Pause and Consider this: A Grade of “F” Could Mean “Fixable” Not “Failure”

In a recent piece on LINKEDIN, Jeff Selingo correctly points out the value of helping students appreciate the value of failure. He’s right. Learning requires risk-taking and that is not always easy. I then wrote a piece about how to communicate failure and in that piece I returned to a theme that has made some people see red, namely the need to use a color other than red to message positively.

This isn’t a trivial notion, despite naysayers. What could be more important than establishing trust and a quality relationship between student and teacher, enabling mutual respect?

Both Jeff Selingo’s piece and mine are here: http://bit.ly/1UHl2yh.

But, I want to probe deeper into the question of the “F” grade in red on the top of a paper written by a student (whether typed or handwritten or turned in and graded online). See the image at the top of this page and Jeff Selingo’s piece. For younger students, this is a grade that literally stands out when papers are handed back. Everyone can see it. Think of it as a scarlet (red) letter saying: you failed. Now the fact that the “F” is in red makes it worse. Couldn’t it appear on the reverse side of the paper in a different color, enabling just a tad bit of privacy and dignity? That’s not trivial.

Next, ponder the student reaction to an “F.” It is hard to distinguish between this paper did not meet the requisite standards and “I am a failure.” For kids, an “F” may make them feel badly, especially if they did not understand the assignment or they actually tried to study or write to meet teacher expectations. How, then, do we share that the student is not a failure? It is the paper that did not satisfy the requirements. It is way too easy to conflate the two. For students who have home lives that are filled with failure and for whom an “F” on a paper is common, it isn’t difficult to see how one can equate a bad grade with being a failure as a person.

One more point from the students’ perspective on what the teacher is actually saying with his/her grade: I suspect that young students who see an “F” in red at the top think the teacher is mad at them (and who knows, she or he may well be mad). In other words, the red “F” communicates messages beyond the statement that the student did not do well on this paper. It communicates to the student from (or the student attributes thoughts to) the teacher, whether or not legitimate.

I am not suggesting abolishing grades or raising grades artificially. That is not the answer generally or for me personally (although we could debate at what age grades should start). So, please, don’t say I am coddling kids with the suggestions that follow.

First, I hope all teachers share what grading is and what it represents — it is a reflection of how a student did on a particular paper, not whether they are smart or whether they are personally “bad.” Second, eliminate red. Point there already made. Third, move the “F” to another location on the paper (p0int previously made too) and accompany it with words like: “Please see me so I can help you.” Or, “I think you may have misunderstood the assignment and I am happy to work with you.” Or, how about: “Let’s work to improve this paper so that your grade can be improved.” The latter assumes that a revision would raise a grade (although an A is an A).

The point here: message that the teacher is willing and able to help a student learn. An “F” is not a permanent failure, goodness knows. And, it pays to pay attention to why there are/were failures (no time at home; no quiet at home, no interest in school, no confidence, illness (of the student or a family member), alcohol/drug use/abuse at home. Figuring that our requires an understanding of the student and his/her home life.

An “F” should not feel like a festering wound that is not healing. It should feel, instead, like one has “missed the proverbial boat” and there is more to do to meet expectations and, importantly, a teacher willing to help get the student there. “F” is for failure, yes. But, perhaps “F” is also standing for “fixable.” And, most student papers can, with help, be “fixed.”

One recent commentator, on my harangue about red, said he told students that the red marks were not blood or a mess (which is what he thought students saw and they communicated that too); he said the red marks and scratches were stitches to heal the paper. Bravo. Would that all teachers could communicate the capacity of students to improve!

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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