Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Feedback: How Do Teachers Arrive at Grades?

Last month an writer friend of mine gave me a 600 page (well, 599 pages) manuscript of her new novel to comment on. And as we talked on the phone she rattled off a whole series of questions that she wanted me to address--describe my feelings about certain characters, what did I think the structure was and did it work, were there problems with the rhythm in certain sections?

What struck me most immediately was how similar these questions and concerns were to the way I would talk with my soccer players at halftime of each game. Because I could not tell what the game felt like from the sideline (as a spectator or coach you never really completely understand the feeling of what is happening on the field), I had to listen to my players talk for awhile before I could really say anything helpful. As a parallel note, I think we as teachers do not understand what it feels like to be a student--particularly an adolescent student. But we often falsely assume that, because we may understand what it feels like intellectually, we understand it psycho-emotionally.

And then I realized that my players needed to be the first people to set the terms of the dialogue about what had just happened in the first half. Furthermore, if I could train them to ask the right questions about the game, then the quality and effectiveness of my feedback and their play on the field would soar astronomically. As time went on the questions they asked were surprisingly similar to my author friend--what did I think about certain choices they had made at different junctures, did the shape and structure of the team formation hold in the desired way, was there a flow to certain sections of the half?

The key, I realized, was that they had to feel like the authors of the game they were playing, and my job was primarily to make them feel like expert authors. Once that happened, then we could take the field for the second half.

The issue here is feedback, and it is one of the most fundamental and perplexing parts of being a teacher and human being. Just as a way of confirming how important feedback is, it was ranked in the top three "most effective things that matter" in learning development by John Hattie's synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement in education. That book is, by the way, a fascinating compilation of data.

The nature of feedback is usually on my mind, but this week it is Parent's Night and I have to present my "grading policy." Because, in many places, that is the currency of the realm in terms of feedback. We can explore how this currency came to be adopted in a later post; in this post I want you to think about how YOU arrive at grades. (This is obviously directed more specifically at people who are teachers, but I think it has other applications as well.)

Decades ago I decided that I would ask all the master teachers in the school I was teaching in (two different schools actually and countless friends who are teachers across the country) how they arrived at the grades they did. What follows below is the compendium of what they come up with as answers. The document below is the one I give out to my students to get their feedback on this process and to open the dialogue about grades and what they are good for and what they are decidedly not good for:

I can tell you what I did discover, and this has held true for every workshop in every school I have ever done this with--no teacher has exactly the same grading policy. Furthermore, it is the rare teacher who is completely transparent to students about all of the factors that go into grading. Finally, there is significant disagreement amongst teachers and schools about what "ought" to be considered when grading. Not surprisingly, my own students never agree on how to arrive at grades for the class. Put yourself through this little exercise and see if anything surprises you.

To: My students
Re: Grading                                                                                                      
How do Teachers Arrive at Grades?

     What follows is an experiment you can run that is based on data that I have been collecting about all of the factors that different teachers use to arrive at the grade you receive.  All of these categories are ones that teachers have told me they use to determine what grade to give to a student.  Or, as some like to say, “the grade the student earned.”

     You can do this yourself and “play teacher.”  Here is how to play—first, you need to assign a percentage weight to each of the following ten (10) categories.  The total has to add up to 100%.  Obviously, different teachers use different percentage weights for different categories.  After you have done that, you need to assign a number to each of the categories indicating the score in each category.  (Example:  Say a teacher decided PERFORMANCE is 50 % and EFFORT is 50 %.  You score a 100 for effort and a 50 for performance; you would receive a 75 for your grade.)

     Now, obviously, this can get a lot more complicated when you have different percentages in six or seven categories.  But, do the best you can.

                        1)   Performance
Both written and oral. Homework and in-class work. Projects, etc.

2) Talent
Reading, writing, thinking, oral communication
                  3)   Development
How much progress has there been?
                  4) Past Experience
What has your experience been relative to past classes you have taught in this subject?
                  5) Comparison
Rank in relation to other people in this class
Rank in relation to the rest of the school
Rank in relation to other people you have taught in other schools

6) Effort
                 Have you done everything assiduously and in “good faith?” Do you put in lots of time?
                  7) What have you learned?
                 Consider what has been “internalized" or gained in “personal experience”
                  8) Motivational Factor
What grade would motivate you best in the future?
                  9) Self-Assessment
How well can you self-assess your own learning?
                  10) Subjective Factor
                   Any other factor that you think should count

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had given feedback to my soccer players at half-time the way I used to give feedback to my students. I envision myself standing in the center of circle of players and spinning around pointing at individual players saying, "A, C, D, B+, C-, B-, D+....." and then "OK, we ready for the second half?" I think I might have been fired for incompetence, and I can't even imagine what Parent's Night would have looked like.

Compare your answers to how you compute grades with your colleagues; I would be interested to see what you discover.

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