Some Reflections on Being a Student Again

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One of the many reasons I haven’t had much time to blog lately is the fact that I went back to grad school in September. I’m working on my doctorate at Northeastern University. Working full time and going to school has meant all the writing I’ve had time to do has mostly been for school, but it’s been a fantastic learning experience so far. I have learned so much from the reading and writing I have done. I can’t even compare my experience with earning my master’s degree to my experience working on my doctorate, and I’m only sorry I wasted so much tuition money and time on the master’s. Here I’m showing my ignorance, but I didn’t realize one could go right into a doctoral degree program with a bachelor’s degree.

My dissertation in practice is an action research investigation on grading and assessment practices. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, it’s perhaps not a surprise, as assessment has been an interest of mine for a long time. I have come to the conclusion that grading impedes not only motivation but also learning, as students tend to focus on the grade at the expense of the learning. It’s true that some students don’t find grades to be a motivator, and those students tend to view them more as a stick than a carrot. Whether grades motivate students or not, however, they do encourage students to focus on the wrong thing, and even students who truly want to learn find grades demotivating. Students have told me they are afraid to take risks. They select “easier” options. They try to figure out what the teacher wants to hear and parrot it back rather than think for themselves. All of this is anecdotal—I’ve seen it many times over the years; however, I see no reason why students would be dishonest about their feelings regarding grades.

Going back to school has put me in the same position as my students. The anxiety I have experienced over my grades has been difficult to manage at times. Of course I want to learn, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to please my professors. Even though I’m actually studying the effects of grading and know exactly what is happening to me, I find myself unable to focus only on the learning. I want to earn good grades too badly. It’s utterly ironic on a few levels. I’m actually doing very well, for one thing, and for another, the research is quite clear that grades are subjective, demotivating, and even contribute to poor performance (Cvencek, et. al., 2018; Klapp, 2015; Brackett, et. al., 2013; and Bloxham, et. al., 2016). My hunch is it has to do with mindset. I noticed my students relaxed quite a bit once I instituted a liberal revision policy.

One of my classmates mentioned that a professor I will have for a summer course is a hard grader. So naturally, I’ve already started worrying about a class I won’t start for nearly a month. It made me reflect a little bit on reputation. I don’t think I have a reputation for being a hard grader. One person told me my reputation was my expectations are “reasonable,” and I’ll take it. My students this year seemed to be happy in my classes, and my course surveys revealed they felt cared a for and that the choice and agency they had was important for their growth. I relaxed a lot on my own grading practices as a result of the research I have done and because of my own experiences as a student. I truly do not understand the need for a graduate program to use grades.

We know what to do about grading and assessment. I think one reason I was not accepted to another graduate program to which I applied is that my research does not examine a gap in the research. On the contrary, there is plenty of research on grading and assessment, and going all the way back to the 1800s, the research has been fairly clear. And yet, we keep reporting learning by using grades. So even though there is no gap in the research, it’s clear to me that classroom practices haven’t changed as a result of the research, and that’s what I’m interested in: change. We need to do right by our students and fix this problem that has plagued education for far too long.

References

Bloxham, S., den-Outer, B., Hudson, J., & Price, M. (2016). Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: Exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 466-481. doi:10.1080/02602938.2015.1024607

Brackett, M. A., Floman, J. L., Ashton-James, C., Cherkasskiy, L., & Salovey, P. (2013). The influence of teacher emotion on grading practices: A preliminary look at the evaluation of student writing. Teachers and Teaching, 19(6), 634-646. doi:10.1080/13540602.2013.827453

Cvencek, D., Fryberg, S. A., Covarrubias, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2018). Self‐concepts, self‐esteem, and academic achievement of minority and majority North American elementary school children. Child Development, 89(4), 1099-1109. doi:10.1111/cdev.12802

Klapp, A. (2015). Does grading affect educational attainment? A longitudinal study. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22(3), 302-323. doi:10.1080/0969594X.2014.988121

7 thoughts on “Some Reflections on Being a Student Again”

  1. I taught a random section of sophomores this past trimester and told them that to do well in the class all they needed to do is come to class and do stuff. It became a mantra and worked well as a policy. All but two students in my AP Lit class earned an A. Those two students had missing work. The policy in AP Lit is, do all work and demonstrate incremental improvement in writing and discussing literature to earn an A. I never put grades directly on essays, projects, or speech outlines. In Comm 1101 the grading policy is as liberal as I can make it: I allow replacement grades on two of three exams by supplanting a lower grade w/ a higher grade and allow students to use a “cheat sheet” on each exam. We proofread and peer evaluate outlines prior to speeches so students can fix errors, but students get only one opportunity to present each speech as there is no time for more.

    I wonder if there may be a gap in research regarding grades. What studies have examined parental impact on student pressure to earn As? At what age or grade did students begin making decisions about their schoolwork based on grades? What is the effect of inconsistent grading among teachers on student motivation and quality of work? I imagine that has been examined but still think about it, especially in English classes.

    I try not to answer the question, “What do you want?” from students. I respond w/ “”what do you want to do or say?” That tends to surprise students at first.

  2. I wish I didn’t have to assign letter grades to things. My district requires we enter 2 grades per week. I try to remove emphasis from those numbers in my room, but so many teachers throughout their lives have made everything about grades, so students have a difficult time detaching themselves from a percentage.

    I am very interested to see where this journey takes you.

    1. Me too! I am thinking that I can at least start conversations around proficiency-based grading, if we can’t eliminate letter grades. The entire state of Vermont’s public schools are doing it!

  3. First of all, I also didn’t know that a doctoral degree could be acquired without a master’s. I’m currently pursuing my master’s degree at the University of Michigan.

    Feedback to me has always been more important than grading. It allows a student to understand exactly where they need to improve or affirms their knowledge. Although I don’t agree with the practice of grading and also find it demotivating, I don’t see a clear way to get around it. Practically every institution promotes or holds students back (in one form or another) based on grades. As educators, it seems that we are forced to comply with the norm.

  4. Hi Dana,
    I’m also in graduate school and struggling with the concept of grading. All my classes and my experience in teaching tell me that there are no “fair” grades, or objective grades. That they are not beneficial to mastery and instead encourage students to check boxes on their assignment requirements to get the grade they want. I agree that grades can be more damaging than helpful for students.

    I’m interested in the prospect of a grade-less class, however I have some major hangups about it. I’m at a school that has a large number of high achieving students. It is an IB school, and while creativity and independent thinking are highly sought after in our curriculum, there is a very clear rubric and grading system. These are the kind of students who are upset at getting a 96/100 instead of full marks. I’m wondering how I could transition to a non-traditional grading system without completely sending them into a panic attack.

    I will admit, I talk a big game when it comes to non-traditional grading, but I don’t like to participate in it myself. I have a professor who uses a blind grading system, which has cause more panic and stress than an outright grade would have. We will still receive a final grade at the end, but we are unable to accurately gauge our progress even with feedback. It’s a tough call, as I would not ask my students to do something I could not. I’m wondering if there is even a middle ground in this situation?

    1. Check out what Vermont is doing with proficiency-based grading. Some systems are using a 1, 2, 3, 4 system with no grades, but others are attaching traditional letter grades to the four areas of proficiency, and the idea is that students have to keep working until they obtain proficiency.

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