Why Grades Work

This is probably slightly controversial and may be seen as outdated thinking, but I have to set the context of the title of this blog post first. In FE (Further Education) Colleges in Scotland, we generally have only two outcomes for each unit students undertake, PASS or FAIL. I’m not really sure the historical reason for this (it’s been that way as long as I can remember and I’ve been teaching in FE for 18+ years), I think it was to do with making all students feel they have achieved. On our HNC (Higher National Certificates) and HND (Higher National Diploma) courses we do have a single Graded Unit in which they do receive an A, B or C, but that is only one unit out of the 15 or so units they do a year.

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The problem with the PASS or FAIL system with no grading, is there is little motivation for excellence, apart those who are internally motivated to do their best anyway, but a lot of students we get at college are ones who didn’t achieve their full potential at school and have disengaged with education to a degree. So a student who submits work on time to a very high standard receives a PASS, the same result as a student who submits the bare minimum work 4 weeks late.

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Now we could just fail students who submit work late and that would certainly work as a motivating factor, however it would also mean less students would pass and achieve courses and we are judging in Scotland in colleges on our pass rates (that might not be an official line, but it is effectively the case). It also wouldn’t help with encouraging students to do their best. In the past I have tackled this by running internal competitions, such as the best 3D Animation receives a prize. That certainly did help encourage some of the highly motivated students to do better work, but it only really worked with a small percentage of them.


So this block at college I introduced on my HNC and NC games courses grades for all units. I taught 42 HNC students in our block 1 between August and November and at the end of block 1, less than 10 students had submitted their work on time and complete. A few of my better students said to me, “How come we get the same results as those guys who submitted late and did the bare minimum?”. My answer was that I totally agreed with them and it wasn’t fair at all. So I decided I would try something. I did speak to SQA about introducing grades and it did get a positive response, but it was obvious nothing was going to happen soon.

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So this block I told my students that for every subject (unit) they completed they would get an A, B or C for attainment based on the quality of their work and on it being submitted on time. I told them they would also receive a mark for effort (also A, B or C). Effort would take into account how they worked in class as well as their time keeping and attendance (something FE students are notoriously bad for). I did explain it was only an internal thing, equivalent to a school report, but that we would give them their results at the end of the year on a college certificate and we would also use it as a basis for selecting who would progress onto our HNC and HND courses the following year. I setup a gradebook for each student on their college OneNote (as shown below).

onenote gradebook

As I write this, it is now the day after the submission date for my 2D Animation class, with the same 42 students I had in block 1. I have now 30 out of 42 complete, the vast majority of whom did submit on time. That is 71% complete within a day of the submission date, compared with around 20% at best in block 1. The standard of work is also the best I have seen for this unit, with some really nice animations, some of which I have included in this blog post. All the ones I have included are to a better standard that I could have produced myself (as I am not an artist) and I am pleased with that. I don’t think my job as an educator is to always be superior to the students, but it is to encourage them and engage with them so that they fulfil their full potential.  The way I approached this unit was I wanted to show them the tools and then let them run with it and produce their own work & take ownership of it. When the student becomes better than the master, I think that is job done.


Out of the 30 who have now passed I have assigned 9 As, 15 Bs and 6 Cs, although the remaining 12 students now will get a C at best, so the number of Cs will rise. I personally think this is a resounding success, although it’s early days and it will be interesting to see how the other lecturers on the course find the improvement within the subjects they teach. It seems to me then, that applying grades (even unofficial ones) to all units seems to work. It’s not perfect and I still have 12 students who have not passed, 7 of the 12 having not submitted at all as of yet. However getting 70% of them completed on time for me is a win.

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The negative is that it is certainly was more work for teachers/lecturers and they all need to buy into it. I had to grade every student and I gave each one of them personal feedback in their grade-book as to why they got the grade they did. This is certainly more work than just assigning PASS or FAIL. However providing quality feedback is something that is encouraged by SQA and Education Scotland and is something educators should all be doing anyway.

My conclusion is GRADES WORK!

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