Nurturing lifelong learners: from grades to growth

When I wrote my last blog before Christmas, it was to introduce some changes to our reports; moving towards developmental language in the way we reflect on pupil achievements and progress. Since then I have had a number of engaging conversations with parents about the rationale for this change, which relates to a philosophy of learning without limits and continual improvement that is well embedded in policy and practice at the High School. If you can bear with me, I hope I can shed some light on what I consider to be a fascinating area of educational theory.

Educationalists have long been aware that the pursuit of grades risks overshadowing the essence of learning for itself. However, by emphasising the development of skills, prioritising a culture of continuous improvement and drawing on insights from educational specialists such as Professor John Hattie, I believe we can foster genuine understanding and lifelong learning among our pupils.

John Hattie is rightly renowned for his groundbreaking meta studies, based on countless other research programmes, where he details over 250 areas of influence by order of their positive or negative impact (or effect size) on pupil learning and achievement. These include areas like ‘prior knowledge’, ‘classroom discussion’, ‘homework’ etc. In his research, Hattie has consistently emphasised the need to shift the focus from grades to feedback for improvement. His work highlights that effective teaching and learning are not just about achieving high marks; instead, they involve cultivating a deep understanding of the subject matter and the ability to apply knowledge in various contexts.

The highest effect size (ES) on achievement according to this list of influences, at 1.44, is for ‘student expectations of their own performance’, or ‘self-reported grades’, as Hattie originally called it (2012). This is a high effect size indeed: Hattie refers to an ES of 0.4 as being the ‘hinge point’ when positive change really starts to happen. For comparison, ‘feedback’ has an ES of 0.75. So what exactly does ‘student expectations’ mean as a concept within Hattie’s taxonomy and how does this link to feedback more generally?

In reality, ‘student expectations of their own performance’ can be defined as a ‘branch’ of feedback, and refers specifically to the feedback that students give their teachers about what they, as students, think they are going to learn or discover from the work they are about to do. It could involve expectations about the levels they might achieve, or conceptions of understanding they will have after the learning/testing has taken place.

The concept involves dialogue between teachers and students about students’ expectations and then requires the teacher to encourage learners to set suitably high standards to enable them to exceed these expectations, and to follow it up with further discussions after each assessment. The reason it is so effective is that, having performed at levels beyond their own expectations, students gain confidence in their cognitive or learning ability, rather than simply enhancing their subject knowledge.

One crucial aspect of this shift is to underscore the development of skills rather than fixating on a graded outcome, i.e. students should be encouraged to see each assignment, test, or project as an opportunity to review and enhance their skills and understanding, rather than merely a means to an end. Emphasising skills development fosters a mindset that values the learning journey, allowing students to appreciate the inherent value of acquiring knowledge beyond the confines of grades.

So, we believe that continuous improvement should be at the heart of the educational experience. Hattie’s research underscores the significance of viewing assessments first and foremost as tools for improvement. Teachers can implement constructive feedback, guiding pupils on areas that require attention and encouraging them to view challenges as stepping stones toward improvement.

But what makes grades so very unhelpful in achieving the above? We see a crucial concept from Hattie’s research as being the idea of ‘learning without limits.’ This principle challenges the false notion that academic ability is fixed and encourages teachers to develop an environment where pupils believe in their capacity for growth. When young people recognise that their effort and dedication can lead to improvement, they become more invested in the learning process. However, unfortunately, the evidence suggests that when students see a grade, they stop focusing on the feedback teachers are giving for improvement.

According to educational psychologist Alfie Kohn, ​‘Never grade a student while they are still learning’, as there is an assumption that the learning has been completed once a grade is achieved. Another educational psychologist, Ruth Butler, looked into the efficacy of different feedback approaches. This was via a comparison of grade-only marking, comment-only marking, and comment and grade marking. The findings were that the pupils who had comment-only marking achieved a 30% improvement in their scores across the research period. Offering both comments and grades led to the same outcomes as just giving a grade, highlighting the danger that grades can negate the benefits of feedback.

In conclusion, encouraging pupils to think effectively about what and how they learn requires teachers to focus on growth and not grades. To transcend the boundaries set by grades, we must create a culture that values independent effort, curiosity, and perseverance. Collaborative learning experiences, where students engage in meaningful discussions and share diverse perspectives, contribute to an environment that nurtures a love for learning itself. And when pupils feel supported and encouraged to take educational risks, they are more likely to focus on the learning process rather than fixating on grades. 

At Northampton High, by modelling our assessment and reporting processes on a developmental philosophy of continual improvement, we hope to demonstrate our belief in the pupils and allow them to believe in themselves.


Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers, Routledge

Kohn, A. (1994) The Truth about Self-Esteem, Phi Delta Kappan, 76, 272-283

Butler, R. (1988) Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation of interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58(1), 1–14.


Mr Rickman
Deputy Head Academic