I talk a lot about grades. To friends. To colleagues. To random strangers at my second job. A lot.
And one of the biggest points that I try to make is that assessment should be a measurement of mastery that helps the learner and their “community of support” (parents, teachers, coaches, etc) to have the information that they need to improve mastery. We destroy the constructive potential of assessment when we give it too much importance. When students are driven to “succeed” on tests and grades and not to improve themselves, the effects can be devastating.
Linda Flanagan tackles the emotional toll of grades in a new piece for KQED’s MindShift blog and it’s a must-read for anyone who has an opinion about grades. Which is, you know, everyone. In the article, she cites recent research by scientists at USC that shows how grades become the motivator for students, robbing them of intrinsic motivation to learn. Students who once paid attention in class, and continued learning at home, begin to focus only on the work that affects their grade. This is obviously not the kind of behavior that leads to lifelong learning or independent learning.
The researcher, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, writes that “students’ knowledge of a subject is tied to their experience of the grade”. The way that students perform is therefore directly connected to the effect of the grade. I think that more teachers need to understand the consequences of using grades as motivators. As Immordino-Yang puts it,
“Whether the grade is good or bad, you’re taking the student away from focusing on intrinsic interest and tying their experience to grades”
Add this to the list of reasons that we need to redirect our attention on meaningful feedback rather than high-stakes letters.
The most oft-repeated response to progressive grading practices is that we need to “prepare students for college” where, it would seem, they will be battling one-on-one in academic arenas of combat. Or something.
In reality, even colleges and universities are starting to become more aware of the consequences of using a single letter (or number) represent student mastery. They see that developing responsible and productive citizens requires a culture of feedback and self-improvement. They recognize that this comes from providing students with more just a grade, but instead a more detailed “evaluation”. Case in point: Hampshire College.
In a recent opinion piece in The Hechinger Report, Hampshire President Jonathan Lash explains how his college got rid of meaningless grades. He lays out the case for this change, and explains some of the pushback from the school community. His most powerful statement, though, comes when he discusses the benefits of the “narrative evaluation” system that Hampshire College professor use,
“In narrative-evaluation systems, students never have to worry about accumulating a GPA. Instead, they focus on the quality of their work, with guidance from teachers who are often learning with them. Evaluations create closer relationships between teacher and student and enhance the teacher’s role as mentor.”
That’s a relationship that any educator—at any level—would love to have with his students. And grades prevent that.
How do you think that college grading will change in the next decade or two?
I am proud to say that I heeded the advice of my friend and colleague, Philip Cummings, to read Ron Richhart’s book “Making Thinking Visible” a few years ago. The best teacher books—in my humble opinion—are the ones that present practical strategies that straddle the line between things that make sense and things that you are already doing. Ritchhart’s book hit that sweet spot for me, and I found the ideas in it compelling. I’ve made many of them a part of my regular instruction in class.
First, while the first book was extremely practical and easy to implement in a classroom, Creating Cultures of Thinking seems aimed at a much larger scale. I struggled at times to see how I could use the ideas in the book to make a difference in my own classroom. The chapter about time management seemed to be simultaneously about abstract beliefs and institutional decision-making. His final chapter is entirely focused on the large-scale efforts that can bring about the cultural changes for which he advocates. These left me wishing for more power in my learning space.
On the other hand, his discussion of the hidden role of modeling in education and the four types of modeling really hit home. Ritchhart writes,
“[The four types of modeling practices] can be identified as:
Dispositional apprenticeship: being a role model of learning and thinking
Cognitive apprenticeship: making our thinking visible
Gradual release of responsibility: modeling for independence
Interactive modeling: learning from examples, practice, and reflection
Because modeling is almost a hidden dimension of teaching, understanding each of these practices more fully can be useful as we seek to create a culture of thinking”
I find this categorization of modeling to be very useful in helping me focus on the skills that I have and the ones that I need to develop in myself as a teacher. Overall, I was glad to have read the book and grateful for the thinking that it stimulated. But, I will continue to recommend Making Thinking Visible as one of my five favorite recent education books, and leave this one for the policy makers and school leaders.
Have your read this book? What’s your take? Leave a comment.
For the second year running, I gave my students an end-year survey about my class (in the style of Larry Ferlazzo) with the promise that their responses would be anonymous and publicly shared here. You can see the survey here, and read last year’s post here.
Overall, I loved to read what my students wrote about our class. We spent some time during the year talking about the four kinds of feedback, and came to the understanding that negative specific feedback is the type that helps us improve the most. Their responses showed that they see the value of this sort of feedback.
Here are my five biggest take-aways from the survey results:
My students loved the class. When I asked them to grade me as a teacher, 98% gave me an A or a B. When asked to explain their marks, they responded with answers like “because overall he was a fun teacher and cool teacher and serious when he had to be” or “because I can tell he really made an effort.”
Student say that they value good grades over being with their friends. When asked whether they would rather earn a B and be in a class with their friends over get an A and not be in the same class as their friends, almost 90% chose the higher grade. I don’t know if I actually believe that they would make this choice, but it is telling that they want me to think that they would.
These students view grades as feedback about their learning. This is the best sign that my students have learned the “big picture” lessons that I consider so important. As often as I talk about feedback and the purpose of grades with them, it’s probably impossible for them to feel any other way. But I still feel gratified that my work with them made a difference.
My students are split about how they would like to receive feedback about learning. When asked how they would prefer to receive grades on their report card, about one-fifth want the current system that compiles mastery and behavior into one grade, while another fifth would prefer a face-to-face meeting to discuss their strengths and weaknesses. Another one-fifth of them would prefer the system that I prefer, separating work habits and content mastery. Most surprising to me (and actionable to some extent), is that almost 40% of respondents would like a paragraph that explains their strengths and weaknesses. That is something that I can (and will) do in the near future.
Surprisingly, my students would rather do well on the End-of-Grade standardized test than have more hands-on activities in class. Despite the fact that they seem to see the value of meaningful and relevant instruction, my students have been conditioned to think that standardized tests are super important. They want to succeed on them more than they want to learn the skills necessary to be responsible citizens. And that is very frustrating.
What do these data make you think? What would you change? Let me know in the comments.
I can’t say that there is any part of me that agrees with this article (or the original that it references). To keep modern smartphones out of the classroom is to ignore the role that mobile computing will play in the future lives of our children. If we don’t teach them how to use these devices properly, how can we expect them to use them constructively and responsibly for the rest of their lives?