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Principles: Performance depends on context, and regression is essential to learning
Martha loved teaching history, and she loved the fall. The start of the school year seemed crisp with promise. The kids had grown tired of summer and enjoyed the return to school and renewing friendships. Despite a slight chill in the anxious anticipation of new classes and unknown teachers, they entered the classroom sunny with optimism and even eager to learn. For the first three weeks, the students seemed interested in reading about and discussing social contracts and democracy; they engaged in the writing exercises preparing them for their first essay; and the atmosphere was a relaxed mixture of serious intellectual work and banter.
But experience had taught Martha that this annual honeymoon wouldn't last, and she steeled herself for the day when she would have to grade and return the first set of papers. Her reputation as a rigorous teacher was based on high expectations, and she could never bring herself to lower her standards by awarding honors, or even passing, grades to poor work. She did her best to warn her students: It was just the start of the year, and they shouldn't expect to be skilled writers yet. Of course, the warning was futile. The day arrived, and she watched their faces cloud with anger or frustration or fear as they hurried past the pages containing hours of her marginal notes and stared at the grade for a few seconds before wadding up the whole thing. Hours of work, the students' and Martha's, tossed aside, plunging everyone into a winter of discontent.
The truth was that Martha had always hated grades. She dreaded their effect on students and on her relationship with them, but they were part of the system, like nitrogen in the air. And Martha believed that grades stood for something; they reflected a level of skill or knowledge, and she was not going to pretend that a poor essay was a good essay. So, if the school insisted on grades, she would use them honestly and work with her students to improve their skills and their grades. That was her job.
Then Martha stumbled upon a couple of research essays, one of which was "Webs of Skill: How Students Learn," and her thinking changed. She developed a more complex understanding of skill development, performance, and assessment. Although she had always treated skill development as a process, she had tended to look at it as a linear movement of steady improvement. Martha realized that she had ignored the inevitability and necessity of regression and the intimate connection between performance and context. In fact, the way she graded her students' essays entirely negated the notion of process by treating them only as products.
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What was extraordinary to Martha, however, was that the ideas these researchers presented did not seem new to her. Reading them was like slowly realizing that she was hearing the idealistic voice of her younger self. Of course performance depends on context; of course regression is inevitable; of course grading a student essay is far more complex than simply measuring it against something written by Esther Forbes.
Martha recalled the young revolutionary who, as a new teacher, had railed against grades. That had been she. Somehow, her rookie conviction that grades transformed a classroom into an arena that "turned collaborators into combatants" had gotten crushed beneath the juggernaut of the system. The research gave her the courage to reconsider her practices. Could she create an approach to grading that diminished the fear and loathing and enhanced learning? Martha decided to make the focus of her assessments clearer to the students by increasing the number of grades she used. (top)
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Instead of simply holding essays to her forehead, like Carmac the Magnificent, and coming up with one grade, she began giving separate grades to content, organization, mechanics, and progress. Explaining her new approach to her students not only refocused Martha on the process of writing, but also helped her students see writing as a process and encouraged them to engage in it.
Because she wanted to reduce the students' anxiety, she also decided to give them much more control over their grades. They decided when they felt an essay was ready to grade. At any time, they could give an essay to Martha and ask her to read it and not grade it. As a result, they really focused on the comments she wrote, greatly reducing the frustration for Martha. They could also ask her to grade an essay but not record the grade. When they eventually decided the essay was ready for "the grades that count," if they did not like those grades, they could rewrite the essay, and the old grades would be thrown out and the new recorded.
Finally, Martha also wanted to give them more control over the conditions that produced their essays, so she encouraged them to create their own calendar of due dates for submitting essays. Instead of plugging a single date into the syllabus for all students to produce an essay, she suggested they pick their own dates depending on other demands in their academic lives—when they had major projects or tests in other classes, for example.
Note: If your student load is 125, chances are good that you are reading about Martha and thinking, "No way I could ever do that." And maybe you are right—and maybe not. But the point of these stories is not to suggest that you implement these specific solutions. The point is to illustrate a thought process—how teachers can interact with research ideas and think their way to solutions to specific problems they face in specific circumstances. Different circumstances require different solutions, but the process of finding them is pretty much universal. What is important is not what we can't do but what we can do.
Although these solutions helped (student anxiety dropped; engagement and the quality of the work improved), Martha eventually rediscovered her youthful conviction that, as a general practice, grades are an impediment to the intended learning simply because they disrupt the natural alliance between student and teacher and shift the focus from learning to the grade. Her conviction became stronger following an experience teaching students in a program that had no grades. Andrea, one of these students, articulated the advantages of eliminating grades entirely: "I could focus on areas that I felt were a weakness and not feel anxious about earning letter grades. I was taking classes that I wanted to take and learning more because I did not have the pressures of worrying about grades." The lengthy narrative assessments filled with explanations and illustrations helped Andrea develop her skills while grades left her frustrated and lost. It was this experience that motivated Martha to begin a campaign in her school to do away with grades, a goal she has not yet achieved, though a few other schools have. See article, "From Degrading to De-Grading."