Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Playing the Game or Analyzing Its Rules?

Guest Blogger: Jenny Seidel, Cohort 2

We’ve all heard it before from a parent: “Why Mrs. Jones, I just don’t understand why my son has a ‘C’ in your class. Johnny has ALWAYS had an ‘A’ in Spanish. Johnny is really struggling this semester in your class . . .” And typically, we as teachers walk away from these conversations wondering what we are doing differently than the last teacher. “Am I really that much harder? My expectations seem pretty reasonable. What is the value of a grade after all?”

As I walk away from our presentation and discussion with Tony Winger, I feel like I just had a series of “AH – HA!” moments. I also enjoyed watching the perma-grin on Karl’s face as he so evidently agreed with Tony’s thoughts, ideas and suggestions about learning, understanding and assessment. This was a very thought provoking presentation on student evaluation and I do not think anyone walked away without self-reflecting.

So let me get this straight and please forgive me for sounding like such a novice in education. The shift in assessment is to focus on learning? What sounds so incredibly basic and obvious is, in fact, a challenging strategy to implement in teaching . . . and something that I feel many of us do not do. To paraphrase Tony Winger and interpret what I heard is that students’ grades primarily reflect their knowledge, understanding, essential learnings and application of the material. The shift is going from categorizing their skills from “Tests, quizzes, homework, participation, etc.” to “Understanding, knowledge, responsibility.” The task at hand is to go away from awarding As and Bs to students who know nothing and can’t apply the information, but can play the game well, (and students who get Ds and Fs and actually know something, but do not show the work habits to obtain higher grades) and let the grades reflect knowledge, by golly!

Again, sounds simple, but think about your own grading system. Do students really learn or just learn to play the game? Do your assessments require them to memorize for a test or really apply the concepts taught in class? Does your extra credit extend your essential learnings or allow them to earn random points to raise their grades? What is the role of homework if the students know that we only view it as a work in progress? Will they put in an adequate amount of effort and thought to their work? When a student does not do well on an assessment, do you raise his grade if he chooses to learn from his mistakes (for the sake of learning) or do you call assessments a one time deal? Are your expectations and explanations clear to your students about what you value in assessments and how you evaluate? Is life about learning the system and playing the game? Or is it about really understanding the task at hand and applying the concepts learned? I know I am reiterating some of the questions that arose today, but they are the ones still running through my mind.

As I write this, I realize that someone outside of education may criticize us for not focusing assessment solely on learning. In fact, I am questioning myself right now and some of my common practices. We get caught up in wanting to hold students accountable for their actions, responsibility, timeliness and work habits in an effort to teach them how to be good citizens and prepare them to be young professionals. The shift here is to still hold them accountable for being responsible students, but realizing that maintaining strong learning habits does not necessarily reflect their internalization of the material. What exactly is it that we want them to walk away with from our classes and know next week, next year, in college, as an adult . . . and do their grades reflect their grasp of these concepts? That’s the ultimate question here . . .


  1. I do not have the answer but the questions you raise are very important. Our staff has just started this discussion. One thing that is clear for us is that this requires good long term planning and a clear sense of unit objectives. If we want students to be able to grow in mastery then it means they must have multiple chances to preform. The question we were discussing (but haven't fully answered) was if a child fails the first two assesments but shows mastery on the third one what grade should they get...It does sort of throw the add up the grades and divide method in disarray.
    Keep up the thinking and the posts...we all need to struggle with the issues.

  2. Well, I'll tell you right now, we play the game. By now we are experts. We have found ways to pass homework checks without so much as looking at the book, we have become masters in the art of improvision. But certain teachers have us figured out and make assignments that force us to understand, but also motivate us to learn.
    For example, if someone gives me 30 problems of trigonometry, and all of them are exactly the same, I see no reason to bother spending an hour when I already understand the concept. If all the problems are the same, there is no understanding involved, simply copying steps. Plus, if a major part of my grade is simple homework checks to prove I've painstakingly done every problem, I'm wasting my time. So it could be argued that the test score should only matter, if I can pass a test, then it's pretty obvious I'm capable of the homework. So what do I do? I do three problems and then I do homework that is actually worth my time. And my grade in trig drops, just because I don't waste my time. I think that is a little off. Understanding should be the basis of a grade.

    With a system like we have now, high school is more about endurance than education.

  3. Well said and good luck. It is a fun journey...and so far the destination has been pretty cool, too. Students like Molly (thanks again for your candor) deserve the conversation on many levels.

  4. It seems as though we are focusing a lot on knowlege, the core things that we know, but many teachers never can describe the difference between knowlege and effort. For example I can put in 3 hours of studying spanish and near the end some of the concepts just don't mean anything to me. I have been everlastingly confused as to what teachers would have us students do, should they be grading me on my effort or my knowlege? Here's something to think about, Bob studies for hours every night to understand his spanish while John doesn't study becasue he got the concepts easily, who is the better student if Bob F's the test and John gets an A? If they are graded on knowlege John wins and gets an A, but if it is based on effort Bob wins, Bob still put in ten times more effort in that john but because the grade is on knowledge John gets the better grade. So what should us students be graded on...knowlege or effort? or maybe a mix?

  5. I am so glad to hear that Tony is getting people to think. Everyone may not agree but at least it provokes thought. I think back to where Cohort I was when Tony came in a year ago. We have come a long way!

    Tony is coming in November to talk to the new teachers at an Induction meeting. I am excited and nervous to see and hear their reactions. We have had a few discussions this year around homework and in our individual conferences. We try to get them think about the "Why" of assigning work. We are barely scratching the surface and already some feathers are ruffled. We meet two more times before Tony and I want to continue the conversation. Any ideas for articles or examples prior to Tony?

  6. In response to corey, I definitely understand, but ultimately, effort doesn't matter. In the real world, my boss is absolutely not going to care if I tried to finish the project, it only matters if I did finish the project. But I also think that teachers should focus on understanding and application as opposed to tiny details. For example, I would rather spend my french class reading through a difficult piece of french literature and being forced to find the meanings of the words by context than spending an hour memorizing vocabulary. Skills and fundamental concepts are more important. If I go to France, I will be forced to improvise and guess the meanings of phrases, because ultimately, people do not speak out of textbooks. Language evolves.

    And from the end of the original post, I don't think that is the teacher's responsibility to teach organization and study habits. As students, we have a tendency to blame the teachers for any of our shortcomings. It is our responsibility to find our own learning style and apply it. We need to learn to prioritize and do work efficiently. So perhaps "playing the game" is almost a good thing. Life is a lot like that, we will have to improvise, we will have to neglect an unimportant assignment in favor of something more important. And in some cases in life, it does not make sense to do our absolute best when we can just do well enough to get an A or to get a project done at work.

  7. I have been thinking about Tony's presentation, and as I read Jenny's post she summed up what has been going through my mind. I have always wanted my grade to reflect understanding and knowledge but that hasn't usually been the case. Tony stated that grades sometimes hinder learning. Students come into the classroom and want to know what do I have to do to get all of the points for this assignment? Or, they ask, are you grading this? Is it for credit? If not, they have no intention of doing what I ask of them. Even this year I had a student ask on the second day if I would give extra credit because she wanted a 4.0 this semester. As a reaction to all of this I have been thinking. Thinking of how I can get away from a focus on points and shift the focus to essential learnings and understanding. As I read Molly and Corey's comments it provoked more thoughts. I appreciate what both students are saying and their comments made me realize that there has to be a balance in how I grade regarding both effort and understanding.

  8. Very good thought provoking topics here that I love reading and thinking about. I have another one related to math and perhaps foreign language classes. I am a firm believer in practice makes close to perfect (for myself as a learner). I personally do a lot better at retaining information for math if I practice, practice, practice. Which in turn is why I give the homework that I give. I do also think that there is a fine line between giving homework to give homework and actually assigning the work for retention. I have seen many studies done that provide the support for giving practice problems on new material. I can't imagine (myself) doing five factoring problems and getting all five correct and then not doing the rest of the assignment because I really don't think that I would retain the information. Which brings up another question in my head. What if I were to assign a homework assignment and allow my students to only do as many as they need to? I have a feeling that many of them would only do a couple and then they wouldn't really retain that information. Any math teachers or other teachers that have other options. I really try to not give homework just to give it and I work hard to make sure the assigned problems I give have purpose but I do have those few students who say they get it so why do I have to keep doing it (unfortunatley one of my students who keeps saying this isn't doing well on the assessments or in the class)??????

  9. In response to Missy's comment, I like the idea of giving an assignment but making it optional. At first, no one would do the whole thing, but if you make the tests difficult and test the material, people will gradually see that they need to learn the concepts, and that will lead to doing as many problems as needed. That is my main frustration with math classes. I learn math concepts easily, so I hate when I'm forced to do thirty problems when I understood at five. I feel it is wasting my time and makes me much less motivated to do the work at all. I personally believe that if the student does not try to learn or get help if they need it, then the teacher should have no problem giving the student a failing grade. Grades do not reflect the teacher, they reflect the student, so if a student chooses to not try to understand the material, then they deserve the grade they get.

  10. I felt the same way that Jenny did (and many others I'm sure) as I sat and took in all of Tony Winger's information and examples. I wished that it was Aug and I could start the semester over!

    Tony presented this same information to me as a first year mentor three years ago. However, at that time that I either didn't grasp the concept of grading one assignment in different categories, or maybe it sounded like way too much work for me and zoned out! Who knows! This presentation gave me a much better explanation of how to break up the categories, he provided great examples and cleared up a lot of misconceptions that I had about the extra work on teachers.

    Next semester, I plan to implement these new categories, so they fit my classes. I'm excited to see how it changes my communication with the parents and students about grades. At conferences I get so sick of parents saying "he / she is just not a good test taker". I feel that by having these categories, I will have better conversations about what aspects of the test that students can work on to succeed in class.

  11. In response to your comment,Molly, that "effort does not matter," I have to disagree--especially with your statement, "My boss is not going to care if I tried to finish the product; it only matters if I finish the product." Actually, I have had several students who simply "finish the product" with little or no effort and the results are dismal, especially if a student is turning in an essay. The art of writing is "applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair," and I know very few writers who can simply fire off a first-rate writing piece without putting a significant effort into planning, revising, and polishing the final result.

    The real world works the same way. Last summer I hired a company to do some yard work--they were fast, but sloppy, and I didn't like the end result. The second company I hired put a great deal of effort into my yard--and although the project took twice as long and was more expensive, the results were much better.

    I can understand your frustration with busy-work, but some skills require lots of practice to master. And that's why I increase point values of similar assignments as the semester progresses. I know students won't do as well on their first essays as they will on later ones--so I want the later essays to be worth more points, but I also want to reward them for the effort they put into the first few essays because this is a skill-building process. If you don't try to improve, your skills won't become more polished.

    Finally, I agree with you that understanding and application are significant parts of the learning process, but if I require brain surgery, I really hope my surgeon will pay attention to the tiny details!

  12. Playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, one might argue that it wasn’t so much the effort you were rewarding, but the results. After all, you hired the second company because you weren’t satisfied with the results of the first company – regardless of their effort. You were willing to pay more to get better results. Would you have been satisfied with paying the second company more if they put a great deal of effort into your yard and the results had still been sloppy? Or, if you had come home and the results were fantastic, would you have quizzed them on how much effort they had put in? Similarly, if you should ever require brain surgery, I would assume you really hope that the surgeon is successful – even if she’s discussing her golf game while operating on you.

    So maybe what both you and Molly are saying is that it’s the quality of the finished product that is often the most important, not just that it’s finished or how much effort went into it. I’m guessing that both of you feel that effort is related to the quality of the finished product, even if you perhaps disagree on the details of that effort. (Note that I’m not trying to put words into anybody’s keyboard, just trying to facilitate the discussion.)

  13. Mr Fisch got it right. My comments before referred more to classes like math or foreign language. But what I meant to say was that things should not be graded based solely upon how hard someone tried. Because I agree, effort is required for many things to make them good. But it's making them good that matters, not how long it takes to perfect the skill. Especially for writing, obviously effort is required to make a good essay. I just don't think it's okay to excuse a bad essay by saying "I tried really, really hard."

    Also, my comments mainly referred to high school education. We need a broad understanding of many things. I agree, a doctor in graduate school should definitely work on details. High school is only a stepping stone in finding out where we're going. Once we find something we're passionate about, then details should be more important.