Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Learning: the struggle in going gradeless

by Mark Heintz

I struggle with grading.  Not keeping up with it, but rather assigning a grade as a measurement of learning.  Maybe the struggle comes from my own experience.  As a student, I was a grade manipulator.  I wasn’t a point-grubber, more of a...okay, I was a point-grubber.   In school, my goal was the grade.  As the teacher handed the syllabus to me on the first day of school, I combed through the categories to find out the most efficient way to get a 90.1%. I love a detailed syllabus. The more information the better.  It gave me the rules on how to earn the grade I wanted. The whole process became a game for me, and I enjoyed how to game the system.

Each teacher had their own rules, and my part to play was to earn points.  I played the game fairly well in high school, but things escalated beyond just manipulating a syllabus. Now, I could game the system even more because I could pick the teacher.  I asked, snooped, around to find out teacher reputations on their system before signing up for the class.  In this system, I knew the teacher held most of the power.  I know the teacher’s intention was for me to learn, but my objective was to get points.


Despite all of the manipulation, I loved to learn.  Grades and learning just didn’t go together for me.  That being said, I never tried to get out of anything. When I was assigned work, I would do it.  I just was efficient and completed it quickly in order to get to my interests.  One of the best parts of college was that the abundance of free time allowed me to explore what I wanted.  Each semester I read books, just not the ones in the syllabus.  I talked to people outside my major about their passions.  My utopia version of school would have been just going to different classes all day, simply talking to others and diving into things I was curious about.  I loved connecting with others and learning for the sake of learning. From that love, I became a teacher.

As a teacher

As a new teacher, and like most people new to a profession, I thought I would be different. I could make the grade book represent learning.  I knew the student tricks and throughout my first decade as a teacher, I changed grading practices in an attempt to have the grade book represent what a student had learned.  I tinkered with my categories, did grade replacement, allowed retakes, and only counted major exams  Ultimately though, I became part of the system I manipulated. No matter how much I shifted, I continued to create conditions just like my teachers had, that made me all-powerful in determining a student’s grade.  My ultimate power continued the trend of having most students playing a game to accumulate as many points as possible.  No matter how much I tinkered, I could only deemphasize the importance of the points, but it still remained the most important goal.  In the end, the goal wasn’t learning.

In my course, there was a mandatory curriculum.  To cover the material, I used a textbook.  Students struggled to understand what was important.  Some spent hours each night digesting the material and others gave up because the task was too daunting.  To help them I used reading guides, but then students copied each other or hunted for the information needed not really understand anything. For this course, I needed the students to get the information and what I was doing wasn’t working.  Either the kids gamed the system or it simply didn’t work for them.  I ditched the textbook.  I created videos and questions that students would complete after viewing.  I put these into Schoology checklists and made them required.  I emphasized that all students would need to complete each checklist. It was compulsory and efficient like my learning had been.  I told each student what they needed to know.  To ensure all kids would complete the work, each had to finish the checklist before they could take the exam. To move away from the point-grubbing, nothing went into the grade book if they completed it.  They simply got to take the test.  From this system, kids spent less time on their work, actually did it, and my scores improved.

Something's wrong

Yet, I knew something wasn’t right.  While the system worked for some, there were inherent flaws.  Some kids did all of the work the way it was intended and still struggled to pass. Others gamed the system by fast forwarding the videos and just taking the quizzes. I found that some of the kids who gamed the system earned the highest scores.  Neither one of those things should happen if the system was about learning.  Reflecting on the system I created, I realized that the system emphasized completion not learning.

Ultimately, having to assign a grade gets in the way of learning.  I understand that and the importance in the role a grade plays for a students future.  Despite that conflict, I continue to deemphasize the grade and have it be about the learning.   In that attempt, last year I made another change in order for the class to focus on learning.  I did this at the end of the year, before the final.  I made a simple Google form. There were three questions: What did you learn? What grade do you think you earned? Why do you think you earned it?  After reading through their responses, I only disagreed with a handful of students; Most of which judged themselves too harshly.  For the few others who I disagreed with, their reflection opened my mind to their experience.  Many students cited their effort as a validation of earning a grade, but others detailed how they collaborated, learned about themselves, changed habits, and just an overall changed in abilities. A lot of that reflection is difficult to easily compute into a grade or empirically assess with traditional metrics.  Asking them their thoughts allowed for their journey to be seen.

Students know their experience more than anyone.  The purpose of the class is for them.  As I continued to want the importance of the grade to drop, I realized I needed the students to be viewed as a partner in determining the grade.  I don’t want them to game the system as I had.  I wanted it to be a journey where they are learning, not just grabbing at points to get the A. The problem with last year: I did it at the end of the year.  It wasn’t a partnership.  It was an afterthought.  Even though I did value their responses, the students didn’t know how much I valued it.  I learned that I need to be transparent in the value I placed in their responses. The process can’t just be lip service; Another thing that they do, but ultimately has no influence.

The present

Which gets to this year.  I asked my students the same three questions every time I have had to formally submit a grade, with two additional ones: What are you proud of? What would you do differently if you could go back in time and redo the time that has passed in this semester?  Again, I learned about their journey.  The two additional questions revealed more about who they were. Anyone that I disagreed with or needed more information, I held a conference with them.  I got clarification on the points they made or what happened in class. After that, I submitted the grade.  So far, I have never felt better about finalized grades.  Some student anxiety has been alleviated and I don’t feel that I have as many students point-grubbing.  I feel that students are learning. The grade is an afterthought.  They know they can argue to make a change.  They know they have a voice in the process other than just the assessments I use.  It has become a partnership.  Something it should always be.


A special thanks to Kim Miklusak for feedback and edits on this post.  She is the best English teacher I never had.

No comments:

Post a Comment