grades (4)

Assessment in on-line classes presents significant challenges for both students and teachers, especially for teachers like me who give a lot of importance to evidence gathered throughout the course by performance tasks.

The purpose of framing assessment around performance tasks is to clearly distinguish between those who really understand from those who only seem to because through performance understanding becomes "visible". This is the reason that assessments are frequently designed as projects, which are essentially complex, “messy,” and multi-staged problems to be solved. These critical-thinking elements help teachers see levels of comprehension displayed by students. Tasks with these characteristics also go beyond furnishing a snapshot of student understanding to providing "scrapbook" of understanding - in other words a collection of evidence gathered over time, instead of through a single event. This is crucial because "understanding develops as a result of ongoing inquiry and rethinking". (Wiggins pg. 152)

However, this way of framing assessment still goes against many assumptions our students have about learning and thus about grading as they are often considered equivalent. I have spoken with my students at length about this to understand their perspectives, and they offer a variety of interesting ideas that can be summed up in the following two phrases. Whatever is given a grade by the teacher is important, and anything else can be skipped. Further, grades are derived from quizzes and tests.

Several problems arise from these opposing perspectives to learning that need to be looked at carefully. Among them is how forums are approached. Forums provide opportunities for students to put concepts found in the readings in their own terms and bounce ideas off their fellow students. Groups collaboratively plan a product or performance by facing contextualized issues. These exercises give students feedback and practice at doing the task, both valuable for the summative assessment that will come later in the course.

Fellow teacher and blogger Lisa Lane is particularly concerned about the second point because like me, she wants students to extend their understanding of the topic at hand through discussion in forums.

"In terms of course design, I don’t consider the discussion 20% of the course, just 20% of the grade. It’s more like half the class, because it’s the processing and sharing of the knowledge learned via presentation and reading. It’s the heart, not a side activity. It’s lower stakes (not 50% of the grade) because I want the students to feel free to explore." (Lane, 2009)

This seems simple enough, but my experience corroborates Lisa's - the students just don't get it. The message that students receive is that discussions held in forums are 20% of the class and deserve that much of their energy devoted to the course.

I have found a way to begin to resolve this problem. From the beginning of my courses I make it clear that grades will be based on summative assessment only which will take place at or near the end of the course. All other activities are formative and for that reason are not graded. To avoid misunderstandings regarding the importance of non-graded formative activities, I give a mark to each activity, a number according to its relative value. I keep these on a Google spreadsheet permanently linked to the course so it is always up to date and visible to students. The Google spreadsheet is a link so I never have to upload new versions or save them under new names or send the document out to students because they can see updates made to the document in real time or any time they check into the course.

This has effected a change in student's attitude towards formative activities because students can’t stand to receive a low number, even if it doesn’t count towards the grade. I have told them that because activities are formative, they can be improved by going over my qualitative feedback and the rubrics. This of course means being flexible with due dates and very patient with problems students and groups have in submitting assignments on time. It has motivated them to interact more with me, with classmates and with the rubrics and it has focused their attention, even if it is inadvertently, on the learning process - writing, editing, consulting, re-writing, re-editing, consulting again - and less on the grade itself.

Also, if a discussion is designed to last two weeks and it is worth six points (marks), I assign three to the first week and three to the second week. This gets students to participate more constantly and not just at the end of the designated period for that discussion.

Students can compare the number of marks they have to the total possible number at any given moment which serves as an alert for students who fall behind. At the end of the course, they are awarded a Professional Development score, which is simply the sum total of their marks. This indicates effort given towards the activities in the course and their level of mastery of the key course concepts. In nearly every case high marks coincide with high grades and low marks with low grades. Although this score is not part of the grade, students take it as seriously as the grades.

Although it may be counterintuitive to use numbers (marks) to encourage students to practice essential skills, it seems to be a language symbol that communicates a message far clearer than many of my attempts to explain and motivate.

---- References ----

Lane, Lisa. Ramblings on Assessments that work and assumptions that don't. Blog post, 2009. ?p=392

Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005. pg. 152.

Article originally published in Online Classroom, August 2010.

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I just had an opportunity to watch AFL principles being applied in an interesting manner in a teacher’s classroom. The teacher is Lewis Armistead. The class is Advanced Algebra/Trig. This class is dual enrolled with Virginia Western Community College and includes Math students ranging from pretty strong to our strongest. Today is the final day of the 3rd grading period and the final day of the semester here at Salem High School. All teachers in our school are required to verify their grades at the end of each grading period to ensure that the electronic grade book has the correct average. Most do this – as I did when I was in the classroom – by spot checking a few students in each classroom. Mr. Armistead, on the other hand, uses this as an opportunity to create a culture of students tracking their progress. Our school uses Student Planners/Agenda Books from Premier Agendas. In the front of those agendas we have several pages called the Record of Achievement (ROA). (see image below)

When I taught freshmen, our 9th grade teachers required students to use this ROA since keeping up with your grades was a skill that could help lead to academic success. I always figured, though, that requiring higher-level or older students to do this would be a little “Mickey Mouse”. After watching Mr. Armistead today I realized that I was wrong. Even the strongest and oldest students in the school can benefit from a teacher who requires them to use something like an ROA to track their progess. So here’s what Lewis did:
  • He had each student in the class take a moment to calculate his or her grade for the grading period. To do this the students had to look at their grades in their ROA - and of course they had to have been keeping their grades in their ROA.
  • He then had each student come up to him and compare their calculation with his grade book. If there was a discrepancy then they checked to find out why. If the numbers matched – which they appeared to do almost every time – then grades had been verified.
  • Once the grading period grade was verified they then calculated their semester averages and repeated the process.
  • He then went ahead and showed them the grades they would be receiving for the 4th grading period and had them set up their ROAs.
I share this practice for two main reasons: 1. I think it was a strong classroom practice that others might want to emulate. In order for this to work the teacher must have very consistent procedures and expectations and the classroom must be well-managed. I encourage everyone to add to their “toolbox” practices that lead to consistency. 2. It is an example of how the principles of AFL can be incorporated into all aspects of our classroom. Students in Mr. Armistead’s class have been trained to take all graded feedback and calculate the impact that it has on their grade. This is imperative if students are going to take ownership of their progress. We all wish students would do something like this. Instead of just wishing, Mr. Armistead has chosen to make it happen. I feel it important to continue to remind people that AFL isn’t "some big new thing" one does. AFL is more the reason and the philosophy behind the things that are done. If AFL principles guide us, then the things we already do will evolve and grow to more effectively provide teachers and students with useable feedback. Mr. Armistead’s practice is an example of this. Because of it, students are being trained how to use teacher feedback to guide their progress. I bet something like this could be applied to your classroom.
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This post is a follow-up to an earlier post. It will make the most sense if read in that context.

After reading over my recent post entitled What we WANT students to do v. What we TRAIN students to do, I began to hear in my mind (yes, I sometimes hear voices) questions that some people might have as a result of what I had to say.

The more I think about and experience AFL, the more I feel that I am challenging many of the norms of teaching. In fact, I often end up wishing I could go back to the classroom and do things differently. While I feel I was a very good classroom teacher, much of what I did and many of my practices were:

1. examples of what my favorite teachers had done, and/or

2. examples of the conventional wisdom of education.

Very few of my own teaching practices came about as a result of an overall educational philosophy. I am convinced that AFL is a sufficiently large and all-encompassing enough philosophy as to be worthy of being used by teachers to govern how they teach and create lessons.

As I learn more about AFL, therefore, I continue to find new challenges to the merit of the practices that many of my favorite teachers used and/or that are the conventional wisdom of teaching. Since I know I am not the only one out here whose practices developed from a combination of these 2 factors, I know that posts such as the one I recently made end up raising questions in the minds of many teachers. They are questions worth asking and worthy of answers. Here are some attempts to answer some of those theoretical questions:

1. You talk about internal v. external motivation, but isn't it human nature to be motivated by rewards? Are you saying we should completely change human nature and remove external motivations from our classrooms? Isn't that unrealistic?

I firmly believe that there is a role for external motivation in all aspects of life. As a believer in capitalism, I know that people are naturally motivated by their own good, and I have no problem with this. The Pilgrims learned a long time ago what happens when there is no incentive to work, and the same holds true today. The problem that I perceive lies in the overuse of rewards - in particular the overuse of grades as a reward. I would recommend reading Whale Done by Ken Blanchard. It compares the methods used by Shamu's Sea World trainers to family and business life - which parallel nicely with the classroom. Even when training animals to do tricks, multiple rewards are used. The trainers don't want Shamu to learn that fish are the only acceptable reward for a job well done. When grades are used as the sole or primary motivator in the classroom then the grade begins to become more important than the learning.

2. Are you saying we shouldn't give grades at all?

I am absolutely not saying that we should not give grades. What I am saying is that grades should not be used rewards - ex. do this and get a good grade. There's no reason to turn the whole world on its head by getting rid of grades. Perhaps there might be an idealistic benefit to it, but it's an unrealistic goal that doesn't seem worthy of my time. Grades are a part of schooling. They are not all bad. They should be used - PROPERLY.

3. So what's the proper way to use grades?

Grades should not be used as rewards. The way I see it, grades should be used for 3 main reasons:

1. To communicate how well a student is mastering content/skills so that the student can guide his or her learning.

2. To communicate how well students are mastering content/skills so that the teacher can guide his or her teaching.

3. To summatively communicate the students' final level of mastery.

When I first started teaching I did what my favorite teachers - and what the conventional wisdom of teaching - told me to do. I gave lots of grades so that no one assignment hurt my students.

Today, I would say that giving lots of grades is a good thing IF AND ONLY IF the grades are used for the first 2 reasons listed above. The problem with my grading was that all the grades went into the grade book. I rarely - if ever - used the feedback I received from the grades to guide my teaching. And I hardly ever attempted to train my students to view their grades as feedback that could help them guide their learning. These grades were simply used to average together and get a final grade.

The problem with that is that if I had been honest with myself I would have realized that many - if not most - of the grades in my grade book didn't reflect mastery. They were "practice" assignments or assignments whose outcome was negated by a later similar assignment. Therefore, there was no guarantee that the summative grade to which they averaged was representative of mastery.

This is why I am so thankful for AFL. It's much more than just another professional development effort that my school/system is undertaking. Instead, it is a philosophy that, when truly adopted, turns much of the conventional wisdom on its ear. It is a philosophy that, when applied to a classroom, will lead to teachers being more aware of student needs, students being more likely to take ownership of their progress, and grades that better reflect what they are meant to reflect - mastery.

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Here is a conversation you will probably never hear:

Sea World Trainer 1: "I am so tired of these seals. They always want a fish every time they do anything!"
Sea World Trainer 2: "Tell me about it. It's like they don't understand how important the show is. They only care about getting fish!"

The other day I was talking with Jamie Garst, a Chemistry/IB Biology teacher at Salem High School. He mentioned that he recently decided to use Smart Pals (a plastic sleeve that allows an ordinary piece of paper to be used like a small dry erase boards) as a way to review in his classroom. (See previous post on using white boards to review) This was his first experience doing this with his students. As he was instructing them on what to do he told them that they would also need a blank sheet of paper. As he started to tell them the reason why, the kids said, "We know - it's to keep track of what we don't know." This was the first time Jamie had done this with his students. Therefore, their knowledge of what to do is evidence of the fact that someone had trained them. It's not natural for students to get out paper to assess their understanding. These kids had been trained by another teacher or other teachers in the school.
As educators, what do we want students to do?

We want them to learn for the sake of learning.
We want them to work hard because it's the right thing to do and because it leads to learning.
We want them to be internally motivated to do their best.
We want them to care more about learning than they do grades.

I think you'd be hard pressed to find a teacher who wouldn't agree that he or she wants those previous statements to be true for his or her students. However, we train them quite differently.

We train students to learn for the sake of getting a grade.
We train them to work hard or else they'll get a bad grade and because it leads to good grades.
We train them to be externally motivated by grades.
We train them to care more about grades than learning.

Think about it for a moment. The typical classroom at any grade level is not all that different from the seal show at Sea World. The student does the work; he gets a grade or points. The seal does the trick; he gets a fish. The student doesn't do the work; he doesn't get the grade or the points. The seal doesn't do the trick; he doesn't get the fish.

Have you ever assigned something and had students say, "Is this graded?" Have you ever felt like your students wouldn't work as hard if they weren't getting a grade? Have students ever complained that you weren't grading them after they put effort into an assignment or activity? Does it ever seem like all the students (and parents) care about is the grade on the report card or transcript?

Look back at the start of this post. Wouldn't it be ridiculous for the Sea World trainer to complain about the seal always wanting a fish for the tricks it does? Why is it not just as ridiculous for an educator to complain about a student always wanting to know if something is graded or about a student being motivated by grades rather than learning?

Perhaps the answer is because unlike the seal, the student is capable of rational and logical thought processes and should, therefore, know better. However, think about how students have been conditioned from day 1 in school. Do the work - get a reward. Now consider that this has been the case for generations. Is it any wonder that our students tend to be more externally than internally motivated? Is it any wonder that they tend to focus so much on grades and lose sight of the bigger picture of learning?

So what can be done about this? Is it possible to change years of conditioning to get to what we really want from students? Of course, if all teachers in the educational system made a change then we could definitely alter the situation; however, that's probably (definitely) a bit of a stretch. So can students be trained to be more internally motivated and to look at grades differently?

The story of Jamie and his students tells me that the answer is "yes". From my experience, the typical student expectation of a review activity is that the teacher will tell the student everything he or she needs to know - or ask all the questions he or she will eventually be asked - and then the student goes home and studies everything that will be on the test. (Or in some cases, doesn't study at all.) However, what Jamie found out was that his students were being conditioned to expect something different. They now expected that when a review was finished each student would leave class with a personalized list of what that student had not yet mastered. This personalized list would become the student's unique study guide. What Jamie experienced is an example of the fact that student expectations can be changed.

So what if teachers in your building stopped practicing AFG? AFG is Assessment FOR Grading. AFG is what I did very intentionally as a new teacher. I assigned lots of graded assignments so that I could have lots of grades in my grade book. The main purpose of my assignments and my assessments was to get grades in the grade book which could then average together to get a final summative grade. I used points as rewards and withheld points as a consequence. This use of AFG would naturally lead to my students thinking that everything they did had to be graded. I was training my seals - I mean, students - to work hard for the fish - I mean, grade.

AFL is so different. AFL is about assessing and assigning to gain feedback. It's about teachers and students using that feedback to guide learning. The whole point of the assessments and assignments is learning - thus the name, Assessment FOR Learning. This site is full of resources and ideas for applying AFL principles to the classroom.

I think that we can train kids to think differently about grades. It will take effort and a lot of change on our part. It will take great consistency, but it can be done. Until we truly begin applying AFL principles with this goal in mind, does it make sense for us to complain that students react exactly as we have trained them to react?

The best part of this is that if we alter their view of grades, we will ultimately increase their level of learning.
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