Marks or Learning?

Part of my teaching load this semester is Pre-AP English 9. This group of students is highly motivated, and I love teaching them. They are very good about completing their homework, they are outstanding when it comes to participating in class, and they are ultra respectful. They are also keenly interested in their grades. They are driven by attaining a numerical standard, for which I have no reference point. What constitutes an 83% versus an 81%?

Part of what got me thinking about this again was a few weeks ago when report cards were due. I have one student who has failed a few assignments and does homework about half the time. I was expecting a grade in the high 50s or low 60s. After I entered a few grades, I decided to check to see how everyone was “doing.” I was shocked to see a high 70. Based on the quality of work I’ve seen, this grade seems disproportionate to the skills the student has demonstrated. Another student, on the other hand, had about the same grade, yet has showed significantly more ability. Needless to say, I was puzzled and dismayed.

Another complexity that has me thinking about this is the issue of getting on the honour roll. For the most part, my English class students are pretty much all on the honour roll. They get their grades back, quickly do a an average and figure out if they attained the above 80% standard or not. I don’t know if I am completely able to justify what makes a student less than an 80%, especially when some of my students with lower grades work harder than the students with the highest grades.

To complicate the issue, I have been living in a strange vortex with my teaching load as well — I also teach Modified Science 9. My science crew are pleasantly happy when I return passing grades, but otherwise have no vested interest in the number that appears on their report card. They operate on a pass-fail mentality. As long as they have 50.0 or higher, they are doing great in their minds.

Both classes are leaving me with a bit of a dilemma. I am working to create valuable learning experiences, only to slap a number on it and shatter dreams if it isn’t the number they want. I have a few solutions for how to remedy this situation, because I’m feeling like a terrible teacher for not instilling a better sense of wonder and excitement about learning (rather than an obsession with numbers).

Firstly, I tried out outcome-based grading last year in math, and it worked fairly well for everyone involved. I was able to translate exactly what a number meant, and the students knew where they stood exactly. I am grappling with how to use this technique in English right now, since everything we do seems to be covering 302378039843238 different outcomes and indicators. Currently, I’m thinking that it might be best to design a series of general rubrics for each strand — reading, writing, representing, viewing, listening, and speaking. I am weary, however, because I don’t want to short-change my students by over-generalizing their work. I would be remiss to only score an essay based on one strand, writing.  Each writing piece also has so many intricacies. Would I, however, be able to score an essay on writing, representing, and reading, depending on the content of assignment? I haven’t worked out the fine details, but I’m considering this my Christmas project to iron out some key points of how to implement this assessment in an English classroom.

The second remedy I’ve been toying with is self-assessment. I had the blessing of taking two classes from Dean Shareski in university. For the second course I took with Dean, he implemented a self-assessment plan. He gave use lots of great assignments with a wide-variety of choice. I can honestly say that I worked my butt off for that class. I knew that I wanted to get a 90% in his class, so I worked hard to make sure I got it and deserved it. I know that self-assessment can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Some students will give themselves more than they deserve after slacking off and some students will give themselves less than they deserve after working really hard. I don’t know exactly what my self-assessment piece is going to look like, but I need to build one in to add a sense of ownership for my numbers-driven students.

I won’t ever be able to undo their love of numbers. I probably won’t ever be able to escape it, though I will try. What I can do, though, is tie a meaning to a number, rather than it being an arbitrary digit with no significant meaning beyond “I’m passing” or “I’m failing.”

Here’s where I’m at right now: once I get some outcome-based grading rubrics set up, my students could use them as a scale for formative and summative self-assesment. Their thoughts might sound like this: “I want to get a 5. Today, based on the rubric, I think I’m sitting at a 3. This is what I need to do to get from 3 to 5.” Of course, this won’t happen overnight, and it may not happen in a semester either, but I am going to try.

Of course, it would be unfair to my students to walk into class tomorrow with a brand new grading system. I want to get it right, so I will likely begin to develop different assessment resources for myself (and find a bunch too) to begin testing them on student work to help iron out the kinks. I can’t say what my teaching load will be next semester, but if I can figure out how to make the jump from math to ELA, I think I just might be able to make it work for any subject.

How have you implemented Outcome-Based grading in your classroom (or SBG if you’re from the states)? Any tricks of the trade? What do you do to alleviate the pressure students put on themselves for a grade?

 

4 thoughts on “Marks or Learning?

  1. Pingback: RT @shareski: Marks or Learning? Looking for feedb… | EducatorAl's Tweets

  2. I feel your frustration. I am a VP at high school that is trying to get outcome based assessment working successfully for us. The math and science seems to be working out well but the “302378039843238 different outcomes and indicators” is not so easily ‘marked’. Converting outcome assessments to a number is challenge. Here’s how I have my ELA 9 setup: There is basically 19 outcomes when you combine A and B, each of these represent a category in my gradebook. When an assignment is given, a rubric or grading scale accompanies it which includes which outcome(s) is needed to complete the assessment and what would represent a 4/4, etc. These rubrics do change based on which indicator we are choosing to look at (but remember it’s still all tied back to the outcome anyways so give them a ‘mark’ for that outcome). Each assessment might look at two or three outcomes, so there marks would be divided amongst those three ‘categories’ in my grade book (ie got 76% on outcome 1 and 89% on outcome 2 part of the assessment). Does this make sense at all?

    If I can help, I am available!

  3. I’ve posed the question to several of my classes– what if we did away with numerical grading and everything was pass/fail based on curriculum outcomes? While some felt that weaker students may be more motivated because of the lessened competition, others pointed out that they need that feeling of competition to succeed. It’s a tricky balance focusing on learning as opposed to the number. At the end of the day, that’s what post-secondary institutions are looking at.

    • You raise a very intriguing argument, Mike. I am hoping that education will move toward less “competition” and more toward love of learning, but that will take a looooonnngggg time to undo. I completely relate to my students on this one too–I’m far too competitive for my own safety, but hopefully my students will enjoy moving toward mastery knowing full-well that they could, in theory, score the coveted “100%” in my class with a bit of elbow grease.

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