Category Archives: Assessment

What to Assess? Ask.

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I had a great discussion with my students today. A couple of them asked me why I don’t grade participation in Socratic seminars. I used to. I stopped because I find that grading participation is slippery. If you quantify it, you run the risk of encouraging shallow participation for points. In their reflections, students share what they have learned as a result of the seminar. I think part of the concern the students shared is that their reflection must include a summary of ideas discussed in the seminar, and the students who raised the concern did not earn full points for their summaries. They argued that if they are trying to capture the discussion in their notes, they will not be as present in the discussion.

What I told the students is that grading is a means of communicating their learning, and if they would prefer to be assessed on participation because it helps them learn, then I will do what helps them learn. I asked that we have a discussion about it as a class. We had that discussion this morning, and I was really impressed with how the students were able to articulate what works for them in assessing seminars and why. They have a strong sense of what kind of assessment feels equitable and what does not. They were able to articulate why setting goals and assessing progress toward the goals was helpful, and why grading participation didn’t work for most of them.

I pointed out that the skills of note-taking and listening are important for success. Students need to listen to their teachers and peers—now and later in college—and be able to take notes on what they hear, so my rationale for assessing these skills is that they are skills that are important to practice. Yet, I understand their arguments as well. We cannot have a good seminar if students do not participate. On the other hand, their classmates insisted that participation was not a problem in our first seminar. At one point, they asked me to display our discussion map from last time (thanks, Equity Maps!). Did we actually have a problem that needed solving, or was our discussion working without grading participation?

The class consensus was to leave the assessment as is, particularly as they have only experienced one seminar so far and judgment based on one experience would not tell the whole story. I don’t think everyone was happy, and frankly, the discussion did become a bit heated. I don’t think that made the students feel comfortable. I asked them if they felt heard—not agreed with, because that’s not the same thing—but heard. I think the net result is that students appreciated the opportunity to share their ideas. I was super impressed with them, and I shared that feedback with them.

We have our second seminar tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see how this debate informs the discussion. In the end, the compromise/consensus seemed to be that students want to be assessed on making progress on their goals. Part of their reflection is to identify their goals for the next seminar. This means I need to go back into their last reflections and refresh my memory about what their individual goals are and ensure I give them feedback on their progress toward meeting their goals. They also asked for feedback on their contributions, though they recognized that one person’s idea of an insightful comment may differ from another’s.

The bottom line is that it’s important to engage students in the assessment of their learning. Some of the best discussions I have had with my students have centered on grading and assessment. They have a lot to say about assessment, but they are not always a part of the conversation about how they’ll be assessed. It was a good exercise for my students today to hear others’ perspectives on this topic and take those perspectives into consideration.

5 Myths About Grading

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In June I successfully defended my dissertation at Northeastern University. My research focused on grading and assessment, which will likely not surprise anyone who has been reading this blog for a while, as I have written about grading and assessment frequently.

My dissertation was qualitative action research, a dissertation in practice grounded in the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate. Grading and assessment are ripe for qualitative action research because we have over a century of quantitative research in grading and assessment, and not as much positive change, at least with grading, as we might like to see. I might argue we are seeing more authentic assessment in schools, but grading remains, well, stuck. One of the reasons I think we’re stuck is that we believe persistent myths about grading.

Grades Communicate Students’ Proficiency

One of the most persistent myths about grading is that we agree on what grades mean. As long ago as 1888, researchers were raising questions about inter-rater reliability (Edgeworth, 1888). Study after study indicates that grades are highly inconsistent measures of students’ learning. Starch & Elliott (1912) conducted a study that examined consistency among graders and found that scores on student writing varied by 30-40 points out of 100, or a probable error of 4.5. You might be thinking, “yes, but isn’t writing a little subjective anyway? I’m sure that doesn’t happen in, say, math.” Well, the following year, Starch & Elliott (1913) found that scores on a geometry exam varied even more widely—as much as a probable error of 7.5. They ascribed the difference to several factors: the possibility that graders differently evaluate the students’ methods for reaching the solution, that they assess quality of the students’ drawings, and that they assign different values to problems.

Naturally, things have changed in a hundred years. What do more recent studies say? Brimi (2011) sought to answer that very question. Brimi (2011) engaged 73 participants working for the same school district trained to use the 6+1 Traits of Writing Rubric developed by Education Northwest to score the same argumentative essay using the rubric. The participants’ grades ranged from an A to an F on the traditional grading scale; furthermore, the range of scores assigned to the essay spanned 46 points (Brimi, 2011).

Grading is inconsistent for many reasons, but one of the chief reasons is that teachers evaluate different things when they grade. Some teachers offer extra credit or give students points for bringing supplies (Townsley & Varga, 2018). Teachers can be highly individualistic in selecting criteria for students’ performance (Bloxham et al., 2016). Other factors also impact how teachers evaluate students’ performance. For example, Brackett, et al. (2013) found that a teacher’s mood while grading can impact students’ scores—teachers in a bad mood tend to rate students’ performance lower. This holds true even when grading more objective criteria such as correct spelling (Brackett, et al. 2013). Think what this means as we are teaching in the midst of a pandemic and during a time when it feels as though teachers are being attacked from all sides.

One of the reasons traditional letter or number grades emerged is due to perceived inconsistency, inefficiency, and complication involved in narrative grade reports (Feldman, 2019). It was thought that letter grades could communicate learning both efficiently and plainly (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). By the 1940s, the A-F letter grade system had become the most popular grading system (Schneider & Hutt, 2014).

Traditional grades tend to be derived by averaging the performance on all assessments during a grading period; this average may not capture students’ eventual proficiency in learning and can place undue emphasis on performance anomalies rather than tendencies (Feldman, 2019). In addition, traditional grading sometimes incorporates assessment of student behaviors, such as participation, engagement, and effort (Feldman, 2019).

We might think that grades communicate students’ proficiency in learning, but there are simply too many variables to say this definitively.

Grades Motivate Students

One fear many educators express is that if students are not graded, they will not be motivated to do the work. At best, grades serve as extrinsic motivation for learning. When students care more about the grades than the learning, they are more likely to resort to academic dishonesty. In fact, pressure to earn high grades contributes to academic dishonesty and mental health problems (Rinn et al., 2014; Villeneuve et al., 2019). Grades affect students’ achievement, self-concept, and motivation (Casillas et al., 2012; Pulfrey et al., 2011). Students who earn low grades tend to achieve less and feel lower self-esteem over time (Klapp, 2018).

Fear of earning low grades or focus on earning high grades both serve as extrinsic motivators for learning rather than intrinsic motivators, which demonstrate more effectiveness in supporting learning (Froiland & Worrell, 2016; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Intrinsic motivation is positively associated with both engagement and achievement (Froiland & Worrell, 2016; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Helping students develop their intrinsic motivation to learn may increase students’ achievement (Froiland & Worrell, 2016). Extrinsic motivation to earn good grades or avoid the negative consequences of poor grades drives many students rather than the desire to learn, and over time, extrinsic motivation decreases students’ achievement (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). In addition, the reward of good grades tends to decrease motivation for otherwise engaging learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

It’s worth noting that motivation appears to change depending on the grading system used. When students are graded using a 100-point system in which the sum of all student work is worth a total of 100 points, students tend to view each point deducted as a loss (Smith & Smith, 2009). Bies-Hernandez (2012) describes such grading systems as “loss-framed grading” (p. 179). However, when students are graded using a total points system tallying all points earned, they tend to view grades as opportunities to improve and build toward a desired grade (Smith & Smith, 2009). Students who are graded with a system weighting assignment categories by percentage fell in between students in the other grading groups (Smith & Smith, 2009). Even if controls ensure that the resulting grade is the same regardless of the calculation system, students’ responses on a Likert scale questionnaire indicate they still perceive greater risk in 100-point systems and were less motivated and self-assured (Smith & Smith, 2009). Bies- Hernandez (2012) replicated these findings and further found that students’ performances in courses with a loss-framed grading system also decreased. Thus, the framing of the grading system not only has an impact on students’ perceptions of their performance but also on their actual performance (Bies- Hernandez, 2012). The implication is that teachers’ approaches to grading may affect students’ academic achievement (Brookhart et al., 2016).

However, proficiency-based grading (sometimes known as competency-based grading, standards-based grading, or mastery-based grading) has the potential to make grades more meaningful and purposeful (Buckmiller et al., 2017; Guskey, 2007). Proficiency-based grading practices may also lead to greater academic achievement, particularly if the grades are paired with formative feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Proficiency-based grading practices may also foster more cooperation and less competition (Burleigh & Meegan, 2018). Taking academic risks, weighing differing conclusions, and considering varied points of view are all necessary for developing critical thinking skills, but if students must risk failing grades in order to do so, they are much more likely to take the safer route to earning a higher grade (Hayek et al., 2014; McMorran et al., 2017). Knowing that they could continue to learn, revise, and reflect on their work may increase students’ motivation to learn (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; McMorran et al., 2017).

100-point Grading Scales are More Precise than A-F or 4-Point Grading Scales

Do you know why we use the 100-point scale? It’s not because it’s more precise. It’s because it’s the scale in the gradebook software (Guskey, 2013; Guskey & Jung, 2016). The 100-point scale is terrible, and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on. The 100-point grading scale has become one of the most common scales for reporting students’ grades, but it is one of the most unreliable scales in use (Guskey, 2013).

The 100-point scale is inaccurate and inequitable because the scale is skewed toward failing grades (Feldman, 2019). Passing grades comprise only 40 points of the grading scale, spanning typically from 60 points to 100 points (or from 70-100 points in some systems!), while failing grades comprise the remaining points possible spanning from 0 to 59 (or even 0-69). Serious mathematical errors arise when teachers input zeros in the gradebook when students are missing work (Feldman, 2019). While this practice ostensibly holds students accountable for handing in work, it can make it impossible for students to recover academically (Feldman, 2019). The literature suggests that teachers may compensate for the 100-point scale’s mathematical errors by artificially raising grades in a number of ways (Schneider & Hutt, 2014), including grading formative assessments and executive function skills (Bowers, 2011; Brookhart et al., 2016; Townsley & Varga, 2018).

Unfortunately, a lot of educators perceive the 100-point grading scale to be more accurate (Brookhart & Guskey, 2019; Feldman, 2019). While using 100 points as opposed to four or five points may seem more accurate, it results in a probable error of five or six points; teachers find it difficult to distinguish levels of performance on a 100-point scale (Brookhart & Guskey, 2019). Some grading reformers advocate for the use of minimum grading, or inputting a minimum grade such as 50 percent, rather than inputting zeros for missing work; this practice reduces mathematical error (Carifio & Carey, 2013; Carifio & Carey, 2015; Feldman, 2019). Essentially what educators are doing when they use minimum grading, however, is compensating for the deficiencies of the 100-point scale by converting it to a rough approximation of the 4-point scale. In a four-point scale, failing grades span from 0-0.99 of a point, while passing grades span from 1-4 points (or 2-4 points in a system without a “D”).

Grades Reduce Bias

Variable and unreliable grading practices also introduce equity problems. Black students have less access to AP courses all over the United States (Francis & Darity, 2021). Schools that use gatekeeping methods (Francis & Darity, 2021), such as teacher recommendations and prerequisite grades, may be basing their decisions about students’ fitness for advanced coursework on subjective measures common in traditional grading (Feldman, 2019). Students of color are most impacted by teachers’ implicit bias (Feldman, 2019), especially if subjective, non-academic factors are included in assessment (Cvencek et al., 2018). Implicit bias may especially play a role in lower grades assigned to students of color when the criteria for proficiency are unclear or undefined (Quinn, 2020). Traditional grading’s subjectivity can harm all students, but students of color may be most impacted due to implicit bias (Feldman, 2019; Quinn, 2020).

However, proficiency-based grading can make grades more equitable and more reflective of students’ actual learning (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Proficiency-based grading may include using practices such as rubrics for evaluating student work and student-generated portfolios; however, it may also include traditional assessments such as tests (Baete & Hochbein, 2014; Buckmiller et al., 2017; Iamarino, 2014; Miller, 2013). Students’ grades are tied to their mastery of content, such as standards, knowledge, and skills, as opposed to an average of all the grades earned during a grading period or course (Iamarino, 2014; Miller, 2013). Teachers using proficiency-based grading typically provide students with feedback on formative assessments (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Students may revise and resubmit work in order to demonstrate their proficiency in learning (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Through revision, students demonstrate their learning of the content and skills. As a result, proficiency-based grades may more accurately reflect what students have learned rather than a snapshot of their performance on a single assessment.

We Have to Use Grades

Grades have actually not existed, at least not in the form we’re familiar with, for a very long period of time (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). One of the worst reasons to perpetuate any system is the notion that we’ve always done it that way, especially when it’s not even true that we have always done it this way. The A-F grading system gained popularity as late as the 1940s—as I mentioned before—as educators saw a need to establish more uniform methods for determining students’ proficiency (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). For many years preceding the establishment of “traditional grading,” we used all sorts of other systems (good and bad) for measuring learning. This system is entrenched, but it’s not as old as people might think, and if we decided, collectively, that it no longer worked for us, we could find a better system. The problem is, well, that it’s a system, and systems are notoriously hard to change.

I have heard many educators express anxiety that students will either not be prepared for college or will not get into college unless they are graded. Many schools, however, have successfully eliminated traditional grades. Colleges understand the transcripts these students send them, and these students are able to go to college. For example, the Watershed School, a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, does not issue traditional letter grades or test students through final exams and has a 100% college acceptance rate (Plaskov, 2019). A college counselor I worked with told me anecdotally that “colleges are fine with grading that’s ‘non-traditional.’ Parents usually get very concerned about going off the A-F standard, but college admissions folks are experts on grading scales, and what I’ve consistently heard from them is that the most-accurate/least-translated reporting is what they like.”

My own personal experience is that some schools’ grading practices are more entrenched, and while another system of evaluation would work, it wouldn’t be politically feasible. Proficiency-based grading shows additional promise here. Attaching grades to standards or competencies can make grades more accurate reflections of students’ proficiency in learning. Proficiency-based report cards have the potential to be more useful in understanding students’ learning than traditional report cards including only a letter grade (Blauth & Hajdian, 2016; Swan et al., 2014). Swan et al. (2014) found that parents and teachers generally find proficiency-based reports more helpful and easier to understand, in addition to having more and better information about students’ progress.

It’s worth noting that one study I examined indicated parents reported feeling less confidence in the standards-based grade reports because they were unfamiliar and felt the school had not taken their feelings as stakeholders into account before implementing standards-based grade reports (Franklin et al., 2016). These parents also reported finding the grade reports unclear (Franklin et al., 2016). Importantly, Franklin et al. (2016) indicate the parents in their study were all dissatisfied with standards-based report cards; these parents also described themselves as strong students who enjoyed school. Their study did not include parents who expressed satisfaction with the reports. (Franklin et al., 2016).

The Bottom Line?

I think it’s important for teachers to open dialogue with students and parents, read the research on grading and assessment, and work within the system they’re in to make grades more accurate and meaningful. I highly recommend the works referenced in this post, which is derived largely from my dissertation. For a good deep dive, Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity is excellent.

References

Baete, G. S. & Hochbein, C. (2014). Project proficiency: Assessing the independent effects of high school reform in an urban district. The Journal of Educational Research, 107(6), 493-511. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2013.823371

Bies-Hernandez, N. J. (2012). The effects of framing grades on student learning and preferences. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 176-180. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628312450429

Blauth, E. & Hadjian, S. (2016). How selective colleges and universities evaluate proficiency-based high school transcripts: Insights for students and schools. New England Board of Higher Education. https://www.nebhe.org/info/pdf/policy/Policy_Spotlight_How_Colleges_Evaluate_PB_HS_Trans cripts_April_2016.pdf

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/020602938.2015.1024607

Bowers, A. J. (2011). What’s in a grade? The multidimensional nature of what teacher-assigned grades assess in high school. Educational Research and Evaluation, 17(3), 151-159. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2011.597112

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540602.2013.827453

Brimi, H. M. (2011). Reliability of grading high school work in English. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 16(7). http://pareonline.net/getvnasp?=16&n=17

Brookhart, S. M., & Guskey, T. R. (2019). Reliability in grading and grading scales. In T. R. Guskey & S. M. Brookhart (Eds.), What we know about grading: What works, what doesn’t, and what’s next (pp. 13-31). ASCD.

Brookhart, S., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., Stevens, M. T., Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654316672069

Buckmiller, T., Peters, R., & Kruse, J. (2017). Questioning points and percentages: Standards-based grading (SBG) in higher education. College Teaching, 65(4), 151-157. https://doi.org/10.1080.87567555.2017.1302919

Burleigh, T. J. & Meegan, D. V. (2018). Risky prospects and risk aversion tendencies: does competition in the classroom depend on grading practices and knowledge of peer-status? Social Psychology of Education, 21(2), 323-335. https://doi.org/ 10.1007/s11218-017-9414-x

Carifio, J. & Carey, T. (2013). The arguments and data in favor of minimum grading. Mid-Western Educational Researcher, 25(4), 19-30.

Carifio, J. & Carey, T. (2015). Further findings on the positive effects of minimum grading. Journal of Education and Social Policy, 2(4), 130-136.

Casillas, A., Robbins, S., Allen, J., Kuo, Y. L., Hanson, M. A., & Shmeiser, C. (2012). Predicting early academy failure in high school from prior academic achievement, psychosocial characteristics, and behavior. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 407-420. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027180

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. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12802

Edgeworth, F. Y. (1888). The statistics of examinations. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 51(3), 599-635.

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Francis, D. V. & Darity, W. A., Jr. (2021). Separate and unequal under one roof: The legacy of racialized tracking perpetuates within-school segregation. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 7(1), 187-202. https://doi.org/10.7758/RSF.2021.7.1.11

Franklin, A., Buckmiller, T., & Kruse, J. (2016). Vocal and vehement: Understanding parents’ aversion to standards-based grading. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 4(11), 19-29.

Froiland, J. M. & Worrell, F. C. (2016). Intrinsic motivation, learning goals, engagement, and achievement in a diverse high school. Psychology in the Schools, 53(3), 321-336. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21901

Guskey, T. R. (2007). Multiple sources of evidence: An analysis of stakeholders’ perceptions of various indicators of student learning. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 26(1), 19-27.
https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-3992.2007.00085.x

Guskey, T. R. (2013). The case against percentage grades. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 68-72.

Guskey, T. R. & Jung, L. A. (2016): Grading: Why you should trust your judgment. Educational Leadership,
73(7), 50-54.

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. https://doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487

Hayek, A., Toma, C., Oberlé, D., & Butera, F. (2014). The effect of grades on the preference effect: Grading reduces consideration of disconfirming evidence. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36(6), 544-552. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2014.969840

Iamarino, D. L. (2014). The benefits of standards-based grading: A critical evaluation of modern grading practices. Current Issues in Education, 17(2), 1-11.

Klapp, A., (2018). Does academic and social self-concept and motivation explain the effect of grading on students’ achievement? European Journal of Psychology of Education, 33(2), 355-376. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-017-0331-3

McMorran, C., Ragupathi, K., & Luo, S. (2017). Assessment and learning without grades? Motivations and concerns with implementing gradeless learning in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(3), 361-377. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2015.1114584

Miller, J. J. (2013). A better grading system: Standards-based, student-centered assessment. English Journal, 103(1), 111-118.

Plaskov, J. C. (2019, October 23). Reimagining college admissions season. The Mastery Transcript Consortium. https://mastery.org/reimagining-college-admissions-season/

Pulfrey, C., Buchs, C., & Butera, F. (2011). Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals: The mediating role of autonomous motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(3), 683-700. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023911

Quinn, D. M. (2020). Experimental evidence on teachers’ racial bias in student evaluation: The role of grading scales. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(3), 375-392. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373720932188

Rinn, A. N., Boazman, J., Jackson, A., Barrio, B. (2014). Locus of control, academic self-concept, and academic dishonesty among high ability college students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 14(4), 88-114. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v14i4.12770

Schneider, J. & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A-F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.790480

Smith, J. K. & Smith, L. F. (2009). The impact of framing effect on student preferences for university grading systems. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 35, 160-167.

Starch, D. & Elliott, E. C. (1912). Reliability of the grading of high-school work in English. The School Review, 20(7), 442-457.

Starch, D. & Elliott, E. C. (1913). Reliability of grading work in mathematics. The School Review, 21(4), 254-259.

Swan, G., Guskey, T., & Jung, L. (2014). Parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of standards-based and traditional report cards. Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Accountability, 26(3), 289-299. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11092-01409191-4

Townsley, M. & Varga, M. (2018). Getting high school students ready for college: A quantitative study of standards-based grading practices. Journal of Research in Education, 28(1), 92-112.

Villeneuve, J. C., Conner, J. O., Selby, S., & Pope, D. C. (2019). Easing the stress at pressure-cooker schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 101(3), 15–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 0031721719885910

Rumination Essays

A few years ago, I had the great fortune to be able to attend Kenyon College’s Writing Workshop for Teachers. My instructor was Dr. Emily Moore, who teaches at Stuyvesant High School in New York. She shared a writing assignment with us that Stuyvesant English teachers use. It’s a form of writing that marries the literary analysis with the personal narrative, and she referred to it as a “Rumination Essay.”

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

The instructions are as follows (very much adapted from those shared by Dr. Emily Moore):

  1. Choose a single quotation from the text—about 1-3 consecutive lines [note: this is negotiable, but the point is to choose a short passage rather than a really long passage]. You might choose a passage that captured your attention, moved you, or felt connected to an experience or emotion in your own life. You might reflect on a key message or theme, conflict, or character from the play as a starting point, and look for a quote based on that.
  2. Begin your rumination by discussing the context of the quote clearly, but avoid unnecessary plot summary. Instead, simply give the reader enough information so the quote will make sense. What situation has led up to the quote? Who is speaking?
  3. Introduce the quote smoothly with a strong transition, so that it is incorporated into your own writing. Make sure you format the quote correctly and cite it properly. Don’t forget a Works Cited page.
  4. Analyze the quote. What is its significance in the play up until this point? How does it help us understand a message or theme emerging in the play? What does it suggest about the character’s experience, or the conflicts and characters that drive this story?
  5. Next, transition into personal writing. In this section, you will write in the first person about an experience of your own that relates to the quote you’ve chosen. The experience doesn’t have to be exactly the same—these characters have their lives; you’ve had yours—but there should be a connection. Your personal experience will reflect something about the quote you’ve chosen, and it will echo an idea that stayed with you from your reading.

Note: In this section, you’ll write in the first person. Work like a storyteller, and think about the techniques storytellers use. In particular, you’ll want to do more than just tell us what happened.Use details (concrete imagery, dialogue, character, etc.) to show us something about your experience, and reflect on it as well.

  1. Now that you’ve considered how the message or themes suggested by your chosen quote connect to your own life, reconnect to the literary work in your last paragraph. How does the experience you had help you understand the work? Your understanding of the quote and key message or theme you’re discussing will be deeper now, because you’ve enriched it with a story from your own experience. Use that to conclude your rumination.

This assignment can be used with a variety of texts. I have previously used it with teaching King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I have also allowed students to select a work of their choosing.

Students generally enjoy this assignment and find it engaging because it asks them to make a direct connection to a work of literature. However, they also find it challenging to use first person, mainly because somewhere along the line, someone told them never to do that. The structure is a bit different from what they’re accustomed to.

I usually save the exemplars from each year and share them with students so they can get the idea. I am embedding an example of the instructions I share with students. You can use the instructions and modify them for your own texts and needs.

One-Pagers

I shared some student work on Twitter, and it seemed as though some folks were interested in learning more about the concept. First of all, I didn’t come up with this concept at all. I’d seen one-pagers floating around for a while. Some time back, I tweeted asking for help with instructions, and Dianna Minor and Glenda Funk graciously shared their instructions with me. I also found Betsy Potash’s instructions via Cult of Pedagogy and these instructions at Ms. D’s English Fury helpful. I adapted my instructions from these sources. All credit goes to the fine educators who generously shared their ideas and their students’ work. I am indebted to them, and I’m sharing what I did only as a means of paying it forward in case it helps other people. 

You can use one-pagers to assess lots of things. I am an English teacher, but I imagine they could be used in just about any subject and at pretty much every grade level, with some adaptations.

What is a one-pager?

A one-pager is a kind of project in which you share your most important takeaways from a text on a single page using text and artwork. You take what you have learned from a text and put the highlights on the page accompanied by art that represents, sometimes symbolically, these highlights and themes.

Why create a one-pager?

One-pagers allow you to mix media, text, and images, which helps you remember details better. It’s brain science. According to Allan Paivio’s dual coding theory, the brain has two ways of processing: the visual and the verbal. The combination of the two leads to the most powerful results. You will remember more when you’ve mixed language and imagery. One-pagers also offer variety—another way to share your interpretation and analysis of a text. You might be surprised what you will come up with! Plus, they’re fun. [All credit to this rationale goes to Betsy Potash.]

But I am not good at art/don’t like art…

I will share some templates with you that may help, but the important thing to remember here is that you ARE good at art. You might want to draft your one-pager in light pencil before coloring it in, but you will create something pretty amazing. I feel it in my bones. Also, do not use clip art or computer art. Trust me. One-pagers look so much better when they’re your own art.

Okay, so what are the parameters?

  • A single piece of letter-size paper (or A4 if you can’t get letter where you currently are located). You may use colored paper if you have access to it and want to, but it is NOT required.
  • Work only on one side of the page in portrait or landscape mode. 
  • Include color and patterns*. Think symbolically here. Texture is fine, too.
  • Fill the entire page with your work. If you have blank space, repeat an element or fill it with one of the optional elements (see below).
  • Put your first and last name on the back.
  • Try to be neat with lettering. It helps to draft first. Definitely make sure handwriting is legible.

*I had markers and colored pencils to lend students who needed them.

What kinds of elements should I include?

The following elements are REQUIRED:

  • The title and author of the book.
  • Illustrations or symbols that represent the reading. This could be a character, a scene from the text, symbols that convey ideas expressed in the work.
  • Choose two or three notable quotes that stand out to you from the text. It could be quotes that make you think or wonder or remind you of something important from the text.  Write the quotes on your paper using different colors and/or writing styles. Include the page number and a short analysis of the quote.
  • Make a personal connection to what you read. What did it mean to you personally? (Examples: “I feel…I think…I know…I wonder…”).

The following elements are options, but pick at least 2:

  • Create a border that reflects a theme. This can include words, pictures, symbols, or even quotes.
  • Draw a word cluster around your image. Use these words you highlight the importance of your chosen image. The word cluster may also artistically symbolize the subject matter.
  • Write a poem about the book, a character, or the theme. If this is particularly challenging, you may choose to compose an acrostic poem using a one-word theme.
  • Create a hashtag that relates to the text.
  • Explain how the setting shapes a character in the text.
 

Rubric

Skill

Exemplary

Proficient

Developing

Emerging

The extent to which the one-pager demonstrates textual analysis.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers insightful interpretations and understanding of the text with analysis that goes well beyond a literal level.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers clear and explicit interpretations and understanding of the text with analysis that goes beyond a literal level.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers partially explained and/or somewhat literal interpretations and understanding of the text with some analysis.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers few or superficial interpretations and understanding of the text with little analysis.

 

The extent to which the one-pager follows the “rules.”

All the “rules” are followed: the work is on a single side of letter or A4 paper, the page is filled, color is used, first and last name are on the back, and the lettering is neat and legible.

Most of the “rules” are followed: one or two minor omissions (see exemplary column).

Some of the “rules” are followed. There are two or more omissions (see exemplary column).

Few or none of the rules are followed. There are more than three omissions (see exemplary column).

The extent to which all required elements are included.

All required elements are included and addressed in a thoughtful way that demonstrates symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and thoughtful interpretation of the text. Two or more optional elements add depth to the piece.

All of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Two optional elements add depth to the piece.

Most of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate developing symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Two optional elements are included.

Some of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate emerging symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Optional elements may be missing or incomplete.

Grading for Equity: A Brief History of Grading

Steamer Glass [i.e. class]” in Hancock School, Boston. Immigrant children.
Abstract: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)
I have a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary from 1893-1894, which I transcribed. It’s a fascinating window into history for many reasons, one of which is that while Stella was writing the diary, she was a teacher. She married in May 1894, after which she had to quit teaching and keep house.

Her primary concerns as a teacher seem to center around keeping order in her classroom. She remarks very little on what she actually taught her students, but she mentions whether or not class was unruly a few times. I also have a copy of a letter she wrote my great-uncle Alvin, who must have been assigned to write to grandparents and ask what school was like when they were little. Stella’s letter is wonderful (I reproduced it on this blog about 14 years ago).

I think I have always found the history of education, particularly schools, fascinating. I really enjoyed reading Joe Feldman’s chapter on the history of grading in  Grading for Equity. Much of it was material I already knew, as one of his sources, Schneider & Hutt’s (2014) article “Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme” was one my own sources as well. If you can get your hands on this article, I highly recommend you read it (the full citation, including DOI, is at the end of this post). I learned some really interesting things from it, particularly the fact that the A-F grading system is not really that old. It quickly became entrenched in schools, and it seems nearly impossible now to imagine schools with A-F grades, but they actually didn’t become entrenched until about the 1940s. My grandparents were still in school in the 1940s, though my grandfather would have graduated in the very early 1940s. The history of letter grades as a method for communicating learning isn’t that old.

First, yesterday I promised to continue reflecting on Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” for chapter 1 today; however, on reading them more closely, I’m not sure you care over much why I am reading this book or who I’m reading it with, so I’ll skip those, except to say that  I’ll reconsider anything I’m doing if it means my grading practices will be more equitable. Chapter 2 dives into the history of schools and grades a bit more.

How do schools in the first half of the twenty-first century—their design, their purpose, their student—compare with schools in the first half of the twentieth century?

I have actually sat in desks that were bolted to the floor. Have you? I find that the design of classrooms, at least in schools where I have taught, is much more fluid. Desks are mobile, sometimes even on wheels. Students sit in a large circle or square in my classrooms. My classroom looks different from the classrooms I sat in and from the images of vintage classrooms (like the one at the beginning of this post). We also have projectors and computers. My students learn from viewing images and watching videos in addition to reading. Most stakeholders would probably agree that my school’s purpose is to prepare students for college. I don’t think that was the goal of most schools in the early 20th century.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was one of the first people to propose schools as we might describe them today? In his Notes on the State of Virginia (which isn’t read enough and is why people don’t realize how complicated and problematic Jefferson’s ideas could sometimes be), he wrote (emphasis my own, spelling his):

This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor, who is annually to chuse the boy, of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go. At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters); and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall chuse, at William and Mary college, the plan of which is proposed to be enlarged, as will be hereafter explained, and extended to all the useful sciences. The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the state reading, writing and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to: the furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools, at which their children may be educated at their own expence.

Pardon the long quote, but I find it worth quoting at length because it several ideas come into focus if you read the whole thing:

  1. School was never envisioned to be equitable, not even the mind of the guy who wrote that “all men are created equal.” It was made to sort people, which is why tracking is still so common.
  2. The language Jefferson uses is telling: he describes students as “rubbish.” He didn’t include girls or BIPOC in the calculation at all. It’s a pretty classist idea even if you remove the sexism and racism. You know the boy children of poor farmers weren’t going to college.
  3. If you’re struggling to parse the language, the proposal is as follows:
    • Send one boy per “hundred” to a grammar school. The remaining students would end their schooling after three years in the “hundred” school.
    • Of those boys sent to grammar school, competition for continued education would be fierce: Jefferson suggests one or two years of grammar school to separate the wheat from the chaff, after which one of those grammar school students could continue his education for six more years.
    • Half of those boys lucky enough to continue their education past grammar school would then be able to go to college after that six years of education.

The competition among students was baked into American education early on. My great-great-grandmother Stella describes such competition when she describes spelling class: “We sat on long benches and a class would go up to the teacher to recite and sit on a long bench, only the spelling classes would stand in a row and “turn down”, when one missed a word.”

I would argue school has changed a great deal since the early 1900s but some aspects of school haven’t changed much. I have cited studies ranging from 1888-2019 in my research that document traditional letter grades’ issues with reliability, consistency, motivation, and self-concept. Grades seem to be the one aspect of school we are resistant to changing, in spite of a large body of evidence supporting change.

Once again, I’ve gone on too long and you’re probably not reading anymore. More tomorrow on how I see ideas and beliefs of the early 20th century at work in schools where I have taught.

Citations for further reading:

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Jefferson, T. (1787). Notes on the state of Virginia. Prichard and Hall. https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/jefferson/jefferson.html

Schneider, J. & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A-F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.790480

Towards More Equitable Grading

grade photo
Photo by mikefisher821

I’m not sure how many folks know this, but I’m currently entering the dissertation phase in my doctoral program at Northeastern. in fact, I’m hoping to defend my dissertation proposal before the month’s end. One reason this blog has been quiet for so long (until recently) is that I just haven’t made time to write here. I was doing so much writing for graduate school, and coupled with my teaching responsibilities, it was hard to find the time. I should have made the time because documenting my thoughts as I participated in the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge © (created by Dr. Eddie Moore) reminded me of the critical importance of regular reflection, here, for me as a teacher. I attribute most of my growth as a teacher since 2005, when I started this blog, to regular blogging here.

Back in the day, I sometimes reflected on professional reading on this blog, and sometimes, book clubs resulted. Blogging has fallen by the wayside in favor of Twitter, which makes me sad because sometimes the long-form reflection is better than a tweet thread. The UbD Educators wiki grew out of the reflection I did, and until Wikispaces went defunct, it was a promising project, though I confided to Grant Wiggins that it was hard to find teachers to commit to adding to the wiki. He wasn’t surprised because lack of time makes it difficult. I always say that we make time for the things that are important to us, and this blog is pretty important to me, but I hadn’t made a lot of time for it for some years. I’m going to try to change that, and one thing I want to do is document my thinking as I read Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity. I joked to a couple of colleagues that I am finally making time to actually read this book, which has been on my radar for a long time, and I realize I should have made the time to read it as soon as it was released because Feldman is citing much of the same research as I am citing in my dissertation. I could have saved myself a lot of searching through the library database!

First of all, I encourage educators to take the quiz How Equitable is Your Grading? on Feldman’s website. If, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, you are examining your curriculum’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think that’s great. I think it’s great if you are engaged in movements to #DisruptTexts and #TeachLivingPoets. You also need to take a hard look at your grading practices, too. If, as Feldman says, you are implementing some equitable practices, such as “responsive classrooms, alternative disciplinary measures, diverse curriculum—but meanwhile preserve inequitable grading,” you are perpetuating inequity in schools.

I’m going to start by using Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” at the end of chapter 1. I’ll just answer the first two and update tomorrow with responses to the remaining three questions. Otherwise, this post will be way too long. Maybe it already is!

What are some deep beliefs you have about teenagers? What motivates and demotivates them? Are they more concerned with learning or their grade?

After over 20 years of teaching mostly teenagers, I have concluded that a lot of adults expect them to be more “adult” because they tend to look more adult. What I mean is they expect teenagers have developed an internal locus of control. Not even all adults have an internal locus of control. Teenagers tend to still mostly have an external locus of control, which means they are more likely to attribute a poor grade to a teacher’s lack of regard for them instead of a lack of proficiency on their part. I think we need to remember that when we are grading. As such, they might be motivated to earn good grades (carrot) or avoid bad ones (stick), but grades in an of themselves don’t motivate them to learn. I think they do help give students some kind of yardstick they can use to judge their performance, but I didn’t think grades had even this utility until I started doing research. Grades might not communicate what we think or wish they would, but they communicate something. I think students are much more concerned with grades rather than learning when they are in classes in which all high-stakes assessments result in grades that cannot be improved through revision and in which all earned grades are averaged together. If, however, they are in a classroom that encourages revision and focuses on proficiency, they focus a lot more on learning. Teenagers actually love to learn things, but the trick is that teachers need to communicate the relevance, and the wrong answer is “I’m the adult, so I say it’s relevant.” And if what you are teaching isn’t relevant, you need to figure out how to Marie Kondo the curriculum.

What is your vision for grading? What do you wish grading could be for students, particularly the most vulnerable populations? What do you wish grading could be for you? In which ways do current grading practices meet those expectations, and in which ways do they not?

Before I started my research, I wanted to eliminate grades a measure of student learning. There is a movement to do just that, and many schools successfully use other methods for reporting learning, and yes, their students still get into college. I no longer think grades are entirely useless. I think we have just perpetuated inequitable grading for so long that I couldn’t figure out another way aside from burning the whole system down. Now I advocate for proficiency-based grading, and that means that students might revise their work, sometimes several times, in order to reach a level of proficiency in learning content and skills. In almost any aspect of life, we have chances to practice a skill until we master it, and no one says it is unfair. There was a time when every musician we know didn’t know how to play their instrument, when every athlete didn’t know how to play their sport. But we don’t judge their current competence by where they started. I think grading based on reaching proficiency, whenever it happens or however it happens, is much more equitable.

My dissertation is a dissertation in practice, meaning I need to take an action step and evaluate its success. My action step is to create a proficiency-based grading and authentic assessment guide for a pilot group of faculty, to implement the practices therein (along with a focus group), to evaluate the guide’s success and revise it accordingly, and to present the findings to my colleagues. Feldman’s ideas will be invaluable in framing the guide, grounded also in my own research. I am hoping implementing this action step will make grading less of a chore for me, too—I related so much to Feldman’s argument that teachers don’t like grading (p. 5).

What I need to do is figure out a system that is more mathematically sound and use it. I am doing fairly well on most equitable grading practices according to Feldman’s quiz, with the exception of that one. For example, I already:

  • Don’t weigh homework much. Homework is preparation for class, such as reading and writing. I don’t even really use the homework category in my online grade book for graded work.
  • Don’t calculate behavior and executive function skills in my grade.
  • Allow students to revise their work and replace the grade entirely with the new grade.
  • Don’t subscribe to the idea that grades need to fall on a bell curve or that I need a certain distribution of grades.
  • Don’t count participation as a grade category. It is part of the rubric in a Socratic seminar.

I do not have students asking me to create homework assignments, and they mostly do the preparation I ask them to do. Students sometimes turn work in late for me, but it doesn’t bother me. Other than that, I don’t feel I miss anything by excluding executive function skills. Students actually work harder knowing the grade can entirely be replaced if the work improves. I don’t subscribe to fears about grade inflation or worries that students have too many high grades, and I find conversations with others who are still hung up here to be maddeningly frustrating. I have long felt participation was too slippery to calculate, and sometimes students are super engaged but don’t say as much. I still get excellent participation from students without grading it.

More tomorrow on the first chapter reflection questions. Let me know if you want to “book group” this book.

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 (Bloxham, et al., 2016; Brackett, et al., 2013; Cvencek, et al., 2018; Klapp, 2015). 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

What Can Educators Learn from the Great British Bake Off?

gbbo
©BBC, Fair Use for Educational Purposes

I know I am really late to this party, but I just discovered The Great British Bake Off. I have been catching up on each of the seasons available on Netflix. It’s rare for me to actually be able to binge-watch something, but I can watch The Great British Bake Off all day. I find it helps me destress a bit. I love seeing what the contestants come up with. I admit I haven’t watched the American versions. If you have, feel free to chime in here, but my feeling is that it couldn’t quite work the same way with American contestants because one of the best things about The Great British Bake Off is the fact that even though contestants are competing against one another, they support each other, show each other kindness, and even seem happy for others when they are named Star Baker or win the competition and sad to see contestants go. I’m not sure Americans are like that in a competition.

I don’t have this idea fully formed in my head yet, but for the past couple of weeks, I have been wondering what educators can take away from this show. I don’t mean the competition aspect, necessarily, but the structure of the show intrigues me as a learning model.

If you haven’t seen it, each week has a different focus: Bread Week, Pastry Week, French Week, etc. Some of these themes repeat each season, while others don’t necessarily. For example, the most recent season available on Netflix included a Vegan Week. Bakers have to display a wide variety of skills and apply what they know about baking to several challenges.

The first challenge in each episode (or week) is the Showcase Challenge. This challenge sets a goal, such as making 24 identical buns, that allows contestants to demonstrate their skills. They know the Showcase Challenge in advance and are allowed to practice recipes at home. The second challenge is the Technical Challenge. For this challenge, contestants do not know the recipe, and often, the judges set really difficult baking tasks for the contestants. They must apply what they know about baking to the challenge because in some cases, they are not given full, precise directions. It’s not uncommon, for example, for the baking directions to just say “bake” without offering baking time or temperature. The final challenge each week is the Showstopper Challenge. For this challenge, contestants must impress by going all out to create something truly amazing that fits the theme. For example, if it’s Cake Week, the judges might ask for a landscape cake with a whole scene in edibles.

I am a bread baker, somewhat new to baking bread as I had always thought it too intimidating. I’ve been baking bread about a year and a half or so. Not too long. I love baking bread. It tastes good, and it provides just the right amount of challenge coupled with simplicity—after all, it’s mostly just flour, water, salt, and yeast. I have had a sourdough starter going for about 15 months.  I started watching The Great British Bake Off thinking I would find it entertaining since I like to bake. I didn’t really expect to learn anything from the show, and not because I’m an expert or anything, but mainly because I don’t usually learn much from television or video. I generally have to read books. I actually will read cookbooks cover to cover. However, aside from learning a few things about baking that I didn’t expect to learn, I also noticed the show teaches a few important skills and competencies that it would be good for all students to learn.

First, the show asks contestants to apply their knowledge about a variety of baking skills, from cookies (or biscuits) to cakes to bread to pastries. All aspects of baking are important: the appearance, the flavors, the ability to follow instructions and deliver what is asked. Each week’s three challenges offer an opportunity to demonstrate different skills:

  • What can you produce within the confines of certain expectations with time to practice?
  • What can you produce bringing to bear what you know about baking when you are giving a challenging task?
  • What can you make that will really impress?

These skills could be applied to other kinds of learning. What if an art class tried these three different challenges? A Showcase with a chance to paint something you know well? A Technical that challenges you to apply a skill, such as stippling, to create a painting? A Technical that challenges you to apply an array of painting skills to create something.

What if a writing class gave students a Showcase challenge that allowed them to write in a genre of their choice about a topic? A Technical that gave a topic and challenged students to write in a specified genre? A Showstopper that asked students to write in several different genres on a topic?

These ideas are obviously not fully formed, but I must admit when I watch this show, several things impress me. The contestants take feedback really well and learn from it. They demonstrate a great deal of resilience and dedication to learning. They have to display a wide array of baking skills, probably far more than the average home baker usually knows. As I mentioned before, they are really supportive of each other. I have actually seen several contestants help others when they’re struggling.

I can’t help but wonder what might happen in a classroom that looked a little bit like The Great British Bake Off.

Reflection on Grades: A Student’s Perspective

stress photo

Tomorrow I start the second quarter of my doctoral program, and I’m reflecting on last quarter. I am studying assessment, particularly grades and why they are not effective. I believe they reduce motivation, increase anxiety, and don’t actually tell us what students have learned. We can absolutely assess student learning without grades. I know many schools have gone gradeless, and I am hoping my research will help me explore the best ways to assess students.

My experience as a student being graded myself for the first time in a while was interesting. Though I was studying assessment and grading and knew what was happening intellectually with my anxiety and motivation, I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on my grades. I will not go so far as to say I was motivated by my grades. Quite the opposite: I was terrified of my grades. For me, they weren’t a carrot, but a stick. And the strange thing is that I did very well last quarter. I did as well as I possibly could do. And the better I did, the more anxious I became because I felt like I had to maintain it. At a certain point, I was incredibly anxious just a single point would be taken off. That’s just ridiculous.

One night, I dreamed that one of my professors told me she would need to give me a bad grade on an assignment, and she also said I wouldn’t be able to revise. I remember feeling frustrated because each assignment seemed important for my learning, and if I really hadn’t done well, I needed to revise. Otherwise, what was the point of the assessment?

My dream never came true. I really enjoyed what I learned in my courses. I was able to have rich discussions with peers, and the assignments were really helpful in focusing my research and teaching me what I needed to know in order to move forward. I received good feedback from my professors and peers. I enjoyed the readings.

I’m writing this reflection for a couple of reasons. The first is that I need to be kind to myself and not focus as much on my grades from now on because the stress I put on myself was harmful. My back stayed clenched just about all quarter. I just need to remember the grades are not as important as the learning. I know they are not. They are meant to be feedback, even I believe they are imperfect feedback at best and incredibly harmful at worst.

The second reason I’m writing this is I might be just like a student in your class. When one of my students expressed anxiety over a small grade drop, I was much more empathetic with her than I might have been in the past because I was anxious about the same issues. I understood it wasn’t about a couple of points. The problem is deeper than that. And yet we call students “grade grubbers” and tell them not to focus on the minutiae, but at the same time, we tell them over and over how important grades are. And some of us, and you know who you are, insist the learning is important, but make no provision for revision.

I feel much more empathy for my students in general after going back to school. I would never characterize myself as lacking empathy, but the quality of my empathy has changed. One day my students came in stressed out over grades, college applications, graduation projects, and I don’t know what all. I asked them if they wanted to do a meditation exercise, so we used my iPhone app and did one. One of them gave me a shout out in morning meeting for “taking care of” them.

My goal is to prevent, as much as possible, causing undue stress. For the first time this year, I added a section to my course outline, which I adapted from my colleague Matt Miller:

Taking Care of Yourself

As a student, you may experience challenges that interfere with your learning—strained relationships, increased anxiety, feeling down, difficulty concentrating, and/or lack of motivation. These mental health concerns or stressful events may diminish your academic performance and/or reduce your ability to participate in daily activities.

It is important that you take time to take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep, and taking time to relax. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress. If this class is the result of undue amounts of stress on you, please come discuss your concerns with me so that we can work on a solution to help you better manage your stress.

If you or anyone you know experiences serious academic stress, difficult life events or feelings of anxiety or depression, I strongly encourage you to seek support from a parent, teacher, advisor, coach, or counselor. Please let me know if I can assist you with this any way.

Be kind to your kids. And if you’re not being kind to yourself, fix that, too.

The World Might Be Better Off if We Rethink Education

I want to discuss an article my friend Robert tweeted about yesterday.

This paragraph in particular:

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

One of the best compliments I ever received from a student (thank you, Tali!) was that my class was “relevant.” And she said it because we studied literature (poetry is, by the way, literature, so I’m unclear why the two were separated). We read The Bluest Eye, and Tali wrote an essay about how the novel reflected modern unrealistic notions about beauty standards. She researched the lengths people go to alter their appearance and the mental health effects of being unable to accept and love ourselves as we are. Don’t try to tell me literature isn’t relevant. It shows us who we are, and it shows us others who are not like us. It gives us an opportunity to understand our world. It is one thing for school to prepare us to make a living. It also needs to prepare us to make a life, which is a point Professor Caplan seems to have missed in his argument that the humanities, in particular, are irrelevant. I would challenge anyone in Professor Robin Bates’s English class to tell me what he teaches isn’t relevant.

I can’t understand anyone who would argue we don’t need to study history. A lack of understanding of history is precisely how we wound up in our current political situation. I suppose I want to know who the typical student is, also, because I would argue we should all be well-rounded. The content is not as important as wrestling with the ideas, developing critical thinking and communication skills, and having a greater understanding of our world and all the ways in which it works. It doesn’t make studying the content “useless.”

Caplan argues that “Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory [of educational signaling],” meaning that it doesn’t really matter what you study in college—you will exhibit certain traits employers are looking for just because you have done college work at a certain level. The first thing that’s wrong with the argument is doing work to get grades. People who are intrinsically interested in a topic will do the work regardless, but people who are doing the work for a grade are not intrinsically motivated. The work is a means to a different end. And that’s exactly what is wrong with school. Grades. We need to get rid of grading because it gets in the way of learning.

Caplan also mentions learning loss:

The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. Teachers often lament summer learning loss: Students know less at the end of summer than they did at the beginning.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Memorizing facts? Students will not forget what they apply and what they teach to others. Caplan adds that “Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use.” True. What kind of knowledge are we talking about, though? If I can look it up or store it somewhere, I’m not going to stuff it in my brain somewhere because I have a lot going on, and I am not wasting space remembering what I can look up. That’s why, for example, if something I need to remember to do isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. We do need to make a compelling case for the relevance of what we teach students, or rather, what we ask students to learn. That does not mean college isn’t for everyone who wants to go.

Caplan truly reveals his hand when he remarks, “I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines.”

Frankly, if this is your attitude, you should not be teaching because you do not love your students. It’s classist garbage.

Caplan maintains, “Those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world. This scarcely occurs.” Then the problem is the way college professors teach the scientific method (or whatever else you care to use as an example), right? It stands to reason we should at least examine that it is possible that college professors are not helping students apply what they are learning. After all, Caplan says, “Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.” That’s because EXAMS ARE NOT APPLICATION. They are not good assessments if we want students to learn what we hope they will learn. They are easy to grade, but as I said before, grades don’t have a connection to learning. I haven’t given an exam in years, and I don’t anticipate ever giving an exam for the rest of my career. Why? Precisely because it teaches students to cram a lot of information into their heads, dump it out on the test, and then forget it. Just as Howard Gardner argues in a quote Caplan uses in the article:

Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.

Being “formally instructed and tested” on a topic doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Are instructors asking students what they have learned? They might be surprised. So what is Caplan doing to change things? Not much. As he says, “I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization.”

Caplan is expecting that because he lectures, students are learning. What is he asking his students to do to apply their understandings of economics? What research projects are they taking on?  What sorts of research-based writing are they doing? What sorts of questions are they wrestling with in Socratic discussion?

Caplan adds, right after his remark about being cynical about students, that he’s “cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring.” I don’t disagree with Caplan here. I’m not sure if I think the vast majority are uninspiring, but I do think teachers who lecture and expect students will retain everything they say and then measure understanding with exams are probably uninspiring. And a large number of teachers do assess in this way.

Educators—at all levels, including and maybe especially college—need to take a hard look at themselves and understand how they teach affects the results they are hoping to achieve. They need to know who they are teaching. They need to stop shaming their students and blaming them for not learning, especially when the way they are teaching students results in the lack of learning and understanding that they decry in their students.