The Power of a Letter: How a Grading Change Inspired Growth Mindset

The power of a letter. In education, the most dreaded letter is the F, synonymous with failure and flunk. By using it, we send an apathetic message—one that communicates and perpetuates a fixed mindset and allows students to shut down, to give up. It doesn’t have to be this way.

As part of our transformation efforts at Harrison Middle School, our staff read Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades. In it, he advocates for the use of the letter "I" rather than "F," with the I grade standing for incomplete or insufficient amount of evidence. By using the I, we communicate a far different message than failure or flunk.

After reading O’Connor’s book, our staff agreed to replace all F grades with the I grade. In one of our first tasks, we wondered how we would spread the message about the change in grading. We decided to do this through our weekly advisory lessons to teach students that we were now using an I and what it stood for. By doing this, we sent a message to the student body that you couldn’t quit—that you had to provide us with a piece of evidence in order to get off the I. We didn’t care if it became a low D. Just get off the I.

What we began to see, almost immediately, were students wanting to redo assignments and retake tests to pull their grades up. It was at that moment that we realized we had been perpetuating a fixed mindset by accepting the F and by allowing students to take the attitude of a failure. There was no need to complete an assignment or retake the test because the F was final—another of the F words. But with the I grade, suddenly students were faced with having to improve it. They realized that the I grade was not permanent; it was only an obstacle.

Fostering a Growth Mindset

We had numerous staff meetings in regard to retaking tests and redoing assignments, debating whether students could and should retake without penalty. It was a hotly debated issue because grading is so entrenched, so opinionated. But in the end, staff agreed students should be able to retake and redo assignments without penalty. After all, how many of us passed our driver’s test the first time? And we got to retake that test multiple times without penalty.

We were then faced with the reality that we would need to create multiple assessments to allow students to retake. This would be time-consuming, as we asked PLCs to craft additional assessments or make different versions of already existing ones. 

Yet through the debates and assessment writing, we felt that we were indeed striving to create a growth mindset culture within the student body, and it was beginning to show significant promise. We were no longer using the F word. The number of students with I grades started to decline significantly, and we hounded students to get work turned in to the point that the path of least resistance was to do the work.

What I didn’t realize for much of my career were the connotations that using the F implies and how powerfully demotivating calling someone a flunk or failure can be. No one is a failure. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t expect students to always succeed on their first try, but we want them to know that failure is not permanent, and it doesn't define them. By choosing to use the letter I, we give students an opportunity to improve and to grow.

And that’s why we stopped using the F word.

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