Friday, January 14, 2011

Learning first, marks second

"what mark do I need on the final so I end up with an XX%?" This was a common question in my classes over the past week. As finals come closer and closer students become more and more concerned with their final marks. This saddens me greatly. 

Educators need to stop the perpetuation of marks being the gate keepers of a course. Students should not be concerned with their marks but actually their learning.  As we change the focus from marks to learning I hope the question will turn into "what learning should occur so I am successful in this course?". 

To illustrate my point greater inform your students that the failing mark in your class is 0. I guarantee, most students will cheer. Now if you informed your students they will learn nothing this year, most will be confused. 

Students crave knowledge but teachers give marks. There is a great disconnect. Next year, i am trying to test drive a new "no-mark" system in my high school math course. This should demonstrate that learning outcomes are the priority and not the mark or grade you receive in a course. 


  1. I cannot even express how often I had gone into an exam knowing that I had to get at least xx% on the test to get a passing grade. I remember writing tests where i could tell which units I really understoond and which ones I didn't based on the answers. But I always knew how I would do in the end, because I knew that I had enough knowledge to get me by.
    The fact is though, if a student enjoys the material they are supposed to be learning in the course they will learn it and they won't be as concerned with the mark.

  2. Students crave knowledge? really? I think they are more likely interested in their grade because they know they need it to get into the next level of course or the University they want to. I would imagine that a lot of students really don't care how to do high school level math, but know they need it to graduate, for college, etc.

    I'm not saying that grades SHOULD be incentive, but the reality in the way society works, is that they are.

  3. Anonymous;

    Roll back the clock several years (and remove several years of aculturation into schooling using grades-based system). What does it look like in kindergarten and grade one? Elementary teachers help me out here; aren't inquisitive students the norm? Aren't most of them filled with an insatiable desire to ask why?

    I guess the real question is whether the constant assessing of students misdirects the learning of the students.

    Reminds me of a certain uncertainty principle in subatomic physics where you can't observe something without affecting the results. On a macroscopic scale are we not skewing the reality of the learning environment with the regular testing?

    Some may argue that tests motivate students to learn. I would argue that they also motivate students to memorize and prepare for a certain type of test.

    How do we get our students back to the inquisitive nature? Do they all have an inquisitive nature? Is this a problem for only higher end students or do we create this over years of schooling by the way we structure our curricula and our education system as a whole?

  4. It's funny this should be the conversation today - I teach elementary (grade 6) and I encountered this exact situation during Science this morning. I had given a test, which students know is only one way to demonstrate knowledge, and I returned their tests today. No mark appears on their test - no fraction or percentage. I only give comments and sometimes ask questions to probe deeper into their understanding. (Then they can write back to me and re-submit). I always talk with my students about how to look at the questions they have difficulty with, and compare them to the learner outcomes I gave them at the beginning of the unit. So, when students got their tests back today, I heard conversation like "Uh oh, I really need to review the graphology stuff", "I think I need to re-learn the difference between an observation and an inference" and "The stuff I tried to memorize didn't help me at all". This shows that students are focusing on their learning rather than their grade. Of course these students want to do well, but they don't need a percentage or grade to know how well they're doing. Feedback works better, and helps to promote risk taking. Students in my class know it's okay to be wrong because they're not penalized for it - it's simply a way to enhance their understanding of a concept. Yes, kids are naturally inquisitive and want to know the answers to questions: not to score A's but because they feel satisfaction in finding the answer itself. Somewhere along the line, it seems some students do lose this natural curiosity and become interested in knowing because it's the only way they can score xx on a test, but teachers and parents are the ones perpetuating that mindset, not the kids.

  5. So I'm going to ask the big question. I agree with what you say, but as high school teachers in Alberta are we not required to give them a mark? I have struggled to find a way to push some of the "marking" away and focus on assessing their learning, in the moment if possible. I would love to just focus on what they did well and give them suggestions for improvement rather than give them x/y for a grade for the objective. But at the end of the day I need to give them that number that goes onto their record. What do you plan for that?

    I have taught middle school and elementary school and its great to not have to put a number on everything but rather focus on what they know and what they need to improve. When report card time came, it was a general ranking of excellent, proficiency etc.. and lots of comments. My daughter is in grade 3 and I find it ridiculous that she bring home her work and everything has a percent on it.

    I think that some day we can get there but sadly even our elementary students are being trained to go for the grade, and this is where change needs to happen first.

  6. Jeff to answer your question bluntly.... NO we are not required to give a mark. In our current system, it may seem so because grades are the "norm". Next semester I am working on an "outcome based" assessment with one of my classes. Where I wil not give a single grade, and instead students will be assessed on outcomes.

    When I complete all the details I will post a blog about the whole idea. I do realize change does not happen over night, so most likely I will end up with less grades I give now, but I will be working towards no grades at all.

  7. I just wanted you to know that philosophically I agree with most of what you say. However, the reality is that in the last three years kids are dying at both high schools in our district when they hit Grade 9. They are just not ready for the High School Experience. A number of the middle schools made dramatic changes on how they grade students and the amount of homework they assign, with zero consultation with the high schools on how this would impact students. And the impact has been brutal. With no common language the students are lost, program placement is hit and miss and students have no idea how to handle high school expectations. I will give you some examples. This year we had to cancel one of our Math 93 classes because there was not enough enrollment. Now we have 40 kids who are just dying in Math 9 and no place to put them. Their self-esteem is taking a beating. We have had more inappropriate honours placements this year then any other previous year and again the kids self-esteem is taking a beating when they are 60's or lower and we have to shift them down to regular stream. Another example is with my own son. My daughter came from a middle school where she had two hours of homework a night, three years later my son had five hours a semester. His group of classmates were extremely strong coming out of Elementary School, but they hit the wall hard at high school particularly in Math. When Grade 10 Math came around, over half of them were failing. I tested both classes of students and they couldn't do fractions (addition, multiplication, subtraction, division), and advanced division, because they were not given the opportunity to practice these concepts at home it dramatically affected thier abilities to do advanced mathematics at high school. It took my son until halfway through Grade 10 to correct his middle school experience, and it was extremely difficult for him and us as a family to get him there.

    At Faculty Council our teachers are telling us that kids have no idea how to do homework and only 60% are completing their homework. There has been a continuous drop from the days when 80% of students completed their homework.

    We are also getting squeezed at both ends. I don't know if you read the MacLean's article on how post-secondary students are doing far less homework then they did in the past. The post-secondary institutions are pointing their fingers at the High School as part of the issue, because we not adequately preparing students.

    As a High School Counsellor I evaluate transcripts from all around the world. I have evaluated 4 pt, 5 pt, 8, pt, 10 pt, 13pt, 15 pt, 20 pt and 100 pt systems of grading. 70% of those evaluations have an accompanying % grade. I prefer the 13 pt which our Universities use. However, when it comes to scholarships, and entrance requirements Post-secondary institutions require everything in %. Same for our Diploma and PAT exams they are marked as a %.

    Every single student I have talked to and every parent I have talked to dislike the change to the lettergrade or 4 pt and 5 pt systems. I had one girl who went from 90's in Grade 7 to B's in Grade 8 and I asked her what happened and she said, "why should I try the lettergrades mean nothing."

  8. Dave I think you misunderstood my question or maybe I misunderstood your answer. I want to know what you will enter into the gradebook which is assume needs to be a number that eventually goes on their transcript? I can easily assess outcomes in my classes without using any grades, but I want to know how or what we do for the final "mark". Tell me how and I'll try it too.