Tag Archives: grad school

Some Reflections on Being a Student Again

Photo by Chris Wormhoudt on Unsplash

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

Sunday Grading

red pen photo
Photo by faungg’s photos

I spent most of the early afternoon grading today. I am a bit mad at myself for forgetting my notes about my AP students’ poetry presentations at school. I would have liked to have graded those presentations as well. Perhaps it’s for the best, as one group still needs to present tomorrow, and it’s probably better to put in all those grades at the same time, though I’m not usually picky about that. I am really glad to be caught up otherwise because our mid-semester comments are due on Tuesday. I can usually write these comments fairly quickly because I leave comments on just about every assignment in the grade book as I go, so checking progress is not hard for me. We have an open grade book, and students and their parents and advisors can see the comments I leave on assignments as well as updates like mid-semester comments, so I think the communication is pretty clear. At any rate, I have never heard otherwise, and I was actually told by at least one parent that my comments were clear.

Over time, evaluation has become one of those things I can do fairly quickly and still point right to the heart of how and what the student is doing with an assignment. It is like anything else, I suppose. It takes practice. Would you believe, though, that I grow more and more frustrated by the fact that grades even exist? I was actually reading this article this morning (and tweeted it out). If grades are not really considered by graduate schools and employers (unless they are so low as to provoke alarm), then what are we doing here?

I allow my students to revise their work. I think it’s more important that they learn instead of that I am a hard-ass about a grade. I evolved into this belief. For one thing, my previous principal didn’t give me the kind of license to hold it, but for another, I had been conditioned to think grades were the only way to show what we’ve learned. Going back to school and getting my master’s really opened my eyes. I found that I, too, started to care more that I earned A’s than that I learned. In the end, I found the whole process of earning that degree frustrating, and I can’t say I feel like I learned a whole lot in that program. In some instances, I did, but overall, it was a waste of money that makes me angry all over again each month when I pay my student loan bill and wonder if I’ll ever pay it off. Did it open some doors? I guess you could say that it did, but I really wish I could also say that it was a valuable experience in the same way that my undergrad experience was. There was no emphasis on grades in my English education program. We did earn them, but the emphasis was on the learning, and that’s how I felt. B’s didn’t bother me. A’s were not all I was after trying to do in those classes. My motivation to learn was so much more intrinsic because I valued what I was learning. I was invested. I saw how it would fit with my chosen career. I can’t say that about most of my master’s classes.

So as I sat here grading my students’ work, I thought all these thoughts and felt all these feelings. I do want my students to see value in the work they do for my class. I want them to view it as more than a grade and be intrinsically motivated to learn. Grades stand in the way. I wonder if I am brave enough just not to assign grades. My school still gives grades, so it would be problematic. My students seem to appreciate the fact that they can revise writing, however. I am hoping they at least know that they don’t need to be satisfied with a grade. The learning is their own, and it decisions about what to do about their learning, when, and how should be in their own hands, too.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Hey, Stranger

Collatz ConjectureOK, so my friends have reached the point of stopping calling and asking me if I want to hang out. I had a stack of essays—ungraded—shuttling back and forth from school to my house for a month. A month! I am teaching five classes, five different preps. And this is the time of year when it gets busy. When you look at the calendar and say, “Oh, hi, March! I’m still in the Renaissance.” Then I have to give myself permission to still be in the Renaissance because of all the instructional days lost for various reasons, and I have to tell myself it’s OK because it’s an introduction to British literature and not meant to be as comprehensive as a graduate school (or even an undergrad) seminar.

Speaking of grad school, I am also behind in that area. My Educational Research class is proving challenging, but I am learning a great deal, even if my quiz scores don’t show it (the quizzes are another issue altogether). My Multimedia Authoring course is beginning to rank up there with my favorites in the grad school program (Instructional Media, Graphic Design for Multimedia Presentations). I like classes that allow me to create; however, I am concerned that I have bitten off more than I can chew. I want to create a flash game that helps students learn phrases and clauses. I would like it to be similar to the Grammar Ninja game, but I know I’m not knowledgeable enough to make it quite that good, especially graphics-wise. The creator of that game is majoring in Computer Science with a minor in 2-D Art for Games, and I surely don’t have that background.

Still, I have not completely checked out, and I can be found bookmarking links on Diigo and tweeting most days of the week. I don’t always bookmark links I check out. This morning, someone (and I admit I can’t remember who) tweeted this link. I don’t know how to feel about this issue. Sad that the parents were so easily satisfied? Confused as to whether I missed some qualification left out of the article? Angry that my profession is reduced to entertainment and stripped of its seriousness of purposes for the sake of TV? I realize the article is now about six months old, and Danza does seem to have some empathy for the life of a teacher and seems to treat the profession with some reverence and respect. If I’m fair, I have to admit I think he “gets” it about teaching, or at least his blog posts reveal he does (and I’ve only begun taking a look, so your mileage may vary).

What do you think of it?

Update, 4/1: The LA Times has a new story about Danza’s first year teaching.

The Calm Before the Storm

Somehow it seems appropriate that the very outer bands of Tropical Storm Fay brought some sprinkles and a few gusts of wind today, as this weekend is my last before I begin working on my master’s degree, and it really does feel like the calm before the storm.  Classes start Monday.  I have been so busy this week, and I already feel behind.  I have had to start making to-do lists.  I know some people swear by them, but I haven’t really needed to use them often in the past.  It feels very good to cross items off that list.  I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew — I already feel busy without worrying about my own studies!

I have found blogging to be important for my own teaching practice.  This space helps me be reflective and connect, and after doing it for three years, I have discovered I need it.

I guess blogging needs to have an important position on my to-do list.

Week in Reflection: March 31-April 4, 2008

This week was a really good week for me, personally, which I think translates often into good teaching.

One of my ninth grade classes is completely done with The Catcher in the Rye, and the other is still in the discussion part of studying the novel. The discussions have been good. Students always seem to enjoy this book. One of my students who didn’t like it actually asked me if there was something he was missing, as all of his classmates seemed to like it, and he expected to like it. I confided that I didn’t like it either in high school, but I loved it years later when I read it again. When I was in high school, I had trouble getting past the part when Holden hires Sunny, the teenage prostitute. Even though they do not, shall we say, complete the transaction, and Holden winds up getting beaten up by her pimp, I found the notion that he would even hire a prostitute distasteful. I just didn’t like Holden. Years later, with more experiences and perhaps more empathy, I viewed Holden entirely differently. I think it helped my student to hear that he is perfectly fine, thank you very much, if he doesn’t like the novel. On the other hand, one of his classmates read the novel four times before it was due. I am in a quandary about this student, too, because this student did not perform well on my reading quiz, which should have been a breeze after reading the novel four times. I still can’t figure out how that happened, but it makes me feel rotten. Talk about a motivation-killer.

I am teaching grammar, specifically phrases and clauses. I have some problems with the efficacy of this required part of my curriculum.

I had interesting conversations with a few senior students this week. They are presenting their Flat World Willy handbooks on Monday. The conversations we had centered around the idea that a few of the students recognize that I (and their other teachers) are trying to put together good learning experiences that are relevant to their lives, and I think they like the handbook assignment. But they are also frustrated by working with peers whose minds are already checked out. I have heard more than once, “I didn’t want to come to school, but I thought about you, Mrs. Huff, and how mad it makes you when we skip class.” I suppose I should be grateful that the students have empathy for my feelings after planning and being disappointed, but I wish they came to school because they wanted to learn. Their course loads have been pared down. They are doing internships in the afternoons. Their minds are on the colleges they will shortly be attending. I can empathize with them. I remember that feeling. Heck, I got accepted to grad school this week, and I was elated. Even though I am taking courses online, registering for my Virginia Tech personal identity so I could login and use all the resources available to me as a student made it feel very real — I feel like I am going back to school, and I am excited. But my students haven’t graduated yet, which is an important step to attending college, and I don’t want them to check out when have such a small amount of time together.