By Tyler Haglund, Science Teacher at Apple Valley High School
The month is April, and a student walks up to me during independent work time and asks, “Mister, how much extra credit can I get to bump my grade?” This question, as well as many others, was the bane of my existence. How many times would I need to answer this question since shifting my assessment and grading practices? This frustrating question would plague the remainder of an already difficult year. After months of training and retraining, and conversation after conversation, this student still just didn’t ‘get it’. This unfortunately is a fairly common experience for teachers who are working to change hearts and minds regarding grading and assessment.
In a landscape where grades and points have tangible utility to students, it can be an uphill battle at times to truly begin to shift the conversation towards a more learning-centered focus and away from the ‘rat race’ of acquiring points to prove merit. For many high school students across the country, grades are treated as currency that they then use to barter their way into jobs, colleges, insurance plans, and a wide variety of other socioeconomic systems that we have developed as a culture. With this in mind, advocates for an approach to grading that is not reliant on points need to understand the emotional weight that changing this system can incur upon young adults. Conversations around learning can quickly morph into a discussion about their parent’s insurance policy or their recent job application, which arguably are very far removed from any high school classroom. So how do we show these students, and their families, that our focus is on breaking down barriers; not erecting new ones?
The issue, it seems, is that so many students connect their value to society and the working world based on the grades they earn in school. When we attach their trustworthiness and their potential to these flawed measures of success, it is no mystery why students begin to see that as the only connection to their value. Thus, we end up creating our own monster by mass-producing ‘point grubbers’ whose only concern is the almighty grade! In order to truly change the minds and hearts of older students; especially ones who have spent over a decade in the public school system, it is essential to validate their experience thus far and have a deep conversation with them regarding their worth as a learner in a classroom setting.
If you are a high school teacher looking to begin this work with your students and your community, please set realistic expectations for yourself and your students. Paradigm shifts like this are HARD, and they take a WHILE to begin to take root. It would be unreasonable to expect a student who has spent the better part of a decade learning to ‘play the game’, just to stand up and unlearn all the rules that got them this far. It very well might be the end result that your students will never have the mind-altering shift that you had when you first tackled this difficult change. They may still be ‘playing the game’ to you, and that is OK! The most impactful thing that any teacher can do from a perspective of grades and assessment is to change the conversations you choose to engage in with your students. Playing the game may still be their fallback attitude to get the grade they want in your class. As long as the conversations are focused on the learning and not just the points, you are doing great work!
One of the most common and most criticized questions from students in ANY classroom is, “What can I do to get a(n) [insert letter grade here]?” This question is often chided at by teachers, but it is a totally acceptable question for any student! Why would this be considered BAD? To this student, that letter grade has value, regardless of our philosophical disagreements, to them it means something – we need to validate that. The way we begin to change the conversation is in our RESPONSE to that question, not in preventing them from asking it.
A point-based answer to that question focuses only on the outcome of whatever assessment methods used to determine that grade (i.e., “retake this test,” “makeup this assignment”). There is no learning value to that response, and forces the student to equate the grade with the time and effort put into that individual task. A learning-centered response to that question focuses on tangible evidence that was not present the first time through that assessment. Deeper discussions about what the student did, or did not do occur and inevitably lead to individualized and teachable moments for that student. Not only does the student walk away with a better understanding of the task, but we have also shown them that our focus as adults is on their ability to learn, not just on ‘checking all the boxes.’
Opportunities for these learning conversations with students are very common if you look for them, but sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of the school year, we can miss them. So here are a few ways that we can be INTENTIONAL about planning opportunities for these conversations to occur:
Rethink where you spend most of your time assessing student work
Formative assessment has taken a backseat in the secondary classroom for far too long. There is no better opportunity to have deep, meaningful conversations about student work than DURING class time. So much of a high school teacher’s time is soaked up by grading and evaluating summative assessments that they barely have time to provide meaningful feedback. Additionally, that feedback usually comes many days after the students complete the task. Once the student gets that feedback, their mind is light-years past the point where it is actionable for them. If you truly want to shift the focus in your classroom, one of the easiest ways to make that happen is to start prioritizing opportunities for formative assessment.
One easy way to get to that face-to-face feedback is through student ‘conferences’. These one-on-one conversations allow teachers to really dig deeply into their students’ knowledge and skills. Although they are called ‘conferences’, they do not have to be terribly lengthy. Some teachers set aside 3-5 minutes of class time to discuss student work, and others use notebooks or portfolios to collect artifacts of student learning and progress to help facilitate these chats. Any way that you can get on a student’s level and discuss their work is already moving the needle towards meaningful learning for the student.
Cultivate student voice and advocacy
At this point in education, many people are willing and able to admit that the ‘Sage on the Stage’ model of a classroom is not really that effective. However, the argument can be made that many assessment systems are still focused on the teacher setting the bar and the students having to jump through hoops to prove they are competent. Now, obviously, the teacher in the room should be setting the criteria for the course, but the dynamic in a modern assessment system is very passive on the student end.Students should have a voice in these assessment opportunities’ medium and timing.
If we want students to value learning, we must give them the license to choose when and how to show us that they’ve learned. The same can be said about the evaluation of their work. Would a student be allowed, or even encouraged, to contest a teacher’s assessment of their skills in a traditional classroom? If a student truly was focused on learning, why wouldn’t they? Now, there is a middle-ground between a traditional, teacher-centered classroom and a fully holistic, self-paced, self-graded learning environment. However, there can be many small and overlooked opportunities for students to take ownership of their learning and advocate for themselves.
Focusing on progress and growth
Learning is complex and requires a literal rewiring of the brain. Many times it seems like teachers forget this when looking at a student’s attitude toward their work.
- Does a student who avoids homework really not have ‘grit’?
- Is it completely unthinkable that a student would prioritize play over a difficult assignment?
- How about this, has anyone ever skipped going to the gym because they ‘didn’t feel like it’?
Challenging tasks take time to master, and everyone falls off the wagon a few times along the way. The people who stick to difficult things and succeed are often the ones with a support system that encourages them to complete the task. A person is more likely to continue going to the gym (even without seeing any results) if they have a cheerleader. Coaches do the same thing; they celebrate our successes and help us process our mistakes. The key here is where the focus is placed. We need to celebrate with students when they succeed, even in the tiniest of tasks. These small victories are what keep them going, even through the big mistakes. Build in opportunities to celebrate victories just as much as you highlight and process the mistakes.
Minds, and systems do not change often due to ONE extensive conversation. The ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka!’ moments work well in movies, but not so much in real life. Real, lasting change is pushed on by the more minor conversations that happen every day in classrooms across the country. It is in these moments that students begin to see the merit of their learning. They begin to see how the journey is just as important as the destination (maybe even a bit MORE important). If our goal as a mastery-learning community is to truly shift the focus towards authentic learning, we need to start by improving our conversations with students. The grading systems will adapt, the curriculum will change, the technology will continue to evolve. The only aspect of education that will likely never change is the student-teacher connection. It is here where we truly begin to shift the conversation.