Grades are a Crutch

Living in Northern New Hampshire, I often feel as though my teaching philosophy leaves me stranded on an island.

I am the only educator I know that uses an iPad to teach.  I am the only educator I know locally that not only believes that grades are punitive and as such am abolishing grades.  I am also the only educator I know that will not be using traditional 3-5 question “reading checks” in my literature course.

In my twitter PLN and conversations I’ve been having with a few people in my PLN (Mark Barnes and Joe Bower) they have helped to guide me that this way of thinking is what’s not only right for me, but right for my students.

My History with Grading

The way my courses are structured are that at least three (3) drafts of each larger paper is created, discussed, revised, edited.  I have 70+ students,  and six larger papers a semester for each student.  Along with these larger papers, my students have weekly writings.  My first semester of teaching, i quickly discovered that the traditional grading scheme was not going to work for me and my students.  I had too many arguments with myself over just what to assign for a grade.  I spent more time over the letter grade than I did reading and writing narrative feedback.  I did this for the first year.

The second year of teaching, I did away with points, percentages and just graded the “final” product.  My dissonance with grading still existed, now it was just more focused.  I hated grading.  Hated placing a B or C on a paper and watching students flip past comments for the grade, look at it and shove their paper in their bags.  It felt as if all my hard work, effort and struggle was negated by that silly letter at the end.

How can I change the motivation of the students?

I don’t think students should “earn” a grade.  I don’t believe grades should be used, as they are often done, TO students without their input.  Grades are punitive and fester competition.  If students are competing with each other, their parents and the system, then when does that leave time for actual learning?  When I take the competitive nature out of the classroom by removing the grades I also take away the external motivation of the students. I no longer am saying to them, complete all areas of this checklist/rubric/etc., tally them up and there is your grade.  Grades are no longer done “to” them.

The motivation is now intrinsic.  I ask my students, “What would you do with more time?” and then give it to them.  This switch in approach triggers the students to want to make their writing better.   This leads to more collaboration between students and teacher and more student ownership.  This student ownership also fosters the change in motivation from outward to intrinsic.

Don’t we all want our students to want to do better because they know they can without being motivated by grades?

Think of how we are “graded” in real world.  Through narrative feedback and conversation with our bosses and peers.  The bank manager doesn’t give their tellers a “C”, why should we in education? Authentic and meaningful feedback is the prefered method of grading post schooling, why not match it in school?

I like to state that education today uses the act of grading as a crutch.  

Teachers, school districts and even the Federal Government assign grades because it looks nice and neat.  Oh, this school is a C school, this one fails.  Teachers manipulate grades in an effort to extort some power and control.  We hear teachers talk about not being able to “do” that activity as their students would go crazy.  The teachers are afraid to lose control or better yet, to transfer that control to the students.  Teachers who stress upon “classroom management” and expect students to sit in the desks, listen attentively and absorb all the education the teachers are pouring into the brains are often frustrated with the structure of school (even though many may not see anything inherently wrong with it).  Teachers rely on the act of grading as their last push for ultimate control of their class.  Hardly ever are students allowed any feedback for the grades they receive or are they allowed to offer their own feedback into what they feel their grades should be.

Losing the Crutch

I have looked at my grading scheme that I thought I had settled on a mere month ago; however, after attending #RSCON3 I am ready (and more than willing) to relinquish full control of my class.  I will not be assigning grades to my students come this fall.  Students will be grading themselves (I predict that they will be harder than I would have been anyways).  My plan to implement this is as follows:

  1. Discuss with students on Day 1 my expectations and what I want them to learn for the course.
  2. Create the courses essential questions together.
  3. Brainstorm a list of ways throughout the semester and with our books on how we can demonstrate not only learning, but mastery too.
  4. Sign students up for days when they lead the classroom discussion.
  5. Conference with the students at least every 2-3 weeks (or as needed) on their progress.
  6. Offer narrative feedback on all assignments and stay away from empty praise.  Note what works, what intrigued me, and question students next steps with the piece.
  7. Sit with the students and watch their work come rolling in.
Okay with Living on an Island…For Now…
I will not mind being an educational island of one come this fall.  I have my PLN that will support me.  I am looking forward to finally being able to teach without the crutch that has slowed me down for the last two years.  I am already imagining what I could do without the stress and the time of grading.
My hope is that one by one I can start to show my fellow educators that they are relying on a crutch while teaching and hope that they can then lose it.  One at a time.

Why 3P Grading?

UPDATE:  After attending #RSCON3 and talking to several ungraders… I have altered my grading plan.  Please see this post instead.  Thanks!

What a Grade Means to Me:

A grade, whether received for a math class or through a work assessment/review, is supposed to reflect how much you’ve learned since the last review/grade. A grade is, at its heart, a measure of progress and learning over a period of time in which you can compare your grade to others.

As a teacher, I have discovered what so many others are starting to discover that grading individual assignments does not work.

Educators are required to submit grades for our students.  However, I do not believe that a grade makes students more  interested, engaged, or a skilled learner, student, writer, reader, or thinker.  In fact, research indicates that grades work against learning and doing.

This semester, I am asking students to assess and their own learning, writing, reading, and thinking.  These will not be assessments created to generate a grade—like rubrics or scoring guides.  The best assessment involves observation, description, interpretation, and an insider’s awareness of what it is like to actually create the products or engage in the kind of thinking and writing we are assessing.

I will not grade individual assignments.  Not only do grades and point systems get in the way of learning, but they also just don’t make any sense, particularly in a course where the work and thinking we’ll do influences itself backwards and forwards.

I want all of the work my students complete throughout the semester integrated with them, the reader and each other.  If I’ve doled out grades, assignment by assignment, why would students want to go back and revise and edit their pieces.  Grades signify that the work is finished and writing, good writing, is never finished.  I want students to have a sense that our work together is  bigger and more important than any number or letter that I  could assign it.  And, indeed, it is.

I will ask students’ work be done on time, in good faith, a term used to describe work in which students have invested thought and time.  If students are thinking, working, and participating in good faith, then I will return your investment; I’ll give students response and feedback—assessment—to help them deepen their understandings and improve the quality of their work.

I needed to find/create/calculate the ideal grading system that would match my core beliefs on grading.  This is where the 3P system comes in.

My Interpretation of the 3P Grading System:  

Student are responsible for assessing themselves, just as I am responsible for assessing them.  Each of our assessments in Participation, Progress, and  Performance will count towards 50% of your final grade.

  • Participation (50%):  It’s worth half your grade.  That should tell you something.  Participation is how you conduct yourself in class.  Participation includes, but not limited to: Attendance (Don’t be late) in body and mind, Be Prepared, Assignments On-Time, Share in Class and Online, Be Respectful, Take Ownership, Be Accountable, Ask for Help.
  •  Progress (30%):  Progress takes into account new learning.  What didn’t you know at the beginning that you know now.  Simply “doing the work” will not cut it.  Two types of progress:  participation progress and academic/knowledge progress.
  • Performance (20%):  This part of grading is strictly in regards to the quality of the work produced. Most people are B/C people.  A vast majority of the population are B/C students and B/C workers.  And that is ok.

I then had to define what each grade “looks” like.  These are rough outlines.  The first day of class, we, as a class, will elaborate on these and agree… as a class.

  • A: Consistently Above and Beyond.  Completed more than asked/expected weekly. One of the very best.  Your work singles you out from the pack.  Perfect participation.
  • B: Occasionally performs above course requirements .  Exceeds expectations 75% of the time.
  • C: Just Enough. Does the bare minimum.  Nothing more, nothing less.
  • D: Didn’t Try.  Assignments do not match the requirements, assignments not complete, products have multiple grammar issues. No revision.
  • F:  Forget about it.  Assignments not passed in.  No effort, negative participation, missed classes.

I am, finally, at peace with grading my students.  I know that when my students see this system, they will experience some dissonance.  Students are so entrenched in the grade game this might come as challenging but I think once the students start working within the system, I really think it will open them and their writing up.

At least I hope so.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Grading is my Achilles Heel

I admit it.

I hate grading and I’ve never had a system that I felt was what I needed it to be.

Since I started teaching in the Fall of 2007, grading is something I’ve struggled with, spent time mulling different incantations of grading systems, read how others graded, looked at how I was graded as a high school student, undergraduate and graduate student.  Looking back, I can honestly state that while I consider myself a voracious, diligent and dedicated student, more than 80% of my courses grading was a game.  Once I figured out how to get my “A,”  I did what was required to get the grade.

As a student, when I deciphered what the teacher wanted from me in terms of getting an “A,”  all exploratory, real learning was now secondary for me.  Unless my work and product lent itself towards the “A,” as a student I didn’t deviate from that path.  I was stuck in the cyclical and ingrained grade grubbing pattern that has been my life for 19 years in education.  An “A” is the only acceptable grade, the most desirable and therefore must be achieved.

The grade game become a glaring problem when I was designing my syllabus for my First-Year College Composition course.  I have been the Graduate Assistant for the National Writing Project in New Hampshire so I was well grounded in the principles of teaching writing and I knew, that in my heart, I value the process of writing more than the end product of writing. I didn’t want my students to be able to play the grade game with me.

I stuggled with determining not what I was going to teach, nor how I was going to teach but how I was going to transfer the student learning, partcipation and classroom activities into a letter grade that my students, parents and administration so dearly desire.  It is college after all.  If students aren’t there for the grades, why does college matter or school for that matter? (Perhaps that’s another post and please not the sarcasm).

My first syllabus (Fall 2009).  I did the best with what I thought I knew at the time.  (Damn that hindsight and its 20/20 vision.)  I thoughtfully structured my course off a points system(2400 points!) where the two drafts (vomit and revision) were worth more together than the final product.  I also used structured rubrics (4 pages long with detailed categories and examples).  Assessing those essays and projects were horrendous, not the product but assigning the “grade” was unbearable.  What separates an A from a B? Or a C from a D?  Is a D even, really worth it?

As I read the papers and circled the numbers on the rubric, I found myself “tweaking and fudging” the numbers?  I struggled all semester.  I silently stewed in my mind that what I had structured wasn’t working.  At the end of the semester, my grade-book was almost meaningless as grades were gently manipulated so that the students had the grade that they I and the students felt was more representative of where the students actually were.  Plus there were so many columns in my grade-book it was out of control.

I didn’t teach the Spring of 2010 (I had my second baby two weeks before the start of classes and even I am not that crazy.)

In the Fall of 2010 and Spring of 2011 I dropped rubrics altogether after reading Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessments and Linda Christensen’s article My Dirty Little Secret-I Don’t Grade Writing.  I migrated towards percentage-based grading with a heavy emphasis on a final, reflective portfolio.  I still wasn’t happy.  I experienced the same difficulties with this system as I did the year prior.  I was left with my same core belief…

I value the process of writing more than the end product of writing.

…and I need an assessment system that will result in grades that accurately reflect this.

Two months ago while I was on the English Companion Ning I found a discussion on grading , or ungrading, of student essays.  This matched what I thought I was looking for at the time.  Before tonight’s #edchat on Twitter I was feeling okay about my grading system for the Fall of 2011:

  • Portfolio: 50%
  • In-Class Work: 15%
  • Reading Response Blog 10%
  • Process Pieces: 10%
  • Un-Conference Final: 15%

I wasn’t thrilled with the above grade breakout, but it was a little better.  I knew I was headed in the right direction, but I wasn’t near my final grading destination.

The last 15 minutes of #edchat tonight was simply invaluable.  While I participate in #engchat regularly, #edchat moves too fast for me still (I’ve only been on Twitter a few months and still getting acclimated).  However, tonight’s chat, I am fortunate to have stumbled upon.  The topic was on grading.  As I was skimming my twitter stream, @gmfunk mentioned the 3P System of Grading and a duo of blog posts on her use of it in her classroom.

A cursory glance at her posts geared me to find the source material of the 3P System.  Further researching, I found @CoachAllam blog and his post about why he doesn’t grade.  After an evening of tweeting with @CoachAllam, I am geared up that the 3P model of grading, might meld with my own personal philosophy of writing, teaching of writing and grading/assessing.

My goals are to thoughtfully read and review these blogs and the 3P article and meld it into my course structure for the fall.

I am hopeful that this Fall I may finally be happy with assessing and grading my students.