There is only so much emotion to go around during the course of the school day. If all of it gets invested in grades, relatively less is available for the important stuff, like discussion, debate and sustained attention.
So, how can schools effectively reduce the drama associated with grades?
One very straightforward approach is to make grading less mysterious. This is already the case in many Math and Science courses, but continues to haunt Humanities courses where there is typically evaluation of writing and thought. I strongly advocate the distribution of sample papers as a means of reducing stress, improving clarity, and making students more accountable for the quality of their work. This could involve passing out several samples of “A” and “C” papers at the beginning of a semester, so that students can see and hear the qualitative differences in the best work vs. mediocre work. This works best when there are several examples of each level, so that students can see there is more than one road to excellence. I am not suggesting a dry rubric, but actual samples of student writing – ones that provide the kind of “melody” and reasoning that make teachers swoon! Also, the samples do not need to be related to the works currently being taught in a particular course.
To me, this is very fair to students, and helps to eliminate their fear that teachers are subjective or biased. It is also a superb teaching moment in that students are provided with an example of what excellence vs. mediocrity looks like. In any endeavor, that sort of coaching and clarity assumes we want the learner to ascend to excellence, and that their chances of doing so are better where they have a model of what excellence looks like! We learn to do virtually everything better where an example is provided – why not do this more often in school?
Please consider providing this type of guide for your own students – and watch how much more quickly they seem to learn. School should test the acquisition of knowledge, but I see little value in assessing whether students can correctly imagine what high quality work looks like to a particular teacher.