Saturday, January 9, 2010

Grades, Learning, and Motivation

The other day the principal at my school sent along a query from an administrator from a school in California who was asking for a response to some questions about grades and how they impact student attitudes toward learning. They are good questions, and I decided to take a shot at answering them. The answers I have come up with are provisional and represent my attempt to come up with something that makes sense to me. They certainly don't represent an official statement of school policy. And even as I re-read what I have written, I see places where I could come up with equally plausible arguments which would contradict much of what I am saying here. But, for what it's worth, here's what I wrote. Or a version of what I wrote, I've taken the opportunity to do some elaborations here.

1. How does your grading policy enhance or compromise your school's educational philosophy or mission statement?

Well, it has the potential to do either, or both. We have had many discussions on campus over the years about grading and its impact on the learning process. Some teachers go out of their way to avoid or de-emphasize grades (using portfolio assessments, for example, or simply maintaining an atmosphere of purposeful vagueness with regard to grades) on the grounds that they artificialize they learning process, providing extrinsic motivation at the expense of the intrinsic motivation we might aspire as educators to enhance. Other teachers — and I would count myself in this group — feel that grades, despite the potential downside, do provide immediate feedback to students about their performance, letting them know what they are doing well and what they need to work on. Furthermore, grades represent a language that everyone understands, a sort of universal currency. Even if they don't agree with the logic of the grading system, and even if what the grade may actually signify in terms of performance may vary from school to school or class to class, everybody understands the logic of A, B, C, D, and F. Grades are, for better or worse, the common currency of quality evaluation in school. They are expected, and there is no easier way to drive some students (and some parents) crazy than to withhold information from them about their grades. (I have a few stories I could tell of my own in which I found myself at loggerheads with teachers who I felt were not being transparent about their grading procedures with my own children, thankfully now all grown and apparently none the worse for wear.) My own practice has been to give grades early and often, but to allow students who are so motivated to revise and resubmit any work for which they feel the grade is not satisfactory. Discussion about grades, the logic of grades, the criteria on which grades are based, the design and evolution of the rubrics in place, the distinction between importance of the grade itself and the importance of the work, the process, and the product: all of these subjects provide opportunities for purposeful dialogue with students about what quality is, how it can be assessed, and how it can be achieved.

2. How do you differentiate between formative and summative assessment in your school? What kinds of assessments do teachers at your school value?

Our summative assessments are essentially our final exams at the end of each semester, which are mandated in every department except English. All other quizzes, tests, exercises, and assignments are in essence formative: they are mean to convey useful information to students about where they are and what might come next. We have for many years used a modular schedule in which most classes meet either three or four days per six-day cycle. This schedule creates holes in both teacher and students schedules, and those holes provide many opportunities for students to visit their teachers privately and meet with them in conference to review their work and decide on next steps.

3. What kinds of pressure does the school feel from parents about grades? Is this a problem in your school?

Parents of course are concerned about grades, but my experience as a teacher at this school and also as a public school teacher in Massachusetts has been that parents are generally very open to dialogue and willing to cooperate with the teacher in trying to figure out how to support the student's efforts to do well. When a student is not doing well, or does not seem to be interested in doing well, we try to focus on the reasons for that. We try to maintain a focus on the student and not on the grade, and students and parents seem to respect and respond well to that.

4. What do you see as impediments to authentic learning in your school?

There's no question that some students get themselves worked up about grades, and impose stresses upon themselves that are related to their assumption that they have to get into a certain college or they have to have a perfect GPA. When students wind up walking themselves out onto that ledge, teachers and counselors and deans all make an effort to talk them down. So yes, that's a problem, but it's not the biggest problem. Frankly, I see two large impediments to authentic learning in most schools. The first is those teachers, fortunately a minority, who insist on ramming content learning within their own discipline down the throats of kids on the dubious assumption that the students "need" to learn this material in this way in order to be successful in college and life. I don't buy it. I would be hard put to identify any one particular set of skills or competencies, beyond the ability to read and write and cipher, that are truly essential. I'm not saying kids don't need skills: they do. But the skills one kid needs to be happy may be completely different than those another kid is going to need. One size does not fit all, nor should it. Throughout my lifetime as a student, a parent, and a teacher, I've been actively opposed to the "my way or the highway" school of pedagogy, precisely on the grounds that it is an impediment to authentic learning.

The second is the impact of pop culture in the US today — including pro sports, rap music, reality TV shows, Ultimate Fighting, online gaming, and so on and so on and so on — which is in itself inauthentic, and which makes a dedication or even an accommodation to academic success publicly unacceptable to our boys and young men. A young man today can win the admiration of his peers by being an athlete or a rock star or a surfer or a stoner or a gamer. A young man who is an aspiring scholar or writer or scientist is going to have a much rougher road to hoe with his peers, and to ask that student to have an authentic experience in learning is to ask him to work against the social and interpersonal systems that define him. I'm overgeneralizing perhaps. But not by much. It's certainly not impossible for such a student to succeed, even succeed brilliantly, but such successes are much less frequent and much more dearly bought than they should be in a country that prides itself on its tradition of individualism and free choice.

5. What motivates students to learn at your school and what role do grades play in that? Are there structural/systems pieces that support student motivation outside of grades? What are those?

I think the pedagogical goal is to create environment which honors the individual student and gives that student the chance to ask, and to keep asking, what I consider to be the core questions that generate learning: Who am I? What do I care about? What kind of a person do I want to be? What's my responsibility to others? What do I hope to accomplish? How can I do that? We should ask students to revisit and reflect on these questions in various ways all the way from Kindergarten to Grade 12. I think that getting students engaged in taking those questions seriously essentially makes questions of motivation disappear. Students who aren't motivated tend to be students who can't see the connection between what they care about and what they are doing in school. As educators we should try to help them find that connection, every day, in every subject.

6.What are the emotional issues for students with very low and/or very high grades? How do you address those?

Students with high grades sometimes seem to get stuck on maintaining a high GPA as opposed to maintaining a high curiosity quotient. That can create emotional and attitudinal problems. But again, I don't think it has to. If those students are also addressing the questions I just ran through, it can help to defuse the problems. Students with low grades have other issues. Again, I think it's best to talk with the student about what's going on and work from there.

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