ellis, K. (Producer), & Sutherland, K. (Director). (2008). Randy Nelson on learning and working in a collaborative age. [Video file]. Retrieved from

In this video, posted to, former Pixar University dean Randy Nelson explains Pixar’s philosophy on collaboration in the workplace. At Pixar, they have three major principles when it comes to working with others: First, Nelson says they “accept every offer.” In other words, they build each other up instead of tear each other down. Nelson explains that when you listen and consider the other person’s idea, you have a possibility, and when you don’t, “you have a dead end.” Second, Pixar believes in making your partners or team members look good.  They don’t talk about how they will “fix” a partner’s idea. Instead, it is more about how one idea springs from another. Third, when Pixar is looking to hire someone, they not only look for depth of knowledge and skill, but also for resilience, for evidence of past failure and recovery. They want people with problem solving skills and wide varieties of experience. In order to find innovative people, Pixar looks for personalities that demonstrate interest and who are passionate about their goals. Finally, Nelson explains that at Pixar collaboration means amplification. It is beyond cooperation because people are truly building on each other’s skills to create unique and powerful ideas.

This speech is inspiring for people in every profession, including those of us who work in education. Pixar is unbeatable in terms of the creative products they produce, so it means a lot to hear Randy Nelson talk about how collaboration is at the heart of everything they do. I can easily incorporate the first tenant: “Accept every offer” into my daily collaborative work at the middle school where I work. I interpret that phrase to mean that collaborative teams truly consider everyone’s ideas. They don’t just wait to say their own ideas or try to tear other people’s ideas apart. Educators should also be mindful of the way Pixar looks for people who have persevered through past failures. If we want to be innovative, we will sometimes fail. There will be lessons that don’t work. It’s part of the process. We should all remember Nelson’s final point: Collaboration means amplification. That is true for teachers just as it is true for students. We are better working together than we are working alone.

Pondering Assessment

Williams, Connie. (2014). Pondering Assessment. Library Media Connection, 8-11.

Amy Woods
CA- Assessment Strategies

In her article, Connie Williams, a teacher librarian in Petaluma, California, suggests that it is time re-examine how student library research skills are assessed. It is easy to create and grade multiple choice, short answer, and true/false assessments; however, these types of tests only require students to recall facts and tell us little about student learning. Furthermore, assessments of final products don’t reveal student understanding of the research process or other library skills, such as creating citations, evaluating websites, or searching effectively for information. If we really want to gauge student understanding of these skills, formative assessment is key. Williams points to the Common Core Standards for Literacy and suggests breaking the research into smaller steps, allowing the teacher and teacher librarian to check in with students throughout their process. She cites Kathy Schrock ( and the Big 6 reflection questions as a means to help students assess their own learning. She concludes by stating our ultimate goal is to create “competent researchers” and our assessments should be “instruments that help guide students toward that goal.”


Williams definitely makes a solid argument for formative assessment. So often, educators get caught up in the end result and forget that the process is what is really important in student learning. The types of formative assessments that Williams points to, allow teachers to give students feedback and positive reinforcement for important life skills. This seems much more valuable than a letter grade on an end product.

ET: Inquiry–Five Ways to Integrate by Julia Marshall

Sullivan, Maureen

Five Ways to Integrate
Dr. Julia Marshall

Summary: This article has been a staple of mine for the last six years when thinking about shifting pedagogy to integrate across content areas, particularly spanning art and science. The five creative strategies Dr. Julia Marshall describes are used by both artists and scientists alike in the real world, and are fantastic strategies to implement in the library setting to embrace student choice, collaboration, and synthesis of their ideas. They are cognitive strategies, that are used to communicate the creators’ ideas through depiction, metaphor, mimicry, formatting, and projection.

Julia Marshall is an Art Education professor at San Francisco State University and I had the pleasure of working with her closely on a science and art integration initiative in San Francisco public schools.

Evaluation: In thinking about the cognitive processes that span art and science, Julia offers some specific ways in which both artists and scientists are manipulating information to communicate their thinking. I highly recommend it!

Five Ways to Integrate

The Key to Empowering Educators? True Collaboration

Amy Jessica McMillan
CO – Constructivist Teachers

Schwartz, K. (2013). The key to empowering educators? True collaborationMindShift. Retrieved from

Written in support of Connected Educator’s Month, MindShift author Katherine Schwartz argues that in order for educational technology to be used in innovative ways, teachers need a strong collaborative culture. Schwartz says that when new technology is introduced, most educators use it to simply replace the old paper and pencil way of doing things. This is due to many factors, not least of which is the fact that standardized testing and other bureaucratic procedures tend to reinforce the old system. Instead, Schwartz sees teacher collaboration as a way of encouraging teachers to take risks. Teachers can support each other as they try using technology in new ways, even when plans sometimes fail. Connie Yowell, the director for U.S. Programs at the MacArthur Foundations is quoted, describing the goal for teaching and learning to be about, “shared interest and it has to be about making, producing, and creating.” For that to occur, teachers need to work together.

I fundamentally agree with everything this article claims. Teachers need to collaborate in order to successfully use innovative technology in the classroom. I know this from my own daily experience as a classroom teacher. When we use a technological tool for the first time, there is always a period of trial and error. Mistakes happen. It feels a bit insecure and risky. When teachers know they have administrative support and that they have a network of colleagues to rely on, they can face these inevitable hiccups in pursuit of the larger goal. Schwartz also makes a valid point about how the current testing system validates the old ways of teaching and therefore discourages teachers from innovating. This is an ongoing concern and Schwartz does not offer any way to fix the situation.