Garnet Hillman is an instructional coach at Caruso Middle School in Illinois. Also a writer and presenter, she consults around the country on assessment, grading, and student motivation.

Averaging—A Recipe for Stagnation

The average…I can’t remember how many times as a student I was told, “It will all average out in the end.” It was said time and time again that things would be fine even if I had a low score here and there. I was a student who was very grade-conscious and score-focused. I wanted to accumulate a high point total so that my average at the end of the term would result in a good mark. I felt like I had to be as perfect as possible in all my work to ensure that I didn’t fall behind with a grade that couldn’t be brought up by the end of the term. I also acquired any available extra credit points just in case I had a bad day along the way. This scenario begs a couple of questions in my mind. Is it enough for students to spend their time collecting points on assignments and assessments in order to get the desired grade in the end? What impact does this process have on student motivation to learn?

I would argue that it is not enough to simply have students whose focus is on collecting points. Learning must take precedence in the classroom and points can add a layer that veils this priority. Students can be so fixated on the earning aspect of the classroom that learning is not maximized in the way that it can be. Motivation is impacted when students either reach a certain point total and are satisfied or lose so many points that they know they can’t overcome the deficit.

The practice of averaging assessment data throughout learning is a recipe for stagnation. Putting scores together as students progress without giving attention to the most recent evidence of learning does not encourage them to look ahead and what could be. Alternately, this practice demands that while they attempt to look forward, they are supposed to look back at the same time. There are constantly reminded of where they started with their learning. Making progress and growth is difficult enough when all eyes are looking ahead, but is compounded when the weight of the average looms above every step of the way.

With averaging, the students that can be ‘perfect’ from day one of a unit all the way to the summative assessment aren’t motivated to dig more deeply in their learning. There may be motivation to continue to get high marks, but the spotlight is misplaced on grades rather than learning. They are reaching a point of stagnation because things are ‘good enough.’ According to Alfie Kohn, “The more pressure to get an A, the less inclination to truly challenge oneself.” There is a fear in taking a risk through deep challenge because there is risk that a grade could be negatively impacted. I know I questioned in my mind and, at times, vocally, whether an extra credit question could negatively impact a score if answered wrong. Rather than shifting my attention to the complex question, I focused my thinking on the points and grade.

On the other hand, students who start off with more mistakes and gaps in their learning fall so far behind in their average from the beginning that there is no reason to keep working toward proficiency. In his book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, Ken O’Connor states, “One of the most unfortunate effects of simply adding up the scores and calculating the mean is that many students will never be able to overcome the impact of early failures/very low scores.” (p.121) Once a student falls behind, their grade has little or no chance of improving, so why try? Even if they demonstrate proficiency by the end of a unit, they are making up for lost points from the beginning of their learning process.

As a teacher I slowly realized that the average was working against my students’ motivation to learn. Averaging was moving the focus from learning to the carrot or stick of a number or letter. Behind the scenes, extrinsic motivators were feeding the stagnation of many students in my charge. The high-achieving students were afraid to dive further into their learning to make sure their grade wouldn’t be impacted with a misstep that would be averaged in with the rest of their high marks. Those that were struggling did not feel that they could find success after a slow start and learning was out of their realm of possibility.

Learning is a continual journey and our students need support and guidance along the way. Journeys are not averaged; they are concentrated on moving forward. We do not say that we have traveled across the United States, but arrived somewhere in Midwest because that is where the average of the mileage lies. If this were the case, there would be no motivation to push on to the coastline. Onward we push together, learning is for everyone, and stagnation is not an option.



Kohn, Alfie. (March 1999) From Degrading to De-Grading. High School Magazine, v6, 1-2.

O’Connor, K. (2011). A repair kit for grading: 15 fixes for broken grades. Boston: Pearson.

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