Do you measure student growth in learning or measure how much a student learned based on the learning targets from an assessment? I’m asking for a friend. In a year where we are worried about catching students up to pre-pandemic levels of achievement, could we optimize the use of grading practices to accelerate learning? Assessment can be used to grow as well as document student learning at a point in time; we just have to shift how we use it!
Does Grading Help or Hurt?
Researchers have found evidence that suggests that historic grading strategies can have negative effects on student learning. When every assignment is a summative assessment for a student, grades reflect a race to learn at the pace of the teacher and other students in the class. Whether face-to-face or remote, we may not be aware of silent challenges students face. And in a remote environment, students are having to learn new skills beyond content.
Remote Learning: The New Skill Set
Remote learning requires a related, yet different set of skills than learning face-to-face. The organizational load for both teachers and students is increased. For students who are still developing executive functioning skills (the ability to manage time, prioritize and complete tasks, and adjust to new routines) remote learning provides students an increased set of challenges in showing what they know. Gone is the teacher as organizer and reminder in the classroom with calendars on the walls or upcoming assignments on the board. Which students needs these supports? They are likely among the students who are not turning in assignments on time or not showing achievement at the same level remotely as they did in person.
Ryan and Deci (2020) examined research related to self-determination theory which posits that
- students need to feel like they have some control or choices in their learning;
- students need to feel competent; and
- Students need to feel connected to learn.
When students miss assignment deadlines, we often provide grade deductions. This practice may not support students’ feelings of control, and we provide a covert message that they are not competent. We can flip this message with some small changes to assessment and grading policies!
From Penalty to Praise
What if we gave all assignments to students at the beginning of the week (or grading period)? What if we said, “You get a 90 (A) for getting the content correct?” If you choose to follow the recommended submission schedule, you get an extra 10 points for turning the assignment in on time! Think about how this changes the narrative for the student.
Students who are still developing executive functioning skills can earn an A if the assignment is late within the grading period. So can the student who is juggling their own learning as well as the learning of their sibling. Such a shift assures that students feel a sense of competence, of success, and receive a grade based on what they have learned. The list of assignments in advance coupled with recommended turn in dates also provides a structure that offers students the challenge of being on time, incentivizes it through positive reinforcement, and allows students some wiggle room on when they complete their work. This allows students, who are juggling more than we know, opportunities to practice how to manage their time and an opportunity to grow. It reinforces the behaviors we want. Allowing remote learners opportunities to connect (Fun Friday breakout rooms) if sufficient numbers of students follow the recommended submission times can also ensure students have an opportunity to get to know their remote learning classmates, especially at critical school transition points (e.g., first year of middle or high school).
Shifting Grades from Control to Choice
Some grading policies stipulate students may retake a limited number of assignments for partial credit. And while this policy is far better than denying any retake opportunities, does such a policy help your students grow to proficiency?
Kornell and Rhodes (2013) found that most learners evaluate their own learning based on the test they just took. If a student perceives his learning as lacking, his course grade becomes the evaluation of self-as-learner. We want students to recognize they control their own ability to learn. Therefore, we have to help them take feedback from the assessment, correct misconceptions, and try again. If classroom tests are not treated as a natural part of the instruction, feedback, and assessment loop, they function as mini-high stakes assessments. Allowing students to bank their grade or work to master the learning target through a retake process allows students to engage in formative assessment as a partner with the teacher, encourages self-regulation, and has been shown to increase student learning.
State assessments often release achievement level descriptors to show how student knowledge within a standard increases from more novice to sophisticated states. These descriptors also are intended to show how standards integrate with other standards. Sequencing items by these states of complexity (called achievement levels though it is better to use the levels without the labels in the classroom) on pretests or on early unit homework assignments can help students (and you) identify where students are successful, by comparing easier or more complex content within the standard.
Students who are successful on more difficult, complex content are likely ready to move on. Allowing students to pick, for example, which six out of ten items to complete for homework can tell you whether students are making accurate judgements of their own abilities. For example, students who choose to answer the difficult, complex items and do so correctly often understand their own learning. Asking their perspective on what they need, supports their autonomy.
For students who are less confident in answering on-track or advanced items which purposefully require increased levels of critical thinking skills, choosing less or more difficult items allows students to experiment with the concept of desirable difficulty. We want students to challenge themselves with harder items to optimize their long-term learning; while at the same time, we want to scaffold more complex items for them in ways that they begin to regulate their own effort towards a desirable level of rigor over time. That is, students should have not only the opportunity to learn rigorous material, they should have the time and multiple practice opportunities to do so.
Testing supports learning. While we sometimes create pre-test study guides for students, growth in learning and retaining concepts is better supported by practice quizzes when compared to studying alone. Multiple-choice quizzes are better activators of student learning than studying alone, and short answer questions and essays function better than multiple choice in helping students learn and retain.
Because how you assess often influences the degree to which students retain information, setting up quizzes where students self-test and get feedback on each question accelerates learning. It is also important to bring back previously learned material (interleaving) on quizzes and tests to support students retaining the information. Interleaving allows you to measure growth in learning targets over time because you are providing students multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency which requires use of learned information outside of the unit of instruction.
While frequent low stakes quizzes have been shown to increase learning over business as usual, it is also critical to have students use writing to support and synthesize their learning. Performance tasks that require students to integrate and synthesize their learning are essential for growth, and not just in English Language Arts or Social Studies. For example, projects investigating how algebra is used in real life coupled with practice using the equations in a real-life scenario that are of interest to a student outside of the classroom serves to help her reflect on what she has learned, makes content relevant, and requires her to engage in more complex, critical thinking.
We intend to encourage students to accelerate and be accountable for their own learning. Assessment is a learning opportunity as well as a measure of learning. Assessment and grading practices that include retakes, rigor, and relevance serve to support student growth in addition to documenting what was learned.
Which practices do you use to help students accelerate their learning?
- I provide a list of all assignments due at the beginning of the semester or weekly to assist students in judging how many assignments they will have for the week to support time management, and I provide a recommended pacing for submission.
- When I give an assessment, I code items on the assessment on my answer document so I can investigate the range of skills from easy to complex a student answered correctly based on state achievement level descriptors, so I can monitor and grow the complexity of what students are able to do across time.
- I use frequent tests worth small point values and feedback to help student’s move information and processes into their long-term memory.
- I bring back important concepts on tests and performance tasks to ensure students are retaining and growing in the skills that are most essential for the next grade.
- I allow students to retake assignments when they have not demonstrated mastery to ensure they have both the opportunity and time to learn.
Assessment can be used to grow as well as document student learning; we just have to shift how we use it.@mcschneiderphd