No marks? Without marks, why would a student bother to study?

Today, I’m simply copying the text from a news article in the Edmonton Journal. If you refer to today’s entry, please give credit to the Journal and not to me. I’ll discuss this in a day or two. For now, take some time to consider this strange approach to high school mathematics.

If ever there was a time to sound off in the comment section this is it. I’m looking forward to responding.–John

EDMONTON – High school math teach­er Dave Martin has stopped grad­ing his stu­dents’ as­sign­ments with per­cent­age marks.

In­stead, the Red Deer teach­er writes com­ments on homework and unit exams, then urges stu­dents to fix mis­takes and dem­on­strate their know­ledge again.

For one of his mid-terms, Martin asked his stu­dents what mark they want­ed and why, “and as long as they could jus­tify it, I gave it to them,” said Martin, who made a pres­en­ta­tion about his teach­ing meth­ods just over a week ago at the Great­er Edmonton Teachers Conference.

“It was real­ly in­ter­est­ing because people didn’t take ad­van­tage of this … My class aver­age, when I did that, was lower than what it usu­al­ly is.”

Math edu­ca­tion has been a lightning rod for de­bate in Alberta and across the coun­try re­cent­ly, sparking pro­tests and a back-to-basics cam­paign that prompted for­mer edu­ca­tion min­is­ter Jeff Johnson to make ad­just­ments to Alberta’s K-9 math cur­ricu­lum.

Grad­ing and stu­dent as­sess­ment have also come under scru­tiny.

For­mer phys­ics teach­er Lynden Dor­val made na­tion­al head­lines in the spring of 2012 when he re­fused to fol­low a new pol­icy at Ross Sheppard High School that re­quired teach­ers to stop grad­ing with ze­ros and use be­hav­iour codes.

And a year ago, the Bat­tle River School Division in Camrose de­cid­ed high school stu­dents would again be graded with per­cent­age marks after par­ents and stu­dents fought a con­tro­ver­sial sys­tem that marked stu­dents with one of four achieve­ment lev­els.

It’s not until the end of Martin’s math cours­es that he as­signs each stu­dent a per­cent­age grade, which is re­quired by Alberta Education. To cal­cu­late that grade, Martin looks at the cur­ricu­lum out­comes for the course and fig­ures out what per­cent­age of those out­comes each stu­dent has learn­ed.

“So if a kid gets a 60 per cent (of the out­comes), then I can ac­tual­ly say, here is the 40 per cent he or she doesn’t under­stand, as op­posed to get­ting 60 on every test,” Martin said. “Think about the kid who gets 70 per cent all year. You know what that means? He never ac­tual­ly mas­tered any­thing.”

Martin said he wants stu­dents to learn the course ma­teri­al by the end of the year, so he has stopped pun­ish­ing stu­dents with re­duced marks when they learn the ma­teri­al more slow­ly. That means a stu­dent who makes mis­takes on as­sign­ments but final­ly grasps a con­cept at the end of the course can score the same mark as a stu­dent who aces it from the be­gin­ning, said Martin.

“I’ve been do­ing this for about five years now,” said Martin.

“Why do Eng­lish teach­ers get rough drafts but math teach­ers never al­low stu­dents to have rough drafts? So that’s kind of what I do. I al­low kids to dem­on­strate their learn­ing mul­tiple times … I don’t be­lieve every kid can learn cal­cu­lus by, say, Fri­day, but I do be­lieve every kid can learn calculus.”

Martin started off teach­ing math the way he was taught math but the vast ma­jor­ity of his stu­dents hated it, he said. About 44 per cent of his cal­cu­lus stu­dents failed or dropped out. The rate was sim­i­lar when he com­pared it with other schools. Last se­mes­ter, his drop­out and fail­ure rate was zero.

Students are more in­clined to take on high­er-level math, even math out­side the cur­ricu­lum, if they know they’re not go­ing to be pun­ished for mak­ing a mis­take, he said.

It’s a far less stress­ful way to learn math, but the work isn’t easy, said Grade 12 cal­cu­lus stu­dent Hec­tor Jordan.

“You’ve got to under­stand it fully,” Jordan said. “You end up lik­ing math … Ac­tual­ly, all his class­es are packed.”

Math teach­er Patricia Shoe­maker de­cid­ed to try Martin’s meth­ods with some of her Grade 10 stu­dents a year ago. Now that she grades with com­ments, at­tend­ance has sky­rock­eted at her mini-les­son study ses­sions. Shoe­maker said her stu­dents did as well or bet­ter on a com­mon final math test than other Grade 10 class­es at the school.

“I’m not grad­ing them on if their as­sign­ments are late anymore. I’m not grad­ing them on if they’re mis­sing an as­sign­ment. What I’m grad­ing them on is what they ac­tual­ly under­stand and what the out­comes are.”

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