Sunday, April 14, 2013

On Grades, Grading, and Educational Reality

I am writing this post as a response to a blog post by Dr Bernard Bull on Five Common Reasons for the Importance of Letter Grade. I am not necessarily arguing with Dr. Bull's comments but instead I am using them as a starting point for my own thinking about grades in a teacher education program. That is I do not fundamentally disagree with the points made in the post that seem to be aimed at the overabundance of the letter grade in secondary schools.

For full disclosure I would like to point out that I hate grading. As my 9 year old son says "I hate [...]. I know it's a strong word but that is just how I feel". I know I am not alone in this. As a result I have tried to effectively do away with grading in some of my classes. I have yet to make it work. Now, about a decade ago most students in our program received A's almost always making it effectively a Pass/Fail structure. It is not like that anymore and that is an improvement.

My students seem to have been conditioned by years of letter grades. They are masters of counting points, figuring out averages and what they need to do to get the grade they want. I would love to take all that energy and turn it into a focus on mastery and field based performance. This just doesn't happen, sometimes it even backfires. So here are my five consequences of moving away from grading on an individual instructor basis.

1. External evaluation. Outside agencies (in my case NE dept of ed) have set criteria for performance defined in certification requirements. Without grades my students cannot be certified. More than that regulations prevent me from creating Pass/Fail grades in certain classes.

2. When I have a class that de-emphasizes grades my students seem to be making strategic decisions that seem to be something like this: Guy does not grade us, so, since R. P. and Q. do I will put more of my time in these classes so I can keep my GPA.

3. After many semester of frustration with the low levels of reading before class I finally asked my students what would compel them to read they answered "quizzes, give us quizzes". That for me goes back to the idea of conditioning. I think in their minds if it doesn't carry a grade it isn't important.

4. Students clearly want to be recognized for effort and hard work in ways that count. I still remember a student who thanked me for having grades that she perceived as being fair because those who were not invested actually got a grade that reflected it.

5. Students are motivated to redo assignments and reach mastery because the grade is a meaningful consequence. For me it is the reverse math from number 2.

So... Any change to grading has to be wider than any one teacher, instructor and to consider outside demands. We also must consider how to slowly change the perception of students. Moving away from grades we will essentially have to retrain their brains after 12-14 years of schooling, not an easy task. Perhaps we can borrow from the feedback that video games provide- in the form of badges, awards and small markers that signal mastery and capacity to meet standards.

I started this blog post from a this can't be done stance but as I write this I can see some potential for systemic change relying on technology as a rich and quick feedback loop. hmm...

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