Comments NOT Grades: A Practical Story

There are a few very important topics to me at this point in my career and this post will expand on anther one.  My blog has been dedicated to my exploration of my teaching practices and beliefs.  As I attempt to teach ethically, I also want to ensure I adhere and consider the Teaching Quality Standard set out by Alberta Education.  To this end, most of what I’ve written here has been focusing on how my understanding of the 21st century competencies are changing my beliefs and practices while the categories I use for my posts highlight my commitment to my profession.  Today’s post, while titled in such a way as to take on a hot topic in education, is more of a practical story rather than an argument.

At the end of last year I changed up how I was reporting grades to students.  Instead of providing students with their percentage for an assignment up front, I required them to grade themselves on the rubric and then have a conversation with me about my rubric for them.  We compared the two, talked about how to improve, then I gave them their mark.  This worked wonders for morale and increased the willingness of students to make improvements and learn from their mistakes.  This year I decided to take this a step further.

This year, students don’t receive a percentage at all (though I still need to arrive at one for my report cards).  In fact, assignments do not even receive an overall percentage.  I’ve decided to take a bit of a standards-based approach to my high school ELA courses (though I’m very much alone in this, at least in my district).  I have taken the curriculum and narrowed it down to what I believe are the 3 main overall standards in which students need to be proficient, plus a fourth as a catchall for the outcomes that don’t fit the other three standards.

  1. Decoding the ideas of others (ideas and support, etc from texts of all kinds)  30%
  2. Having powerful personal ideas of their own  30%
  3. Presentation  30%
  4. “Other”  10%

I’m not sure these are the best or only criteria my curriculum could be broken down into, but this is me being a ship at sea and taking a risk to move my teaching practice closer to my teaching beliefs.  With this grading practice, each criterion in my rubrics fall into one of these categories; therefore, students are given a “star” on the rubric for each criterion, which is then recorded into my marking program.  This means that each assignment is entered anywhere from two to six times, depending on how many criterion are used.

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A portion of one of my rubrics for the next authentic assessment task for ELA 10. Suggestions?

(I have a gold star stamp I use.  They love it!  BTW, this is based off Angry Birds:  1-Star is a pass.  Fail is Angry Bird terminology.  Students are okay with the harshness of it.  They recognize it as “try again!”  Like Angry Birds, assignments can be redone until you’re happy with your star-ranking.)

The practical side of this is that I/students/parents can clearly see what aspects of the curriculum students are doing well with, and which need focused improvement.  It also allows me to focus my comments for students and seek to provide feedback on problem areas.  Towards the end of the term, individualization can happen as students prove proficiency in certain areas, but still struggle in others.  Comments are becoming our focus rather than our grades, and learning is becoming the most important thing in our classroom.

On Monday of this week, I walked into my grade 10 class with a few pieces of work to return to students.  Two were “for” marks while the third was not.  (Formative and summative assessment have all but ceased to exist in my classroom:  with the criteria-based reporting, each “summative assessment” rubric criterion becomes formative to the next assignment; and students ALWAYS have the opportunity to take feedback and improve their work).  As I was commenting on the work, I realized that a few mistakes kept popping up over and over again.  Sure, this means I have a problem that I need to address on my end, but I have an important decision to make about how I do that.  In the past, I would address the issues via lecture.  Lately I’ve tried to put the learning back on the student via comments and redoing the work.  However, it struck me that I had a third option (and likely more than that).  With my focus on critical thinking and collaboration I find myself attentive to opportunities to reinforce these vital 21st century competencies.  The rest of this post will quickly explain what I did and what students thought of the learning activity.

The Learning Activity

As I was assessing their work, I decided I wouldn’t write the same feedback for improvement on more than one or two students’ work (I’d suggest three or four students for larger class sizes).  Then, on subsequent work that required the same improvements, I referred students to my comment on the other work.  For example, “I left some tips to improve introductions on Sandra’s paper.  You should go ask her if you can copy down my tips. Then compare your work and discuss how to incorporate some of the tips.”

I also began to identify students who had particularly positive aspects and began to refer students to look at these positive examples.  “At some point, go and see Frank; he has a well-written introduction and I’m sure he’d be happy to let you take a look.”  I made a point of ensuring every student had others referred to them for something positive in their work.  Those who need more improvement had more comments referring them to others, while those with better work had more peers referred to them.  ALL, though, had both types of referrals.

My original thought was to expect students to do this on their own time.  I arrogantly thought that all my teaching about collaboration would make them responsible enough to do this.   While this may or may not be true for my grade 10’s, I decided it wasn’t fair to ask this of them.  I also realized the collaboration and critical thinking aspect would be significantly stronger if we did this as a class.  So I set about planning the 84 minute period.

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When students walked into class they looked at the board (as routine is) and asked, “Do we need to read all that?”  Too funny.  My response:  “I wrote it all.  The least you can do is read it.”  Little did they know this was just a portion of the reading they’d be doing.  But you know what?  I didn’t hear a single complaint after that.  Before handing back any work, I asked several students to reiterate what the board was instructing them to do today:

  • read all the comments on their work
  • jot down anyone they are suppose to talk to (they had no idea what that meant)
  • reflect in their thought journal what they need to improve:  critical thinking through the comments and rubrics to see trends in their work
  • talk with others they were referred to, and to those who have been referred to them:  collaboration and critical thinking as they assess what their peers did compared what they themselves did
  • reflect in thought journal about how their conversations would help them improve their own work

It was about to be sheer and utter chaos for 80 minutes.  Organized chaos I hoped.  I’d never done anything like this before.  I had invited several others to witness the upheaval (and get some video), but because the idea was last minute no one could come. I knew this was going to be either spectacular or tragic.  Either way I had wanted witnesses to tell my tale.  I managed to get some video, but FOIP is up in the air at the moment, so I’ll just highlight a couple interesting moments.  At first, the room was silent for 15 minutes as students poured over their written feedback NOT grades.  They jotted down names and areas to improve upon.  Then there was movement. Slowly at first, mostly turning to their neighbours, then true mingling began and students turned to peers rather than friends.  It was wondrous.  Students were talking (mostly on task, but not 100%) and jotting notes, and reading more work than just theirs.  Desks were moved, couches utilized, groups formed and leadership occurred.  I couldn’t be happier.  Learning was happening.  Student-led, teacher-designed learning.  I got to record a few conversations with students that were inspiring and affirming.  One student (the cool boy) actually said that the purpose of his learning was to improve and grow from his errors rather than to get a better mark.  I teared up right in front of him.  We had a 5-minute conversation, some of it on tape about the role of education in his life.

Student Reactions (via Thought Journal responses)

The following are direct quotes, in some cases entire responses, from thought journal entries the next day.  Remember, these are grade 10 students (an even split of boys and girls).

“I know that I have to read more carefully to understand everything and maybe read it 3 or 4 times if I need to. . . I think it was good what we did yesterday because we could see what others did wrong or did right and why.  And what you did wrong or right and why.”

“I agree with 95% of the comments because most of them were on finding support and examples which I was just to lazy to do. . . As long as I use the comments as they are meant to my writing should improve.”

“To be honest, I believe that this excerise or activity didn’t actually help to the extent that I or Mr. Groff wanted it to.  I noticed that I needed to improve on my quality of support but the one person I was recommended to was overwhelmed with others work.  The result of this ended up forcing me to get the teacher to bring us together and start a conversation which left the other to have a free 20 min at the end of class.  As well as I don’t feel that I learnt about giving better support.  I’m not saying this was a bad idea though, I believe if we were taught how to teach and were given time to go in depth with the other person that would’ve accomplished more.  So I would like to try this again but maybe a different way.”

(It wasn’t 20 minutes of “free time,” but he’s right, a few students took advantage of me not paying close attention to them; however, the majority kept right on sharing.  After 60 minutes of hardcore learning, I wasn’t about to interrupt a great conversation regarding the need for schools to offer students more personalized education, just to harass a few others after such an empowering activity.)

“Along with this [the work we got back] we had gained additional feedback and comments along our text.  This information told us what we were doing wrong, what could be improved, and what we were doing right.  I had many comments, along all pieces of my work.  As I took the time to read and learn from this feedback, I understood what needed the most improving in my work: 1. Using better work choices  2. Going more in depth, maybe using more examples  3. Preparing a proper conclusion.  I tended to agree with almost every single comment and point.  And even when I didn’t, I learned and understood what could’ve been better and what was wrong.  And going off of that note, that was a major way other had aided me yesterday.  I glanced at there work and mine as well, and analyzed the pros and cons of both writing.  This way I could help others as well as myself.  The learning from yesterday gave me better insight and analogy for my work.  It made me realize and understand what can be done better in my text.  It was a good way to better my work.”

“I would like to do this activity again.  I learned lots from it and it was more interesting than listening to Mr. Groff talk.”

“After talking to “Joe,” and being able to read his conclusion, I found that I see where I went wrong.  I still have old habits to kill, but now at least I know what I should be doing. . . I can make my writing sound good.  That’s not good enough though.  I want it to be good. . . I agree with the feedback I got yesterday, know it needs work and I know I have strong points and also my weak points. . . I can fix it.”

“What we are learning is great.  I enjoy how you are considering both what we need in school and after school.  What I think I need to improve on my work is my spelling, eliminating I and you from my work, and most definitely my personal reflection.  I feel the class discussion are going very well.  I enjoy them much more than just writing and pear work because it keeps me entertained through the whole class.  The help I received from others yesterday was great.  they truly helped me in areas where I am struggling.  Looking into the future I feel if we continue a similar path as we have lately I think the class will be fun and interesting which is making me want to learn more.”

My Takeaway

  • I was so impressed with the critical thinking that occurred as a result of this activity.  Students were able to consider the activity, their conversations, and their work in a way that would benefit their learning.
  • This would work so much better with just one assignment being handed back rather than three (my fault for not keeping up).  Though, with a class of only 13 students, I’d be concerned with not finding enough from each student to refer them evenly to others.  The three assignments certainly gave me some wiggle room to ensure all students had peers referred to them, and them to peers.
  • Some structural changes may need to occur.  Organized chaos did occur.  And I liked it.  But as the one student pointed out, it was tough for everyone to get the most out of this activity.  I’m not sure exactly what the answer might be, or if simply having a single assignment might be enough to lessen the craziness.  I’ll be talking with this student and the class as a whole in order to have them solve this problem for me.
  • For the vast majority of students this was an extremely beneficial learning activity.  I know many teachers offer extensive feedback, and some even require their students to do extensive work with that feedback.  I think this was different though in a couple ways.  First, I didn’t force students to actually change their work.  As the one student pointed out in conversation, for him it was more about the learning for his future than it was to improve his grade.  The comments were what he needed.  The video of the conversation is quite moving, and if I can get permission to post it, I will.  Second, while I pointed students in the right direction, the activity was far from structured.  It was up to students to take ownership of their learning, to be a leader, to be a learner.  Third, this task emphasized the 21st century skills of collaboration (community) and critical thinking over the content knowledge.  Students could see the benefit of the task as applicable after they leave formal education behind.
  • Offering students grades on their work would not allow this activity to run anywhere near as smoothly.  Written feedback was the key.  One of the assignments they got back didn’t even have a marking guide with it.  It was simply a pre-evaluation of their formal academic writing skills.  This did not detract from their learning though.  Even the rubric, because the criterion are categorized into curricular standards, allowed students to begin to identify where their errors are occurring most.  With no overall grade on the work, students were able to look at the positives and negatives without feeling “overly satisfied” or “overly disheartened.”  One student, at the start of the explanation for the activity, stated that there was no way anyone would come to him for improvement.  I guaranteed him they would because he had a least one positive attribute that some of his peers did not.  It was amazing to see this student engaged for 80 minutes with his classmates, sharing his work with them, and learning from theirs.  A grade at the top of his work, with his barely passing percentage, would have ruined what little confidence he had that allowed him to at least be open to this learning activity. (***3 days later (today), this same student expressed his interest in sharing with the entire school, via the next assembly, his upcoming authentic assessment task.  That’s how confident he’s become that he can do great work.)

Comments, NOT grades, have the ability to empower students.  Comments, not grades, have the ability to say both, “This is fantastic!” and “This could be better.”  Comments, not grades, have the ability to transform schools into a community of learners rather than a competition between rivals!

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2 thoughts on “Comments NOT Grades: A Practical Story

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