Timeliness and grading

Last week I posted a link to an Edmonton Journal article about a teacher who assigns no grades until the end of term. I’d like to reflect on this practice a bit. Today’s post started off with one idea and quickly veered in an unexpected direction. I expect to follow up with something closer to the original target.

I have argued many times about the importance of feedback to students (and to teachers). In short, I (and the empirical evidence) support the notions that:

  1. Students need to fully understand the criteria for success in their work,
  2. Students need clear and timely feedback on the degree to which they meet these criteria, and
  3. Student learning is contingent on a number of factors including
    1. Student prior knowledge
    2. Student skill level, and
    3. Numerous cognitive properties of the student.

In short, students have differing properties, backgrounds and learning trajectories. They require differing amounts of time, practice and review. The amount of variation in each classroom is smaller than you might imagine (though not always so) but it is most certainly not zero.

So let’s take a moment to look at a curricular outcome. Arbitrarily, I’ll pick Grade 7 Science in the province of Alberta. Under Heat and Temperature, we have the following outcome:

  1. Students will…apply an understanding of heat and temperature in interpreting natural phenomena and technological devices
  • describe ways in which thermal energy is produced naturally (e.g., solar radiation, combustion of fuels, living things, geothermal sources and composting)
  • describe examples of passive and active solar heating, and explain the principles that underlie them (e.g., design of homes to maximize use of winter sunshine)
  • compare and evaluate materials and designs that maximize or minimize heat energy transfer (e.g., design and build a device that minimizes energy transfer, such as an insulated container for hot drinks; evaluate different window coatings for use in a model home)
  • explain the operation of technological devices and systems that respond to temperature change (e.g., thermometers, bimetallic strips, thermostatically-controlled heating systems)
  • describe and interpret the function of household devices and systems for generating, transferring, controlling or removing thermal energy (e.g., describe in general terms the operation of heaters, furnaces, refrigerators and air conditioning devices)
  • investigate and describe practical problems in controlling and using thermal energy (e.g., heat losses, excess energy consumption, damage to materials caused by uneven heating, risk of fire) (page 20)

(Please note that I’m omitting information from other documents, and explanatory material from the source document to make this readable.)

It’s pretty easy to think of what you’d like to do to teach this to students. But how do you know you’ve completely covered Outcome #3? That’s a very difficult question. For a new teacher in an urban school, the answer is that you ask your colleagues what they do, and you look at last year’s tests to give yourself models for instruction as well as templates for your own tests and assignments. In a small or rural school, you may not have access to colleagues or old tests, so now what?

Textbooks provide some guidance. If the textbook is approved, then it must have the right depth of coverage, at least in theory. And BONUS: some textbooks come with sample tests!

Need I tell you how little I like both of the above suggestions? I do think that tradition matters, and I do think that our colleagues are valuable resources and I do think that approved textbooks are valuable. Absolutely. But they are only part of the story. You, as a teacher, need to get both inside the outcome as well as inside your students’ prior knowledge.

Think for a moment about how you would demonstrate your knowledge with respect to the quoted material. What does it mean to “describe ways in which thermal energy is produced naturally”? How many ways? To what level of detail? If a student says “burning wood is a natural way to produce thermal energy” how much of this bullet point have they achieved? Suppose another students says that, “burning wood converts chemical energy to thermal energy, resulting is the release of water and carbon dioxide and a residue of carbon and unburnt chemicals are left behind.” Are we at 100% yet? How do we assess what the student knows here? Maybe students should be working through the chemistry of burning. Maybe they should be doing heat calculations? Maybe qualitative description is all that is necessary. Maybe all of the above.

(As a quick aside, this example shows the importance of the teacher being well informed in the area. There are so many great directions this unit of study could go, it would be a pity if it were taught by someone with no knowledge of the subject other than what’s in the inherited binder!)

Let’s assume that the teacher has worked out some tentative answers to what is expected of the students. Perhaps it involves increasing levels of complexity, with some approaches to the explanation being sufficient to receive a passing grade, others earning a solid B (or some percentage or what have you) and others being required for an A. This might be reasonable. Now, what’s to stop every student in the class from getting the A? Usually, it’s the assessment infrastructure that’s the problem.

You see, in the interests of time and efficiency, teachers tend to provide instruction and supervision, followed by minor quizzes and assignments, culminating in a “unit test”. Once the unit test is complete, students probably will not be assessed on the material again until the final examination. This is a nice routine and it is efficient, but does it really give every student the full opportunity to achieve the outcomes of the course? Obviously not. But what’s the alternative?

One alternative is to change the nature of assessment. Who says you have to have unit tests at the end of instruction? You will run out of time in the course, and it may be institutionally necessary to assign a grade at that point. (Although there is no reason courses couldn’t be spread over more than one school year.)

Let’s just try for a moment to imagine a classroom where student understanding and achievement are conceptualized as existing on a continuum. I’m not advocating throwing out what we currently do; rather I want teachers to view their judgments as existing in time, and as able to be revised as new evidence of learning emerges.

Don’t just write a test score in your book, make note of each outcome, and the degree to which you believe that the student has achieved it. In the example above, a student may do work to demonstrate a rudimentary understanding of, say, passive and active solar heating in September. But given a chance to demonstrate again, deeper knowledge may be in evidence. In a project in February, the student may show further learning and understanding—indeed, why wouldn’t s/he? Perhaps on tests later in the year, more opportunity to show different depth of understanding might be presented—perhaps mathematical or chemical or physical in nature. In short, there are very good reasons not to keep the original assessment, because it has ceased to be an accurate measure of the student’s understanding.

And this is key. We sample in spots of time when we give tests, quizzes or what have you. But the child in June is not developmentally the same as the child in September. I could make ethical and emotional appeals to giving chances and breaks to students—and they should be compelling. Instead, I want to appeal today to accuracy. If the grades you assign are to accurately measure the student’s achievement, they have to be revisable—really, meaningfully revisable—over the entire period of study. And if you want students to learn—and if you don’t you’re in the wrong profession—then use these opportunities to foster continued learning and to provide the feedback and assistance required for your students to learn as much as possible over as long a period as you have them in your care.

4 thoughts on “Timeliness and grading

  1. IMO, there are exactly two reasons to give a test:

    1) To sort students.
    2) To help students learn more.

    I believe reason #1 is the main reason tests (in particular, standardized tests) are given. We know this because for most standardized tests, teachers and students get no feedback at all about what items have been missed and why. Certainly by the time results of any kind are received, the student has moved on to a new teacher.

    If the purpose of a test is to learn more, then it needs to be designed as such, and teachers need to treat them as such. Why, then, would there then need to be a score? When was the last time your tennis coach gave you a precise grade on your backhand? Would that have helped you play tennis better?

    The same can be said for end of term grades. To my mind, there are two reasons to give end of term grades:

    1) To sort students
    2) To let the student know what the teacher thinks of the student’s ability over the term.

    Again, how is knowing that I’m a 65 student and not a 75 student meaningful in terms of improving my learning? How does it point me in the direction that I need to go in order to improve in the future?

    So, basically, the reason for grades is to sort students. Once we acknowledge that, we can then have an honest discussion of whether such sorting is a good thing or a bad thing.


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