Thoughts on Resilience & Grading

I spent the last three days helping to facilitate a leadership retreat for some of our rising 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. This year’s theme was resilience, which we linked closely to one’s relationship with failure.

In several different ways, we asked students to reflect on the extent to which the school provides opportunities for them to fail, process what happened, make adjustments, and persevere through a difficult situation.

As we concluded the retreat this morning, we invited the students to consider how they and the adults at our school could facilitate the development of resilience during the upcoming school year. I was overjoyed with the first comment a boy put forward, which he intended for both students and adults:

Too often we get so focused on grades that we lose sight of the learning. Let’s keep the conversations about the learning rather than the grade.

I was blown away because I had hoped a student would bring this up, and this boy came right out with it. I’d like to make some strategic changes in my messaging around grading, reporting, and assessment this school year, and making the connection to resilience explicit could help keep these shifts rooted in a value to which the community has expressed a commitment.

My guiding question is this: What grading, reporting, and assessment practices (and policies) most effectively promote resilience in students?

There are many broad categories of issues come to mind, but in my current context I’d like to focus on redos and retakes.

I would like to try to assemble the most concise, convincing evidence that allowing multiple attempts at demonstrations of mastery facilitates the development of resilience. (I would go further and say that the practice of averaging in the scores of unsuccessful attempts impedes the development of resilience.)

Here’s a selection of articles I’ve read that support this view.

As Thomas Guskey writes in On Your Mark, we won’t get very far if we don’t agree on the purpose of grades, so the goal here is to convince someone who believes that the primary purpose of grades (in math class especially) is to summarize performance on one-time tests (via the arithmetic mean).

What do you think?

  1. What grading, reporting, and assessment practices (and policies) most effectively promote resilience in students?
  2. What is the most concise, convincing evidence you know of that allowing multiple attempts at demonstrations of mastery facilitates the development of resilience?

P.S. The value of mastery-based (competency-based) learning has begun to make its way to the independent school world as well: in this article from 2014, David Cutler writes about his expectation that traditional grades will be obsolete by 2034.


  1. I don’t have any formal research on this, but I m a high school teacher who has provided opportunities for retakes and redos for a few years I certainly have some anecdotal evidence to share.

    Resilience literally means to recover quickly from difficulty, so a critical practice for developing resilience in students is to provide quality feedback on what went wrong. How can we expect students to recover quickly from the difficulty of failing at a task if they are unsure where they went wrong? After all, if they knew where they went wrong, wouldn’t they have fixed it before submitting for review?

    The other key practice that I have found to be important is to let the students know what they did right. Rarely have I had students consistently miss the mark so badly that they did nothing correctly on their assignments. But I found that my time saving grading practice of only pointing out what needed to be fixed led to students feeling only like failures. Students became less resilient, because what students want to be resilient when they know they will only be told how wrong they were the next time? Once I started pointing out what the students did well they were noticeably more likely to have a desire to fix the things that needed fixing.

    Finally, a strategy that I will be implementing this school year is one that is a vital component of standards based grading: ditching the letter grades and, more importantly I think, the percentages. Letter grades and percentages give students an out. They give them the choice of accepting inadequate performance. They do this because they are considered a final evaluation of performance because that’s how they have been used for so long. Once students see a letter grade or percentage, they believe that’s it, that’s the end of the learning of that topic. Some teachers use rubrics to show students exactly what they need to do to earn high marks, but the standard 3-5 point rubric still gives the students the opportunity to choose a poor, but “passing” level of performance. If we want students to reach a certain level of proficiency, why not make that the only choice? The 1 point rubric helps develop resilience by not letting students choose otherwise – they either get 0 or they are proficient, with unlimited attempts to get to proficient.


  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Scott! I’ve updated my page so that my name and contact info are more apparent 🙂

    I’ll be in touch soon with a response to your post.


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