Focusing on Growth over Grades

Focusing on Growth over Grades

Written by: Ashley Johnson

December 6, 2023
Growth over Grades graphic.

For years, the educational system has been focused on “grades” as the measure of students’ success and potential for future successes. So much so, our students have been conditioned to focus on points rather than progress, rank rather than retention, and grades rather than growth. We have to change the narrative. We have to get students to understand that personal development, resilience, and continuous learning are the keys to long term success. How do we prioritize “growth over grades” in our classrooms?  How do we change the way students think when, for years, they have been told the only path to success includes high scores, GPA, and class rank? When, in fact, the top five qualities employers are looking for, according to indeed.com, include: ambition, communication, confidence, critical thinking, and dependability. Here are some tips to create a more “growth over grades” mindset in your classroom.

“We have to get students to understand that personal development, resilience, and continuous learning are the keys to long term success.”

Goal Setting

Setting goals before projects, assignments, or units can help students see the big picture. Before we begin a book study in my personal finance class, we set personal, financial, and life goals in which the students want to take away after reading the book.  Make goals that are NOT related to getting a certain grade on the assignment or increasing their overall class grade.  Get the students thinking, “Oh, maybe I can get more out of this lesson than a GPA bump!”

Partner Rubric Work

For some assignments, I have students pair up and “grade” each other’s work with the rubric.  They mark on the rubric where they feel their partner’s work falls short and make notes on how improvements could be made. Everyone then receives their own work back and can make edits and corrections to their work to improve their placement on the rubrics before they turn in their final assignment. This not only helps students give and receive constructive feedback, but also fosters an appreciation of the iterative process and improving their initial work.  In the real world, we have the opportunity to innovate, experiment, and refine our work. Why not start preparing our students for this now?

Example of a Partner Rubric.

Word Wall Flip Chart Activity

For different units or book studies, I have students create their own vocabulary words by making a word wall. After we finish the unit, students will use the word wall flip chart activity. In this activity, students pick words that personally resonate with them. They define the term in their own words and explain why understanding this word will help them in life. Each student may have different word choices, but they get to pick what hits home. This process effectively enhances their retention with the vocabulary. 

Word Wall Flip Chart Example.

Not Everything You Do Needs To Be Graded

As teachers and students, we have been conditioned to think every activity, assignment, and worksheet needs to be graded.  I free you from this misconception! You do NOT need to grade every little thing. Students may initially find this concept challenging. After an activity, simply ask the students what they have learned, or what their takeaway is.  A response such as, “Wonderful! That was my goal for this activity,” can suffice. They may push harder as to why you wouldn’t grade the activity.  Simply ask them if they score themselves after they reach a personal goal. No, you celebrate and move on! Not only does this help condition students to fixate less on grades, it takes the burden of grading off your shoulders! 

Get Uncomfortable

One of my favorite classroom mantras is, “You grow the most when you are uncomfortable!” My students hear me say it all the time. I encourage them to try new things. Of course, trying something new when you are concerned about a flawless GPA is incredibly intimidating. I understand, I was that type of student in high school. However, my biggest growth moments came later in life when I put myself in situations that weren’t in my comfort zone.  I consistently expose my students to situations which will challenge them with something new.  Students speak with community members, create prototypes, and present in competitions. These are all scary things for teenagers, but produce the greatest amount of growth. They aren’t graded on the success of the prototype or the results of the competition. They are graded on the effort put in, giving students the opportunity to get uncomfortable and grow. 

Building a classroom environment focused on “growth over grades” helps to improve upon the students self esteem, encourages a growth mindset and helps foster a love for learning. These are the foundations that will help build successful, productive members of society, which, as teachers, is our goal for our students.

Book Suggestion

I suggest The Growth Mindset Coach by Annie Brock and Heather Hundley. This book helps you to build a classroom environment that encourages a growth mindset in your students and in you! It gives you month by month steps to try over the course of a year so as to not overwhelm you in the changing process.



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  • Ashley Johnson

    Ashley Johnson is a business teacher with over a decade of experience at the high school level. After five years of working in the radio industry, Ashley was offered a job teaching high school business and hasn't turned back since. In 2013, Ashley earned her MBA from Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, IN. She is a wife and mother of two. Over the past 6 years, Ashley has been working on ways to get students more involved in entrepreneurship, by coaching them through multiple business pitch competitions including; Innovate WithIN, Launch DeKalb County, and Trine's Innovation One Competition.

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