When an A Isnít Good Enough: How to Motivate Your ESL Students by Ditching Your Grade Book

When an A Isnít Good Enough: How to Motivate Your ESL Students by Ditching Your Grade Book

Have you ever thought that giving an A on an assignment might actually be hurting your students?

It is possible. In fact, a recent study shows that even when you give students feedback about their performance in addition to the grade on the page, it makes no difference than giving them the grade alone when it comes to their motivation. So the next time you want to motivate your students to do better, think about ditching your grade book and give them a different type of feedback instead.

Emphasis on grades can tend to deemphasize learning, even when that is not the intention. So rather than putting a grade on the top of the paper, even if it is an A, try giving your students a different type of feedback. Here are some ways you can give nongrade feedback to ESL students.

5 Tricks to Motivate Your ESL Students by Ditching Your Grade Book

  1. 1

    Write Students a Letter

    You probably won’t have time to do this every day or perhaps even every week, but writing your students a letter can be a great motivator. For one thing, your students want a personal connection to you. No matter what their age, they want to know that you are invested in their learning and you care about their futures. Consider writing students a letter to tell them what they are doing really well, how you see them improving, and where you think they need to work a little harder. If you sandwich your constructive criticism between sincere compliments and encouragement, your students will receive your message, even the parts that might not be so fun to hear. And they will feel more connection to you, too. An even bigger bonus? They can go back and read your encouraging note when they need a little boost.

  2. 2

    Have a One on One Conference

    Again, taking personal time with your students will show them that you care, and that alone is worth the time a conference takes. But when you meet with students one on one, you can give them personalized feedback. They can ask questions they might not be comfortable asking in front of the entire class. They can find answers that are specific to them. They will appreciate the time to converse with you one on one, too, because you may be the only native English speaker in their life right now. And they will benefit from the individualized, focused conversation time too.

  3. 3

    Give Students a List of What They Need to Learn

    Instead of giving students a goal and then evaluating whether or not they have met that goal, consider putting students in charge of their own grades. Give them a tiered list of things they need to learn or accomplish to achieve the grade they want. The first time I experienced contract grading, it was very strange to me. I had never had a professor say, “If you do all of the things on this list, you will receive an A.” After that experience, however, I see how valuable that kind of grading can be. When students know up front what is expected of them to receive a particular grade, they will work toward the grade they want. There will be no surprises at the end of the semester when grades come out, and students will have to rely on themselves and their initiative to achieve the grade they want. You’ll want to check in with your students’ work throughout the semester to make sure they are accomplishing tasks at the level which you expect. If not, feel free to give feedback about what needs improvement and reiterate your expectation for excellence in each individual task on the list.

  4. 4

    Give Sticky Note Feedback

    You can’t fit much on a two by two sticky note, but the few words that will fit there can make a huge difference in your students’ performance. Throughout the day, when you observe students doing things well or you see things they need to work on, jot it down on a sticky note along with the student’s name. Or take a few minutes at the end of class and assign a daily goal to each of your students by writing in on a separate sticky note. Once all of your students have gone home, stick each note on the appropriate student’s desk. Then when they come in in the morning, each person will have an individual goal for the day and know exactly what they need to be successful in your class.

  5. 5

    Have a Grade Conference

    This is especially effective when you grade on a rubric. Give each student a copy of your grading rubric and ask them to take a few minutes for self-evaluation. Where does each student think he falls on the grading scale you have set? Make sure you take time to grade each student according to the rubric as well. After students have had time to reflect on their own performance, meet with the student. Ask them to tell you what grade they think they have earned. If you agree with the grade they suggested, explain why you think their self-assessment is correct. And then give them that grade. If their grade does not match the grade you determined, share some of your observations with your student as to their performance, both positive and negative. Then ask students to reconsider what grade they should receive. You should also ask your student to share why they think they deserve that particular grade and reevaluate your own decision as necessary. Continue discussing until the two of you can agree on the appropriate grade for your student.

An A isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

Sometimes a grade, whether it is good or bad, will only serve to decrease student engagement and motivation. Consider taking another approach to evaluation and see how your students can flourish when the alphabet is nothing more than the building blocks to words.

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