A couple of weeks ago Joy Kirr wrote this blog post which, admittedly, will help me keep this one short as I had been reflecting on many similar questions and frustrations. The frustration is a huge motivator for think about what I might change or not for next year. Like Joy, I even entertained the idea of going back to grades in some shape or form. (Horrifying, I know.) Some of my similar struggles…
- students making work for my class their last priority because they know I am flexible; this is OK sometimes but ended up putting some of them in difficult positions as they ran out of time to complete some assignments
- students are not all looking at (and using) the feedback I give them, and I don’t know if it is because they don’t feel they have time or because they are content with a mediocre result
- distilling things down to a single percentage grade at the end of the semester doesn’t feel good, and in some cases I think students feel it is just the same result they would have had with grades all along
A few days after Joy’s post, I started formally collecting some feedback from my students about the courses that are currently finishing up. I was out of town that weekend – without internet – and when we got back to town Sunday night I skimmed some of the Google Form responses. Bad idea, really…not a very healthy Sunday night activity. First, there was this question (25 students of my 65 Biology students responded):
I know it’s not really that bad – the ‘liked it’ category was a healthy size – but I hated to think that anyone would consider this to be the ‘worst thing ever!’ Anyway, not a big deal because it’s the details that count, right? This was the next question: “Share your thoughts on the fact that you didn’t receive grades on individual pieces of work. Pros and cons both appreciated!” There was some good reflection here, but clearly there were a couple of students who absolutely detested what I had done. There were what I would call neutral responses, like this one:
- The aspect of not having a number attached to everybody test or assignments did help me relax and reduce my stress throughout the semester. However, at times I also did wonder what was the point of learning and doing the work if I wasn’t getting a grade (obviously not the best mindset for classes as learning new things is also important). Overall, I feel like there is a middle ground needed between absolutely no marks to marking everything. The check-ins we had helped balance it but I wouldn’t honestly prefer to have them even mom a bi-weekly or monthly basis if possible.
Then there were some positive ones:
- Was skeptical at first, but felt prepared by the end. Overall, I feel prepared for what university will be like, and I think more academic level teachers should develop a teaching technique more geared towards getting kids ready for university and just having to know the material without always having marks.
But, for reasons you might understand, this was the one that haunted me for the next 36 hours:
- Not marking tests or assignments and not giving students the perpetual updates of their marks causes more stress than it would if you actually gave marks. Giving mark updates after every unit is not enough. Giving marks on tests helps us stay motivated and powered to complete and understand their work. Giving marks is also a reality to university level students, that are striving for UNIVERSITY. We are not six year olds. We do not need colours or levels to understand or prove our progress, I would sooner see marks that state my mistakes rather than having a comment or level that is in a ballpark range of my ability (ballpark range does not help me learn). Also, all year I have felt a sense of disorganization, with myself and the overall style of your marking.
Yikes. I think what upset me most about this comment was the fact that this student – whose identity I do not know – did not feel that they could share these thoughts in person. Clearly they were unhappy. Clearly I could have done more to help them understand the process. Or, maybe not. Maybe this is just a case where this wasn’t a good fit.
There was also a bit of a theme in regards to the lack of grades hurting students’ motivation:
- consistent receiving grades would have pushed me to do better
- I thought that I had less stress surrounding grades, and when I got tests back I was less worried about my mark, but I also think that being less stressed made me less motivated. I think without a LITTLE bit of anxiety/fear one’s conviction sort of dwindles.
Interesting. In my end of semester conference I asked a handful of students whether they thought my comparatively relaxed approach caused them to do/study/work/think less about my class. A few agreed that this was probably true. I don’t have a huge problem with this; some students worked their butts off and learned a ton even though I was not waving around a battle axe.
One last AMAZING thing I need to mention is that two days after I first read some of the feedback I was finishing up student conferences. One of my last conferences was with the student whose parents had challenged me at interview time back in March. This student had been very uncomfortable with my classroom assessment choices at the start of the term, but had a truly amazing semester. At our final conference, we had a long, frank discussion about her feelings and she told me how much she loved the way the assessment was done and that…wait for it!…her PARENTS were the ones that convinced her that what I was doing was probably a really good idea to help prepare kids for the future. My jaw dropped. I had no idea that those parents had gone home from that interview as my allies! After a couple of days of wallowing in the negative nature of some of the other comments, this conference breathed life back into my resolve to keep doing what I was doing.
I have had doubts about the path I am walking, but I know it is a good path. I know I need to get better for it to make sense to more of my students. In the fall I will return to my classroom refreshed and ready to be better at building relationships, scaffolding self-assessment and peer feedback, and making my classroom a place where students feel challenged, valued, and motivated to do their best work even if there are not numbers attached.
We have a few days left of school. I’m writing reports and doing a little bit of work to get ready for next year. For all of you who have already begun your summer vacation, I hope you are unwinding without too much trouble. For those who are not finished yet, I’ll be thinking of you Friday afternoon as I hand in my keys, head home, and get ready for a fabulous Canada Day weekend!
After this post was written, I read this feedback from a student (it was written on their exam). It helped confirm that I am on a good path. Clearly I have given this student something they were looking for. I’m wondering, based on this student’s words, would you make any assumptions about their achievement in this class?