A Grading Strategy That Puts the Focus on Learning From Mistakes

Students in Leah Alcala's class work together to figure out what they did wrong on their math tests. (Teaching Channel)

Teachers know that students learn a tremendous amount from scrutinizing their mistakes, but getting them to take the time to stop and reflect is a challenge. Some teachers have stopped giving grades altogether to try to refocus class on learning instead of on grades. For others, that's too extreme. Leah Alcala, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at King Middle School in Berkeley, California, developed a grading strategy that falls somewhere in the middle.

"What I was finding when I was handing back tests the old way, where I put a grade on it, was kids would look at their grade, decide whether they were good at math or not, and put the test away and never look at it again," Alcala says in a Teaching Channel video featuring her strategy.

Now when she returns tests, Alcala highlights mistakes and hands the tests back to students without a grade. She doesn't tell them what they did wrong; they have to figure that out.

"By not putting a grade on the test, I feel like what I'm allowing them to do is wrestle with the math they produced for me first and think of the grade second," Alcala said.

At first she got a lot of questions about how much things were worth and what grade they'd received. She had to continually remind them that in seventh grade it's more important that they learn the math than that they get a certain grade.

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"I see that now when I give tests back, they're continuing to learn," Alcala said.

The students get their grade a day later on PowerSchool, and they're given opportunities to retake the test after they've digested their mistakes.

Alcala also projects "favorite mistakes" on the board that they talk about as a class. And students get time to look at their own mistakes and figure out where they went wrong. The other advantage of highlighting is that she can call attention to things that she won't necessarily take points off for, but that she wants students to notice. For example, she might highlight that they didn't put the correct units in a word problem. They got the math correct, so Alcala is not worried they won't be able to move forward, but she wants to remind them that units are important.


She grades in two go-rounds. First she reads the test from top to bottom, looking for the moment when the mistake gets made in each problem. Sometimes she sees what she calls "flow through mistakes," where the student made a mistake early on, thus got the wrong answer, but all the operations after that were done correctly. Other times a mistake was made early on, but more mistakes were made after that. Those two students would receive different grades on that problem, even though they technically both got it wrong.

After the first pass of the test, Alcala looks at the test as a whole for themes in the kinds of mistakes the child is making. Is she making the same mistake over and over? Or are there lots of different types of mistakes?

"It doesn't take longer to grade tests this way," Alcala said. "I think that was a big fear. It is a similar amount of time and it's far more enjoyable."

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She's hoping her students will learn how powerful it can be to study their mistakes when the stakes are lower, in middle school, and continue the practice throughout their learning when they leave her classroom.

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