Assessment David Theriault Education Reform grades Grading Reflection Teaching

A Reflection On Why Most Teachers Have A Rocky Time Grading Students

When I tell my students that they are going to watch the movie Rocky you can tell that they think they know what the movie is going to be about. This is the image in most of their heads.


But if you’ve seen the movie you know that the real fight isn’t in the ring. The real fight is his fight for survival. It’s his fight to do the right thing in his daily life. It’s his fight to love and be loved in return.

Now you could say that Rocky is a great film because it won three Oscars including best picture. You could say it’s a great film because it grossed more money than any other film in 1976 while only costing $1 million to make. But in order to truly understand the film, you have to watch the story. You have to take time to understand the story.

But that’s the problem with our modern society. Everything is so rushed we rely on a simple scorecard to determine who won and who “lost.” Many of my students don’t understand the end of Rocky. They don’t understand why he is so happy when he “lost.” A major factor in this is our worship of a final judgment. We are fixated on championships, grades, Saint Peter and his judgment at the Pearly Gates of Heaven. So often I hear from someone that in real life there is a winner and that second place is first “loser.”


In real life you can work for a company that made the second most money in their field and still be a millionaire. In real life a football player can never play in the Super Bowl and still earn enough to take care of his family for life. Can earn enough to build a wing in a hospital, or send a class of 1st graders to college. In real life a mother can work two jobs and send her daughters to college. In real life a C student can make their school a better place. But if you find the right graph, the right data, the right comparison, you can nitpick at each one of these individuals. You can make judgments on each of them without ever really knowing their story.

And that’s the problem with grading in school. If you don’t take the time to read or watch the story of your students’ learning, you aren’t really seeing their “win.”

Last year I made a mistake that I’m not going to make again this year. Last year, for whatever reason, I couldn’t find time to have my students write the story of their learning. My students didn’t turn in quarterly reflections, and I felt lost when it came time to assess their learning. Reflection has always been an important part of my classroom. Sometimes it something as simple as sitting on my desk and asking my students what they thought of an assignment or activity. Other times, it’s a bit more detailed. It might look like:
A Single Point Rubric For A Fanzine
A Reflection On Their Experience Writing Blogs aka “How To Love Your Blog”
A Reflection On The Horrors Of Group Work
A Blog Post On An Assignment That Blew My Mind

And I’m not the only teacher or thinker who finds student reflection essential.

HS English Teacher and Varsity Baseball Coach Brian Durst on Student Reflection
AJ Juliani 7 Ways Reflection Gives Students Ownership Of Their Learning
University research on The Role Of Reflection On Individual Learning Reflection Is The Most Important Part Of The Learning Process

If all that I use to assess my students’ learning are their test scores, writing scores, project scores then I’m making the same mistakes as the judges in the Apollo Creed vs. Rocky fight. I’m not considering the big picture when I’m deciding who “won” the fight. I’m not considering that even though Rocky is an armbreaker for a local loan shark, he took compassion on this guy.

Or when Rocky spotted a young girl making poor choices he took time to talk to her even though he got grief for it.

So how can I make sure I’m not making the same mistake? Well, Sean Ziebarth and I worked together for a while to create a process for student reflection. What did our process for student reflection look like. At the end of each month, or the end of each quarter, we asked our students to read and respond to this Google document:

Reflection: How To Create A Story Of Your Learning

There are examples of student reflections within the Google Document above, but here are a few examples of what you might get from students. These examples are from CP and Honors students.


Sample Student Reflection 1
Sample Student Reflection 2
Sample Student Reflection 3

Yes, they take more time than the scantron machine, but is your goal to be a teacher, or find the quickest and easiest way to collect a paycheck. Is your goal to be something that cannot be replaced by a machine or computer? If you are taking the time to read this, I know the answer. You are not really all that alone on your early morning jogs through the cold streets of Philadelphia. Not only are you helping your students understand themselves and their learning, but you are helping them figure out what they should do in response to their reflection.

If that’s not enough I’m going to give you FOUR great reasons why you should put down the scorecards and pick up the movie script of your students’ learning.

ONE: “I don’t remember a single thing I learned in that class.”

If you have your students write reflections on their learning, you should never hear this sad sad refrain from students.

TWO: You don’t know what kind of innovations your students are creating in response to the challenges of learning and living.

What if one of them comes up with a really unique solution their challenges? Don’t you want to learn their secrets to success and pass them on?

THREE: “How can you give my son a grade if you haven’t graded all of his work.”

I heard a teacher talking about a parent phone call in the lounge last year. It’s not a unique conversation. In an English or writing class it’s almost impossible to assign enough writing, if you are going to commit to grading all of the writing. Well… the parent has a point. What if the assignment you didn’t grade, was that student’s BEST work?

You owe it to the student to give them a chance to share with you their best work. You owe it to yourself to make sure that all of their work receives a grade and recognition. With a written reflection, a student has a chance to talk about work that you didn’t collect or grade and you can reward that work with a higher reflection grade. My reflection grades are my chance to bump up students’ grades so they more accurately reflect their true learning. NOT just the learning I saw and that leads us to point number four.

FOUR: If you are going to make only ONE change this year, do this:

replace your participation grade with a student reflection grade.

I see teachers ALL the time keep track of student participation as if ONE teacher can keep real time track of the learning of 37 students. I see teachers jot down points for hand raising, for answering questions, for asking questions. My wife is silently groaning at this. How many of you have a quiet student with active listening eyes? How many of you have an introverted student who writes and thinks beautifully but would rather listen, and learn than speak? This of student reflections as a grade equity tool. Think about the last meeting you went to. Was the person who spoke the most, the one who made the biggest contribution? Was the person who spoke the most the one who learned the most? And there’s a big bonus here. Time. Think of the time and stress you will save by not keeping track of student participation every time you have a class discussion. Think of how much easier it will be for you to be truly there in the moment with your students and not worry about keeping track of assessment while your students are sharing their deepest and most vulnerable thoughts.

Great teaching is not an award you win. It’s not a final judgment. It’s not a data point on a standardized test. Great teaching is a struggle. It’s a Nordic quest to fight and struggle and do the right thing even if it ends up looking like you might not have won.

Because no matter how good your training was in your credential program, because no matter how driven and talented you are, we all have gaps in our approach, but if we work together, teachers AND students, we can build something worth fighting for



    1. I understand that my question misses the point of the article a bit — that it’s not about grades, but the ability of the student to assess their own learning. How can I incorporate this reflection process into the grade book?

      1. Quick answer. It’s 50-100 points for a quarter or 100-200 points for a semester, based on a class that has about 1,000 to1200 points for a semester. I pretty much take the student self-grade at face value if it’s backed up in the reflection, but I might also move the grade up or down based on my observations and then leave a note for the student explaining my adjustment of their grade. It’s a mix of the quality of the reflection along with the learning that they have demonstrated.

  1. I love reading your blog posts about grading. I’m going into my 7th year as a high school English teacher, and this aspect of teaching riles me up like none other. I just want to do grading right. Your “grading is a castle built on sand” post from last year raised so many salient points. And I understand that grading is necessary. It’s just so difficult for me. Your insights continue to help me grow and do right by my students. Thanks! -Jon Netzler

    1. Check out, if you haven’t already, and the every-other-Sunday #tg2chat on twitter

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