Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck

Andrew Miller posted a piece on Edutopia almost a year ago titled “When Grading Harms Student Learning,” which he ends with “an essential question to ponder: How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?”

By the time Miller’s post showed up in my Twitter feed this week, it had drawn 31 responses.

Polar positions on grading

As you might guess, the comments on Miller’s post ranged from a recommending that grades be eliminated entirely saying indirectly that grades—or at least the standards they seem to represent—are an essential part of the school’s role in preparing students for life after school.

Mark Barnes takes the first position:

“Have you considered eliminating all number and letter grades? Is it possible that if a child does not complete an activity, there’s a problem with an activity? Number and letter grades lie about learning. Learning can never be measured.”

Mrs Hitchcock, an 8th grade science teacher from Eagar AZ leans, somewhat reluctantly, toward the tough love approach:

“On the one hand, our kids are more than just grades. On the other hand, we ARE still trying to teach kids to be responsible adults…Compliance is a HUGE part of being an adult, and public school is the only place a lot of kids will ever be held accountable for anything.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Kimberly Livaudais, who has taught 7-12 and at the college level.

“[college] students are so used to being able to turn work in late or re-test that many of them fail their first year when they have that rude awakening.”

Grades aren’t going away

I see no chance that schools will get rid of grading systems any time soon: They are too convenient.

(Convenience is one of the most desirable characteristics of 21st century products and services)

Nor do I see large employers abandoning grades as a hiring consideration, even while deploring the fact that grades are meaningless.

As an employer who also worked in human resources, I know employers who need staff ASAP are not going to look through electronic portfolios at least until they’ve narrowed the candidate pool to between three and five people: Portfolios aren’t convenient.

I also don’t see digital badges gaining traction among employers hiring for low-end, no-degree-needed jobs for the same reason: convenience. Employers hiring for those jobs aren’t going to click a half-dozen links to see what Josh’s badges mean.

And a surprising number of employers who ask applicants to email a letter of application don’t know those blue underlines in email messages indicate a clickable link.

My position on grading

My own position on grading sits somewhere between the two.
Don Doehla stated my position better than I can:

“We should have grading systems which honor growth, which empower, and which help support reflective practices.”

Such grading systems would accomplish Miller’s goal of providing students with hope that they aren’t doomed to a life of failure without encouraging students to think effort is the same as accomplishment.

Iteration is key to deep learning

I decided 40-some years ago that grading systems “which honor growth, empower, and support reflective practices” are incompatible with teaching content by units and with arbitrary marking periods. Even semester grades are a stretch for many subjects.

The most important concepts rarely can be mastered within a single unit: Important concepts are important because they apply to a great many specifics and have wide applicability.

Students need to be exposed to multiple examples of a concept and often need to be exposed to the concept in multiple ways. Squeezing a half-dozen examples shown via a half-dozen techniques into two class periods is not nearly as useful as spreading the material out in smaller doses over a period of weeks.

Teaching important skills requires even more iterations—which means a longer time frame—than teaching concepts.

The total amount of class time required for iterative teaching can be less than the time required for the concentrated focus, but is may very well need to extend over several marking periods.

Ditch the unit mindset

Shaking off the unit mindset allows teachers to work in environments employing procedures and processes such as:

  • annual outcomes
  • competency-based learning
  • mastery learning

I suspect many teachers would have no trouble getting rid of units if they could figure out how to grade a student’s achievement on a particular annual outcome when learning activities aimed at helping students master the outcome extend over months.

I do a couple of things in first year college English classes that may offer some insights.

My practice for grading

I set as my writing goal getting every student to write nonfiction competently. I call that C-level.

All topics that need to be covered in the curriculum are evaluated by means of written (“essay”) tests done in class.

All of the formal writing and informal writing (ungraded) assignments are about communications topics in the curriculum.

I evaluate each week’s formal writing—one paper is required each week—in terms of a list of characteristics of C-level writing. I word each characteristic so a student’s work can be assessed as meeting or not meeting the standard.

I tell students that once they reach C-level, I will drop all their grades to that point, even if they had straight F’s to that time.

Empower growth

With students writing just three days a week, I know it’s probably going to take a full semester before most students get to C-level.  That long slog is discouraging, so I provide a way for students to see measurable progress in one area that will contribute to their overall grade: writing mechanics.

Every student in the class has the same number of specific errors to master (usually three; never more than five),  but each student has his or her own list of habitual, serious errors in their writing to master during the course.

One student’s individual mastery plan might look like this:

  • put comma after introductory element
  • separate clauses in a compound sentence with a comma
  • distinguish between its and it’s

Each student gets a percentage of the paper’s total grade for having no more than X total errors of the types listed in their IMP.

I don’t grade informal writing, but I sometimes give bonus points—I call it an easy A—to  students who do all the informal, in-class writing every day they don’t have an excused absence from class.  For struggling students, the prospect of a few extra points may be enough to get them to engage with the informal writing, which will have more impact on their grade than the bonus points.

Hold students accountable

Students are responsible for mastering their own habitual errors. I have students graph their progress in eliminating their errors, and I keep track both of each student’s writing grade for the week and the part of the grade that is represented by the writing mechanics.

Once students see that their writing mechanics have improved enough that they could get higher than a C in the course, they are motivated to keep plugging away on the writing.

In my classes, no student ever fails just because of errors in writing mechanics, but no student gets higher than a C on a paper with more than the acceptable limit of errors from their own IMP.

Honor growth

When a student has performed at C-level or higher on three formal weekly papers in a row, I consider that student competent.  I strike through all previous grades and let the C stand.

The C represents what the student learned in my class. All the earlier F’s were for what the student learned in other teachers’ classes.

If they are happy with a C, students can stop turning in formal writing and still have a C for their grade.

Nobody has ever stopped working after earning their C.

For the final grade, I average the last three weekly papers, which approximates their performance level at the end of the class.

What’s your grading practice?

Have you found some ways to assess and grade without falling into the twin traps of giving away grades or punishing students for their prior teachers’ failings?

Please share.

 

 

 

 

Formative assessment aids explanations

The always-stimulating Maryellen Weimer has a post in the teaching professor blog this week in which she gives suggestions for crafting better explanations.

Although Weimer is writing primarily from the position of the teacher-as-lecturer, what she has to say is appropriate to anyone who is teaching, regardless of the setting, subject, or level.

Unless feedback from students comes close on the heels of our explanation, we often don’t realize that our “explanation” was a problem rather than a solution.

I never cease to be surprised (and dismayed and often appalled) by the misinformation students learned in elementary school that they continue to rely on when their own children are in elementary school age.

  • I’ve seen mid-career professionals who, even though they were able to use fire as a verb and a noun, insisted that fire is only a noun.
  • I’ve seen a 60-something read definitions from a dictionary whenever he gave a speech because he’d been taught as a youth to define his terms.
  • I’ve had a library aide tell me that “Joe the plumber” was a sentence because it had a subject (Joe) and a verb that showed Joe’s state of being (the plumber).

Our students may understand our explanation well enough to repeat what they heard, but not well enough to put the idea into some other wording or some other context.

As teachers we need multiple ways of phrasing formative assessments that force students to tell us what they understood from what we said.

Getting that kind of feedback from clickers or multiple choice items is tough.

It’s a whole lot easier (although not actually easy) to craft an informal writing prompt that reveals what students thought the teacher said.

Formative assessment tools and standards

A teacher recently shared how she uses formative assessment in her classroom.  She said she give students a yes/no question to answer. If half the students answer correctly, she goes on to the next lesson.

The teacher’s desire to keep tabs on how well her students are learning is laudable. The method she’s using to do that, however, may not be producing the results she wants.

When there are only two  choices, statistically speaking we can expect roughly half the respondents to pick the right answer just by guessing without any knowledge of the topic.  We could demonstrate that by asking people at random to answer a question like this:

polldaddy poll=6589681 non-working link removed 2019-08-04

True/False: Goma is the capital of Burkina Faso.

We’d expect a rough 50-50 split if people simply guess.

Let’s say our teacher finds 50% of her students know the right answer and 50% don’t.  She’s fairly safe in assuming half the class does not know the answer. She cannot, however, assume that the other half does know the answer.

Statistically, half the students could pick the right answer to a yes/no question by guessing. It is entirely possible that neither the 50% who answered incorrectly nor the 50% who answered correctly actually knew the answer.

Now suppose, for the sake of argument, that the teacher’s survey results accurately reflected students’ learning: Half the class really did learn the concept she taught.

If a concept is important enough to merit an entire class period, is a 50-percent success rate on short-term learning good enough?

How do you see it?

Formative assessment boosts writing skill

A report from Carnegie Corporation of New York, released a week ago by the Alliance for Excellent Education, lays out the evidence that properly done formative assessments help students become better writers.

Informing Writing: The Benefits of Formative Assessment is written by Steve Graham, Karen R. Harris, and Michael Hebert of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. These folks not only research well, but their writing is a pleasure to read. Download a free copy.

Writing for learning is a topic dear to my heart. English teachers who work with teens and adults are notably behind teachers in other disciplines in their use of writing prompts (formal and informal) as tools for teaching content in their discipline. One would think there are no topics in the English curriculum worth writing about except literature.

I hope this new Carnegie Corporation report will encourage English and composition teachers to try informal writing in their classrooms.

[Edited 3/1/2014 to remove links to materials no longer available on the Internet.]