Thursday, December 4, 2014

Questioning Grades

I'm quickly coming to the conclusion that assigning grades is detrimental to learning.

Let's start at the beginning: why do we assign grades in the first place?  Looking back on my career as a teacher, in an earlier time I probably would have answered this with something along the lines of "to report how well the student has done in class this term" or "to determine whether or not the student is ready for the next course".  And I would imagine that many teachers would probably say something similar.  However, looking at things the way I do now, where "how does this help the student learn" is the central question that needs to be asked regarding everything I do as a teacher, I'm having trouble figuring out how grades promote learning.

That doesn't mean I shouldn't give tests or homework or correct the work of my students, because I most certainly should.  But the part of any of those that has the potential to help my students learn the material is the feedback that I give them, not the number I put at the top of the page.  In fact, the number at the top of the page is, in general, a distraction, since the kids more often than not look at the number and nothing else.  The comments I write are, in many cases, ignored by most of the students.  Sadly, I believe this is why many teachers don't even bother to give comments on assignments, choosing instead to simply mark how many points the student lost on a particular exercise and nothing else.  Equally sad is that the emails I receive from parents are normally not concerned about how well their child is learning the material, but rather what the kid can do to raise their grade.  The grade is everything to everyone involved in the process.  Learning, while nice, is ultimately not the goal.  And looking at all of this, the conclusion is quickly reached: the grades are getting in the way of the learning.

So, in algebra 1, I've started not putting numbers at the top of most of the papers I "grade", putting only comments for improvement and allowing the student to make corrections to the assignment, corrections which include an explanation of the correct answer.  This seems to be helping the students actually focus on learning the material, and the stress the normally accompanies the assignments isn't there, since there they know a number isn't going to be placed on the paper.  To put it more bluntly, they know I'm not going to be judging them; instead, they are beginning to see that my role is to help them learn the material and that this corrective feedback is a step toward that goal.  I'm also "grading" a lot more of their practice work.  But again here, it's not about the number; rather, it's about giving the kid helpful feedback so they can hold onto what they are doing well and correct what misconceptions they have.  For the sake of mentioning it, this feedback also happens during the  in-class discussions in algebra 1, and is, in many ways, the discussions are the exclusive way that feedback is given to the students in honors pre-calculus.

Of course, eventually I still need to put a number in the gradebook.  My hope is that the number will be more reflective of how much they have actually learned, rather than a confusing conglomerate of effort, compliance, and assessments which may or may not indicate how much the student has learned by the end of the semester.  Hopefully, as is currently the case, most the students will continue to do the work for the sake of the feedback and for the sake of actually learning the material rather than for the sake of the grade, a grade which will take care of itself so long as they actually take the feedback seriously and learn the material.  We'll find out soon enough.

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