One of the challenges that is often shared by school leaders and their boards is ensuring that every student is reaching his or her full potential in every area of their formation – academic, physical, spiritual, and so on. Traditionally, academic prizes were used as a prime motivator, but of course only the top few percent of students can ever dream of receiving one of these prizes, which suggests their value as a motivating influence on students is marginal at best.
During four of my five school headships, I introduced an initiative which proved to be extremely effective in motivating students. Indeed, in the words of many of my colleagues, it completely transformed the learning culture of the school.
The initiative was a very simple one. Every school already included grades for “Effort” or “Application” on their student reports, but none of them treated the effort grade as seriously as the academic mark achieved for each subject. Consequently, neither the students nor the parents placed much emphasis on the effort grade. The simple initiative was to treat the effort grade as being more significant than the mark achieved.
The thinking behind this change was that only a few students could ever achieve marks of, say, 90% and above. However, every student was capable of gaining an “A” for Effort if they were working to their full capabilities. In other words, a student who was getting a mark of, say, 55% might deserve an “A” for Effort if they were working their heart out. Similarly, a student who was receiving a mark in the high 80s might only deserve a B or a C for effort, or even a D if they were coasting and not applying themselves seriously to their work.
A key element in this initiative was coming to a common understanding among all teachers of what was required for the award of each Effort Grade. In other words, Effort Grades should be criterion-based. The criteria used in each of the schools where I was Principal varied to suit their different demographics, but they were something like this:
A EXCELLENT SUSTAINED EFFORT
B CONSISTENT, VERY GOOD EFFORT
C REASONABLE, SATISFACTORY EFFORT
D UNSATISFACTORY EFFORT
E UNACCEPTABLE EFFORT
Teachers assess Effort on the basis of consistent, demonstrated patterns of learning. They do not base their judgements on isolated incidents. There are no restrictions to the number of Effort grades awarded in a course. Effort grades are awarded on the basis of actual student learning profiles, not quotas. It is important to note that the Effort grades relate to the learning process and the content relative to an individual student’s ability, irrespective of actual achievement of marks. Low performing students should be and are capable of receiving an Excellent grade if their approach to learning in the classroom and their performance in completing homework is high.
The introduction of this simple change meant that parents became aware of their children's progress relative to their own individual capabilities and potential, not just in relation to the rest of the class or grade.
An important element of this initiative was following up the Effort Grades in reports. Students who received straight “A” grades for Effort in every subject were awarded a "Gold/Exemplary Certificate" at a full school assembly to which parents were invited. Students who received straight “A” grades with one “B” received a “Silver/Distinguished Certificate”, and students who received straight “A”s with two “B”s received a “Bronze/Commended Certificate”. These assemblies quickly assumed huge importance in the school community, with parents taking time off work so they could attend. The assembly was followed by a morning tea (or afternoon tea as appropriate) for the award winners and their parents, with food and drinks situated on tables in a location where all the students who had not received awards had to walk past without stopping on the way to their next class.
Important follow-up also occurred for students at the other effort of the effort range. Any student who received three "D"s or one "E" grade on their report was interviewed by me as Principal, had a letter written home, and was followed up by the year co-ordinator. If those poor efforts continued, then for the sake of the welfare of the individual student, we raised questions about whether or not they should continue at the school, asking whether the school was able and effective in meeting the student’s needs. Moreover, out of concern for students having difficulties, on a weekly basis Heads of Departments and Year Co-ordinators discussed with me as Principal those students who were causing them concern, academically or otherwise. I was told that few schools expressed their concern for the individual needs of each student in such intense, some would say time consuming, ways – but it worked.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
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