15 Strategies for Motivating Students that Don’t Involve Punitive Grading

15 Strategies for Motivating Students that Don’t Involve Punitive Grading

Students should feel free to work without the threat of a grade so they can feel free to fail.  Using grades as the primary way to bribe students to do quality work is sending the message that the reason for school work is to get grades and not to improve.  If a student doesn’t care about the grade, the system breaks down.

  1. Establish a Culture of Excellence – The environment of your classroom sets the stage for everything else that happens.  Have high expectations for every student and offer a high degree of assistance to get them there.  Share feelings of disappointment due to inferior effort and feelings of pride due to quality effort.
  2. Adopt a Respect Mindset – Understand that students lead complex and unequal lives.  Learn to respect the differences of opinion, differences of interest, differences of learning, differences of home lives, and differences of culture that might initially look like apathy or disrespect.
  3. Work During Class – Homework should be used as an intervention only.  Take a close look at the way class time is used.  Reduce teacher talking time and increase student talking time.  Reduce lecture and provide notes to students.  Use the time gained through efficiency for student practice.  If the content can’t be presented and practiced by most students during class time, there is too much content.
  4. Include Student Voice – Choice in project design helps increase buy-in.  It also can provide for cross-curricular integration.
  5. Stand Back – Don’t be afraid to not constantly be busy.  Sometimes what students need is the opportunity to struggle and problem solve on their own.  Be the expert students can come to when they hit an obstacle they can’t reason their way out of.  You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) constantly be hovering over the work your students are doing.  This isn’t to stay you shouldn’t frequently check-in and provide guidance/support, just not constantly.
  6. Take Time to Team Build – It is OK to get off task and share stories.  Let your students get to know you.  Get to know your students.  Let your students get to know each other.  When students care about their teacher and know their teacher cares about them, they’ll work harder.
  7. Share Home – When exciting things are happening in your classroom, consider making a short video or taking a few pictures to e-mail home.  When parents are informed of what’s happening in the classroom they’re more likely to ask questions at home.  When parents express interest, students are more likely to want to play an active role in the story.  Positive stories home also add to the “relationship bank account” that you can draw from if you need to contact home about something negative.  If a student isn’t working well, consider having that student e-mail both you and their parents a behavior report explaining why they aren’t working to their full potential.  Reply all that you’ll be contacting the parent by phone.
  8. Be Purposeful – Ensure the tasks you are having students do are directly targeting the learning objectives you have.  At least 90% of the time students are working should be targeted to the learning objective.
  9. Have Students Self-Assess – Ask students to rate their own work in terms of rigor, process, and learning outcomes.  Any identified deficits should be followed up with a student suggested solution.
  10. Give Feedback – Once you see the student feedback and potential solutions, check for fidelity and look for any missed areas.  Consider their plan for improvement and make suggestions if need be.
  11. Give Rationale – “Because I said so,” doesn’t respect students.  Students deserve to know the “why” behind the “what.”  When they understand their work has a purpose, it is easier to work at a high level.
  12. Utilize the Power of Peer Pressure – When students are working together in groups, make it known that the productivity of each student is the responsibility of the entire group.  Encourage students to take leadership roles in encouraging and teaching their peers to actively participate.  Intervene when personalities are interfering with productivity.  Consider using the POD lesson planning strategy to accomplish these goals.
  13. Relax – The learning process takes time and is not always neat and orderly.  A classroom can be productive and noisy at the same time.  Students can be consistently working productively and also miss the deadline.  Keep in mind that plans are only that – a plan for how things will play out.  Plans are not rigid directions that must be followed to the letter
  14. Include Competition – Occasionally, announce you are going to judge the products students are creating and will give a prize for the winner.  (In my classroom, I give away freebies from online giveaways or from events that have been generously donated)
  15. Stop Expecting Perfection – Under the old paradigm of using punitive grades, many students didn’t do their work.  Some students will attempt to not do their work when you stop giving grades for formative work as well.  Keep pushing and working to inspire the ones who are less than interested or motivated to complete their work.



What is a Micro-Symposium?

The opportunity to give every one of your 30 students the opportunity to give a 4 minute presentation 3 times in one class period.

How does a Micro-Symposium work?

  1. Students develop a 3-4 minute presentation of a product they have created or a re-teaching of an individually difficult concept or standard.
  2. While students are working, I touch base with all of them and record all the topics.  I then break them into 3 diverse topic rotations (to limit the amount of repetition per rotation).
  3. Rotation 1 presenters get 2 minutes to set up around the room while I have the rest of class partner up.
  4. Each partnership goes to a presenter of their choosing for the first 4 minute “session.”
  5. After the first session is complete, give audience groups 30 seconds to report to their next session and begin again.  Repeat for session 3.
  6. After 3 sessions are complete, it is time to rotate out your presenters – they get 2 minutes while you again break up the new audience groups into pairs to rotate through the 3 sessions.  Repeat the whole process for rotation 3.
  7. Each rotation takes exactly 15 minutes (3 x 4 minute sessions + 2 x 30 seconds rotation +2 minute set-up).

Benefits of the Micro-Symposium

  • Every student gets to present in 45 minutes (as opposed to 30 students x 4 minutes each + 1 minute setup = 150 minutes or 2.5 hours or 3+ class periods).
  • Students are working on something that is individually challenging to them (and hopefully interesting!)
  • Students get the chance to improve each time they present.
  • Less impact of stage fright.  Students are presenting to only 2 others at once – and know that the people they are presenting to just did or will soon present.
  • Audience engagment is high. Students are moving in between each presentation, and there is an element of choice of who they are going to see.

How I choose to use the Micro-Symposium

  • This tends to be a review before the test – or an opportunity to re-teach.
  • I don’t grade these.  I give feedback while they are developing their presentations when I check-in.  I watch for anyone struggling during the first session and quickly give suggestions before their next session.
  •  To ensure that I can get through all three in my 46 minute class period, I give all the instructions and do a session run-through the day before.
  • I have the rule that there is no doubling up – groups are instructed that only 1 partnership audience per presenter and you can’t visit more than once.
  • If there is focus or respect issues that occur when specific personalities are together, I impose a requirement to not be in the same group as audience or presenter.
  • I use class time for developing these, usually 2 class periods.  The time I gain back from not needing to devote 3 or 4 days to presenting makes this possible and respects student time outside of my classroom.  It also gives me the opportunity to check-in throughout the process so I can hold them accountable without needing to “grade” it.
  • Noise.  It will be loud – but it will be a productive loud!microsymposiumfloorplan

Single Lane Rubrics

Single Lane Rubrics

This year, I have moved to using a single lane rubric for assessing student projects.  It has liberated the scoring process.  Added bonus:  it is less work to create and more likely to be able to be reused or only slightly modified for other assessments.

The single lane rubric doesn’t put a cap on student learning.  When we plan our assessment or students self-assess, they describe the ways they will accomplish or have accomplished earning a “4.”  My job is ensure fidelity of the score.  I read through what a student has described and verify it meets the rigorous standard of mastery.

The singlewp-image-1016219681jpg.jpg lane rubric doesn’t list all the ways a student can not achieve the expectation.  When a student misses the mark, I simply describe how it doesn’t meet the stated goal.

Personalizing feedback makes it more valuable.  When students personalize their own feedback, the scoring process is more valuable (and less time consuming for the teacher.)

No more averaging and no more gaming points! When it comes time to “score” the project, I am not adding up scores and then dividing by an arbitrary total.  I look at the story this document tells.  Is this the story of mastery, competency, or still building knowledge.   I use my professional judgement.  If there is a disagreement, we have a conversation and I identify what I need evidence of to change the “grade.”

Here’s a PDF of my 1 lane rubric


The role of summative assessments & formative feedback events

The role of summative assessments & formative feedback events

Summative assessments evaluate how much a student knows about a topic and/or the skills a student possesses within the context of the academic standard.  It is rare that projects, group work, or presentation events meet the high standard of a summative assessment; instead, these opportunities are best suited to learn and practice the material. As the summary of learning, the “grade” should be 100% based on summative assessments.

Formative feedback events (I don’t like using the word, “assessment” when I’m thinking about formative tasks) practice the material and the performance tasks required to be successful on a carefully crafted summative assessment. Formative feedback events provide the opportunity to practice the material and give the teacher the chance to give quality feedback.  As the “practice” of the material, under most circumstances, these should not be figured into the final grade.

Summative vs Formative Feedback (1).png

Self-Audit of Rules & Policies

Self-Audit of Rules & Policies

Too often we hold policies and enforce rules because they solve an immediate need; but sometimes they simultaneously create new obstacles for the very students that need the clearest path to success or are in direct conflict with our stated beliefs.  Take this self-audit on the alignment of your beliefs and policies.

The following questions are related to a recent post, 17 Policies that Inadvertently Disrespect Students.

  • Do you believe that students learn at different paces?
    • Do your late work policies respect this?
    • Does your deadline policy line up?
    • Does your re-take policy take this into account?
    • Is your “opportunity cost” to re-take too high?
    • Does your timing of the assessment event agree with your belief?
    • Do you put a deadline on learning?
  • Do you believe that students learn in different ways?
    • What happens when a student “fails” a test?
    • Is there always an option for an alternative assessment?
    • Does your use of homework respect this?
    • Does your instruction respect this?
  • Do you believe teachers should also teach respect?
    • Are you actually teaching respect or punishing lack of respect?
    • Are you modeling respect?  Really?
    • Is your definition of “respect” just submissive obedience?
  • Do you believe that students make innocent mistakes?
    • What happens when a student forgot to silence their cell phone?
    • What happens if a student misplaces a piece of paper?
    • If a student is having a bad day, do they get punished for it?
    • If a student is acting out due to boredom, what’s your solution?
    • In your classroom, what is the culture of making mistakes?
    • Is an honest mistake treated the same as a purposeful transgression?
  • Do you believe that the grade should represent what a student knows and is able to do with your content?
    • How does turning in something on-time represent knowledge or ability in your content?
    • How does attendance demonstrate ability with the content?
    • How does a deadline educate you on their ability?
    • How does “neatness” or “creativity” on a project show a level of mastery?
    • How does the amount of homework show how much a student is able to do on an assessment?
    • How does classroom behavior demonstrate their abilities with the content?
  • Do you believe that anyone truly wants to not be successful?
    • When a student appears “apathetic,” what do you do?
    • How does the “we can’t do anything until they want to” philosophy measure up to this?
    • What other reasons might exist that a student might look like they don’t want to be successful?
  • Do you believe that students should be able to explore hobbies and interests?
    • Does your homework policy respect the time a student needs to do this?
    • What about the “hidden homework” of studying, reteaching, and reading that is required to be successful?
  • Do you believe that some students’ homes are not conducive to work?
  • Do you believe that not all students have equal access to technology?
    • Does a student without technology access at home have equal requirements of work?
    • Does a student without technology access at home have equal access to the material?



More than a Growth Mindset, teachers need to develop a #RespectMindset, a filter that every policy and decision runs through.  A Respect Mindset asks whether or not the choice/reaction will most meet a student where they are.  It verifies that we are respecting the humanity and diversity of the kids we teach.  It requires a compassion for unequal backgrounds and demands a patience for challenge.

We need to communicate to our students that they don’t need to earn our respect and they can do nothing to lose our respect.  They deserve and need that safety.  The safety to know they can make mistakes without permanently damaging the relationship.  Students will inevitably disappoint us – it is what they do.  We can’t let them fall off the cliff because they were testing to see if the boundary was still there.  We need to teach why that boundary exists.

Expecting respect isn’t the same thing as teaching respect.  When a student is acting
custom_note_thumbtack_16093-5in a disrespectful way, punishment can’t be the only response.  Teachers need to model a dispassionate expression of feelings and engage in conversation, because what looks and feels like “disrespect” to a teacher might look and feel like something completely different to a student.  Take these examples of disrespect:

Insubordination.  Teacher view – refusing to comply with the clear and fair rules/policies of the space.  Potential student view – refusing to let a teacher on a power trip get their way.

Rudeness.  Teacher view – not interacting in a civil way.  Potential student view  – this is how my friends/family interacts, it is fine.

Demanding.  Teacher view – asking is different from demanding, it is time you learned that.  Potential student view – because I didn’t more carefully choose my words, I’m not going to get what I need.

Lateness.  Teacher view – arriving on time is a choice, a choice everyone else has made.  Student view – why even come at all if I am going to be verbally attacked as soon as I walk through the door?

If the only response is punishment, the only communication a student will receive is punishment – I have to believe that isn’t the goal of anyone.  Punishment with a lecture “explaining why” isn’t much better.  Teachers have to be more purposeful about when the conversation takes place about which behaviors make us feel disrespected.

Teachers need to communicate respect through more than what we say.  We need to consider  what we ask students to do with their time, our rules, and our policies.

We also need to do regular classroom culture checks.  When was the last time you lost your patience?  When was the last time you verbalized pride?  When was the last time
you shouted?  When was the last time you had a one-on-one conversation that made a student feel noticed?  When was the last time you . . .?

Respect Mindset = patience and compassion


17 Rules & Policies that Inadvertently Disrespect Students

17 Rules & Policies that Inadvertently Disrespect Students

Teaching is ALL about the relationship.  Students will do anything  and endure frustration when they feel their teachers treat them with dignity and care about them.  Classroom rules, policies, and reactions need to be run through the “respect filter.”

desert_road_sign_186481) Homework – Homework magnifies the effects of disparate home lives.  The stress on families caused by poverty, abuse, neglect, and addictions already puts students at a disadvantage.  When academic success hinges upon the completion of work at home,
students whose lives include high amounts of chaos face a significant and unjustifiable hurdle to their academic achievement.

2) Punishing Boredom – Considering the amount of time high school students are asked to sit compliantly and silently in a chair throughout the day, is it any wonder that students look for an “escape” through their technology, friendships, outbursts, or sleep?  The typical classroom doesn’t respect that the minds of our students are inside of bodies that crave movement and expression.  When these behaviors appear, it should serve as an opportunity to re-evaluate the delivery and practice happening in the classroom.

3) Grading Events & Not Learning – Tests, projects, and homework all take place at a specific time.  Beyond not respecting the reality that students learn differently and at different paces, when products demonstrating learning are time-bound, external factors (stress, illness, tragedy, learning differences, family obligations, time management skills, etc.) distort the story of the level of knowledge and skill acquisition.

4) Punishing the Accidental Cell Phone Ring – The message sent by the teacher and received by the class is that in this classroom, there is no room for error or mistakes.  If a no_cell_phones_pc_400_clr_3744student already is embarrassed by interrupting with their “Boom Boom Pow” ringtone and will never do it again, what benefit is there to further punishment?  Instead, model patience and understanding.  This goes for all accidental digression from the rules and policies.

5) Extra Credit – Extra credit makes learning optional.  If a student is struggling with a concept and their grade is suffering, extra credit might seem like a viable solution.  However, when a student completes extra credit in place of doing something else, that “something else” doesn’t get learned, but the final grade makes it look like it was.  Alternatively, consider allowing student to do a targeted, rigorous and valid alternative assessment to replace a poor performance on an assessment.  It is important to ensure the alternative assessment is reporting the same amount and level of learning as the original expectation.

6) Completion Points – The common argument for grading on completion is that on “formative” assignments, the practice is more important than the correct answer.  First, if you believe (as I do) that the final grade should represent what a student knows and is able to do, where does “practice” fall into that summative reporting?  Second, if you do decide that “practice” belongs in the final grade, this policy gives credit to students who are willing to cheat and punishes those who aren’t.  How many students “share” their assignments in the class before it is due?  How many students are feverishly copying down the answers their friends copied off someone else just before the bell rings?  Completion points also feed into the notion that learning is about “just doing” and not about “accomplishing.”  Consider no points for homework.  Consider no homework at all!

7) Bathroom “Privilege”  – There is nothing more frustrating than the student who comes racing right after lunch saying, “Can I go to the bathroom?” Any answer other than, “yes” is wrong.  In fact, at anytime any answer other than, “yes” is wrong.  Students deserve to feel comfortable – and will learn better if they are.  This isn’t to say we don’t hold students accountable for addressing their physical needs at more appropriate times.  Consider responding to the student who runs to you right after lunch with,  “Yes, but next time it’ll be considered a tardy.” How come a tardy?  Because being present means both “there” and “ready to learn.” (Additionally, requiring students to “buy” their way to the bathroom with academic points or “earned coupons” disrespects physical needs and distorts academic grades.)

8) Group Grades – Group work rarely results in equal work.  A group grade makes the hardest workers feel slighted while the “coasters” get a distorted report of their learning.  Use group work to teach collaboration and encourage cooperation.  Assess individual learning after the co-learning event has taken place.

9) Rubrics that Give Weight to Neatness – Assessment of projects and papers should be based solely on the content.  Students have a lot of time requirements – spending time coloring or beautifying a product isn’t a fair request to make.  This isn’t to say that a project not done with care needs to be accepted.  If it doesn’t meet quality standards, don’t accept the project until it meets the standard – but then only report the learning demonstrated, not the aesthetics.

10) Getting on the Emotional Roller Coaster – When we are stressed or angry, our IQ drops.  Teenagers are developmentally experiencing stress – let alone a student who has a difficult home life or is dealing with mental illness.  A student who lashes out in a flash of anger is likely not operating with their highest amount logical brain power.  Adults need to model calm and rational problem solving.  We need to understand that in the midst of a stressful situation (like a teenager melt-down) we also aren’t operating at our highest potential and may need to engage in delaying a reaction.  Diffusing situations isn’t the same as ignoring them.  Saying to a student, “I understand you’re upset and I want to talk this whole situation through because this isn’t the way I expect my classroom to run – but now is not the time.”  Buys you the opportunity to rationally react while maintaining high expectations for behavior with the rest of the students.  It also isn’t immediately assigning blame exclusively on the student.

11) Whole Class Punishment – 3 or 4 students can derail a class of 30 in a heartbeat. When a teacher punishes an entire class, the students who were on the verge of joining in get the message that it doesn’t matter whether they behave or not because they are going to endure the punishment regardless.  Employing positive peer pressure and making a connection with the ring leaders goes a long way to improving the culture of a class.  Employ the same “wait and respond” with an entire class as you do with individuals.

12) Surprise Assessments – Pop quizzes unnecessarily cause anxiety for students.  Reasons given for utilizing surprise assessments include wanting to ensure students are consistently prepared and to prevent the cramming phenomenon before tests.  The first reason disrespects the complexity of students’ lives.  The second is only required if the assessment isn’t valid or reliable.  Quality assessments measure abilities to apply, evaluate, and synthesize – these skills can’t be crammed for.

13) Gate keeping Assessments – Policies that prevent students from being eligible to take an assessment before completing a review packet or having all homework done are policies that don’t respect that students learn differently.  If it is agreed that not all students learn the same, how is it argued that all students must do the same thing?  If there are a few students struggling and this process seems like the best for that individual, consider using it as a intervention strategy that is “scaffolded” away over time.

14) Using the word, “apathetic” – Students don’t come to school to fail.  No student wants failure.  It is the teacher’s job to not label a student but figure out what the root cause of their behavior is and work to make it better.  Consider these words by Dr. Ross Greene in his article, Kids Do Well If They Can

“Kids with behavioral challenges are not attention-seeking, manipulative, limit-testing, coercive, or unmotivated. But they do lack the skills to behave appropriately. Adults can help by recognizing what causes their difficult behaviors and teaching kids the skills they need.”

15) Late Work Grade PenaltiesLow grades don’t motivate students.  They do the opposite – choosing this policy runs the risk of further demoralizing an already struggling student.  Meeting deadlines is a behavior that must be taught to students; however, tying it to their academic grade makes a student think on future assignments, “Why should I work so hard to get a D or C?”  Late work penalties legitimize lateness.  Addressing the behavior with logical interventions is the only way to expect punctuality.

16) Hidden Homework – Any work a student is required to do outside of the classroom toshould-high-school-teachers-stop-assigning-homework be successful inside the classroom is by definition, “homework.”  Beyond the worksheets, papers, and projects, any time required to study, relearn, or be tutored is a tax on students’ time.  If there isn’t enough time during the class period to properly introduce, practice, and assess the content – there is too much content and/or inefficient delivery. Hidden homework should be exception used as an intervention, not the rule used for preparing most students.

17) Rules are Rules – No matter how positive a classroom environment or the quality of relationships with students, rules will be broken and policies won’t be followed.  Teachers need to be dispassionate in their response while simultaneously compassionate in their punishment.  It is accepted that students are not complete in their knowledge base and teachers need to teach knowledge.  The same is true about responsibility:  students are not complete in their responsibility base and teachers need to teach responsibility.  Keep in mind that teaching is not the same as expecting.

Consider taking the “self-audit” to see how your beliefs line up with your policies.