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Shifting from a Culture of Achievement to a Culture of Learning

Shifting from a Culture of Grades to a Culture of Learning



I had a student last week come to me and ask “how can I get to 95%?” (She was at 91%). How, as an educator in Social Studies, do I tell a student how she can get 4% better? Do 4% more in your thesis statements; put 4% more effort into studying for the test; put 4% more into __________. I’m sure if I manipulated my EasyGrade grade-book scales, assignment weights or simply omitted her lowest quiz score she could achieve her 4%. But the question still remains, why is she so focused on that 95%?   Yes the university she wants to get into requires this benchmark but more importantly we have created a culture of grades/achievement rather than a culture of learning. I will admit, I am one of the culprits in this practice as I update my online marks with all assignments, scores and grades attached to the student. But what about the university entrance requirements. The simple answer to this I learnt from a colleague last week. He polls his senior math students at the beginning of the year to see who has made a decision about what university they are going to. He then explains that he will not post percentages just letter grades as his focus is on the learning, understanding and growth of his students. He does ask students to have a conversation with him about their plans and goals and he will do everything he can to ensure a specific percentage is met.

Also we need to remember and recognize that universities are moving towards a holistic application. Many of my students are commenting on the personal profile requirement that UBC requires and that it takes them between one and two hours to complete. So as much as the benchmark is required, the whole student is looked at for acceptance. Also, I should add that even if the student does not meet the entrance mark, there are still other options for students to go to post-secondary school such as university colleges in BC. For many this is a better transition as class sizes are smaller, better access to profs and likely cheaper than the bigger universities. Once they complete a year or two of classes they can transfer to the university of their choice as a mature student with easier entrance requirements.

As the link above states, achievement culture is bad practice and we need students who want to learn for the sake of learning. The question then becomes how we shift the practice to a culture of learning. Here in my opinion are some simple ways to do this in our classrooms.

  1. In EasyGrade we can delete the scores and overall percentages and just leave the Letter Grade. Doing this will enable us to give quality feedback to the student and flip the question – what do you think you need to do to improve your lowest category grade (homework, labs, quizzes, projects etc.)
  2. Get rid of the typical homework piece of school. Shift to a more learner, collaborative approach to check for understanding. Instead of worksheets, have the students demonstrate the concept using any medium they choose or have a series of pop quizzes, go over them immediately but DO NOT count them for marks. (see
  3. Give students meaningful and specific feedback about their learning. If this is done correctly, students will naturally dig deeper into their understanding, remember the information and be able to make connections to other topics.
  4. Allow re-tests and revision of assignments.  Whether it is a driving test, LSAT, or provincial exams, our students have numerous real world examples of redoing assessments without penalty.  If redoing and revising leads to a deeper understanding and better reflection of what our students know then retests and revisions should be common practice.


It is still our job to prepare our students for university, but not in the traditional sense most of us are used to. It is NOT our job to throw tests, essays and other assessments at our students in the name of ‘time management’ to prepare them for midterms and finals at university. Rather it IS our job to give our students the skills to efficiently find and synthesize information, show them that depth of understanding is better than breadth, collaborative learning is more powerful than individual learning and that it’s not about the end grade, but how we got there. These skills will serve our students better in university and their lives than that 95% my student is asking for.

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