For years, we’ve been struggling with the idea of grades. If a student gets a “B” in seventh grade science, what does that mean? When I was teaching (back in the dark ages) most teachers used a point system. Bringing in a box of Kleenex is 5 points. Homework is 10 points. A quiz is 25 points. A unit test is 100 points. That big project at the end of the term is 200 points. Maybe the grading period has 600 points. A “B” means the student got more than 510 points, but less than 560. Grades sort of reflected the degree to which the student learned science, but more than that, they reflected the stuff the student did or didn’t do. She loses points for turning in late work, or missing a homework assignment, or arriving to class late. She gains points by completing assignments, answering questions correctly, and behaving in a responsible way that doesn’t create more work for the teacher.
Mostly, as a teacher, I measured what students DID rather than what they LEARNED. It was really difficult to get a grade lower than a B if everything was done and turned in. Looking back, grades were used in my class as a extrinsic motivator. Students had a lot of pressure to get good grades, so in my class they did whatever I wanted them to do in order to get the points they needed to earn the grade they wanted to keep their parents off their case. It was a simple transaction.
Long after I left the classroom, we started thinking more critically about grading practices. That “B” should be a reflection of the RESULT of learning, not the PROCESS of learning. It’s really not particularly helpful, other than to say, “this kid did pretty well in Science. She’s not at the top of the class, but she’s not in danger of failure. She remembered most of the stuff we talked about, and she’s a pretty good kid.” Most parents like hearing that their children are pretty good kids. A few parents want their kids to be better than all the other kids. Those are the ones who got 620 points out of 600 because they brought in a case of disinfecting wipes and did all of the extra credit because their parents want them to go to an ivy league school.
As grading practices evolved, we started differentiating between formative and summative grades. Formative grades are given for activities that are part of the learning process. If I pick up a violin and try to play a D major scale, it’s going to sound awful. I have to keep the bow straight. I have to put the right amount of pressure on the strings so it doesn’t sound bad. I have to place the fingers of my left hand on the fingerboard in the right places so the notes are in tune. Trying to play a D major scale is formative. I’m just learning. But if I practice, I’ll get better. For me, it would take a LOT of practice. But eventually, I’ll be able to do it. Maybe I try to play the scale 20 times. The first 10 are horrible. Then, I start to get the hang of it. The next 7-8 start to sound like a scale. The last couple get all the notes in the right places. I’m not ready for the concert hall, but you can recognize that I’ve made a lot of progress.
So what’s my grade? Do I get a “C”? A lot of those scales were cringe-worthy. But in the end, I finally did a pretty decent job. The first 18 ties were formative. They documented the process of learning. The last couple were summative. I demonstrated the achievement of having learned something new. Ideally, the grade should reflect the learning. The goal was to be able to play a D major scale in tune, and I can do that now. But that doesn’t work in the point system, because there’s always a lot more practice than performance, and that’s going to bring the grade down. If there are no points for practicing, though, students are less likely to do it. And then, the learning doesn’t happen. The same is true in science class or math class or physical education. If we don’t measure what students DO, they’re less likely to do it.
COVID-19 brought a tremendous amount of disruption to our society, and schools were no exception. When we transitioned to a fully online model of teaching and learning, one of the questions that arose was how to take attendance. If a student shows up for a Zoom session, do we count that as being present for the day? What if they leave early? What if they join the Zoom session and leave their camera off and mute their microphone so they can play video games while the teacher is talking?
The idea of “being present” changes when the people involved are not all in the same place. I’ve certainly been in many situations in the last four months where I was doing multiple things simultaneously. There’s a video conference happening in this window over here, and I’m checking my email, or having a conversation with a colleague, or texting my family. There was one memorable experience this summer when I was in two different video conferences at the same time, and I was participating in both text chats simultaneously while selectively muting one or the other depending on what was happening. We don’t give 100% attention all the time when we’re online.
So what does it mean for a student to be absent? Do they have to be completely missing in action? We had some cases in the spring where different teachers had Zoom sessions scheduled for the same time. Which one did the students attend? The one where the teacher was giving points for attending. Maybe we haven’t made as much progress as we think.
What if we combine these two problems, and use one to solve the other? Could the student’s grade be a measure of what the student has learned? It would be a reflection of the progress the student has made toward mastering the content standards in the subject during this grading period. Meanwhile, the measure of what a student has DONE — the activities in which the student has engaged to further the learning process — is recorded as “attendance”. Turn in the homework. Complete the reflection exercise. Make an entry in your learning journal. Submit today’s exit ticket. If you do that, you get credit for attending the class. It’s not about time spent, it’s about attention and making an effort. Then, when we measure what you’ve actually learned, that becomes your grade.
In mastery learning, the variable is time. We want the same outcome for all students. But the time it takes for students to reach that goal is different for each kid. Let’s stop focusing so much on the time spent, and maybe pay a bit more attention to how that time is being used, and what progress is being made toward the goal. Online learning is a tremendous opportunity to make time a variable. Let’s take advantage of that.
Photo credit: Daniel X. O’Neil on Flickr.