By Chad Topaz, Williams College; and Jude Hidgon, Bennington College (guest bloggers)
As a math educator, there is a good chance this thought has crossed your mind: “All my students care about is grades. They don’t seem to care about learning the material.”
In the parlance of educational psychology, this complaint suggests a tension between mastery goal orientation (e.g., “I want to understand the material”) and performance goal orientation (e.g., “I want to get a good grade”). Research suggests that learning is optimized when learners have high levels of both mastery and performance orientations. However, the structure of higher education arguably stresses performance over mastery. We assign grades, grades get used by educational institutions and by society, and there’s little wonder that students care about the grade more than mastering the material.
Grades remain relevant, and we certainly do not advocate their abolition. But it is important to balance an attention to grades with emphasis on mastering course material. Here are six strategies we have implemented that we have found to support this balance.
1. Design a multifaceted assessment scheme. For the sake of example, consider two different schemes for determining a student’s final grade.
Scheme I: two midterm exams worth 30% each and a final exam worth 40%.
Scheme II: 10 homework assignments worth 2% each, daily informal reflective writing assignments worth 20% total, 5 unit tests worth 8% each, and a final exam worth 20%. In this second scheme, the high frequency of assessments renders each one lower stakes.
Additionally, students benefit from frequent, ongoing assessment because it provides feedback on their learning and more opportunities to correct misconceptions as they are forming, rather than once they are baked into students’ brains. Frequent assessments need not be labor-intensive. When available, TA’s could perform the grading, and/or an instructor could use online assessments with automatic grading as needed. For items such as informal writing assignments, one could also use a low-labor point allocation system, for instance, 0 = assignment not turned in; 1 = assignment turned in but of low quality; 2 = assignment completed at a satisfactory level.
2. Use a drops policy. For example, if there are 12 weekly homework assignments during the term, tell students that the lowest two homework grades are automatically dropped. However, insist that they benefit from this privilege only if they turn in all assignments completed fully. This system provides a sense of security to students that they can struggle in good faith and perhaps not “get it” right away, but it also discourages them from simply not doing the work.
3. Allow corrections. Consider letting students make corrections to quizzes and exams to earn back half of the points they missed. This opportunity encourages students to think about the errors they made, and emphasizes that the midterm is a learning opportunity.
For added learning opportunities, ask students to add to their corrections a discussion of what they got wrong, why their corrected answers or analyses are better than their original, and how they will integrate what they’ve learned to avoid similar errors in the future. This procedure models good scientific inquiry (when we get something wrong, it’s a beginning, not an ending) and tells the student that what you value is that they’ve learned, not that they are perfect. If written corrections are too onerous, an instructor or TA could allow students to perform corrections oral exam style during a designated time period.
4. Structure grades as formative feedback. Don’t merely give numerical grades. A numerical grade says to a student “the number or letter assigned to you is the most important thing.” On the other hand, written feedback can correct mathematical misconceptions, and it provides a metacognitive moment in which students can reflect on their level of understanding of the material. We encourage you, however, not to just tell students the correct answer; instead, point to errors, make suggestions, and then encourage students to correct their own work. To reduce any additional grading load, consider leveraging technology to offer audio feedback. If giving feedback to every student individually is not feasible, hold a single class meeting or discussion section to go over common mistakes, and require students who want to drop their lowest grade (strategy 1 above) or to submit corrections (strategy 3 above) to attend in order to be eligible.
5. Make mathematics verbal. Ask learners to discuss what they understand and don’t understand in words, not just in calculations. Encourage learners to consider the application of your course concepts to real-world scenarios, to other courses, or to the students’ lives outside of school. Find ways to encourage student self-talk (written or oral) about what they are learning. This can be done via a simple blog post, or as a “think, pair, share” opportunity at the start of class. Invigilate these sessions through a Socratic approach; randomly call on two groups from a larger class to report on what they discussed to help ensure that they focus on the task at hand. These activities encourage metacognition, which has been correlated with mastery goal orientation.
6. Discourage (or even abolish) discussions about grades or points. We believe that it is our responsibility as instructors to constantly direct our students’ focus to be on learning. In our syllabi, we use a statement like this, and we stick by it, referring students back to the policy as needed: “The purpose of grades is to provide formative feedback that aids your learning. I keep course grades in the online gradebook, so you can always check them there. But what matters is learning. I’ll enthusiastically talk to you about your learning anytime and I encourage discussions in which we go over the work you have completed. These conversations let me hear about your challenges and questions, and provide important learning opportunities. However, my rule is that we shouldn’t talk (and especially haggle) about the points or letter grade assigned unless I have made a clerical error.”
We recognize that some of the suggestions above create more work for instructors; we have offered a few options for helping to reduce this additional load in instructional settings with large class sizes but without the benefit of TAs or grading support. We’ve found that having more (but lower-stakes) graded items, allowing students to make corrections and giving more corrective feedback all contribute to an environment where the focus is on learning. Just as we would tell our students that more time studying will help their learning, we believe more time spent on these grading activities will help strengthen the learning-focused culture we want.