TAG II: Grades vs. Feedback

TAG II: Grades vs. Feedback

Wondering aloud the place and time to provide feedback and grades

Written by Jeff Gerlach on Monday, 24 February 2014.

In a recent blog post, Starr Sackstein, touches on how grades distract her students from actual learning and the undue harm they may cause in labeling students. I especially appreciate how she laid out a scenario where two students are learning in their own way to master a concept:

Justice is an ideal that creates conflict within me when it comes to setting deadlines and accepting late work – a mixed bag of values contradicting each other. Student A works hard, meets deadlines and standards – deserves, wait no, strike that, earns an A. (An arbitrary letter I assign that means something different, and probably does, everywhere else.) Student B, completely capable, doesn’t like to play the game turns in an extraordinary paper, two weeks late, doesn’t follow all of the directions, but clearly gets the concept and exhibits tremendous chops in the skills department. What does this child “deserve”?

The question she poses at the end, cuts right to the root of the issue with grades. What does this child “deserve”? I argue each child deserves coaching and feedback, not letters … at least not right away.

While big timelines are often out of our control, there are many time restrictions that are completely teacher imposed. Meaning we can be flexible on where, how and how long students engage with certain content. While leaving every student to work at a pace that's completely left up to them would be irresponsible, we can negotiate timelines with students individually. Giving students enough time to fully immerse themselves in their learning while the teacher monitors the overall course progression, ensuring the student hits all the

 grades

 Photo by ragesoss

benchmarks.


One reason I believe so strongly in blended learning environments is because teachers have the ability to leverage online tools to personalize the scope and pace of learning for students. When activities become available to students in an online environment students are able to pick and choose what elements they interact with, how long they interact with them, which order they interact with them in, and how often they revisit them.

Well designed learning modules engage Student A because they set clear expectations and have an established linear progression that Student A can appreciate. When Student A completes a particular activity they progress to the next one, which is conveniently there waiting for them. If the next lesson isn’t ready yet, they are challenged further with enrichment activities or cycled back to assist others, all customized choices.

Well-designed learning modules also engage Student B because they have a say in how they navigate them. Student B likes to jump around an online module, interacting with components of modules that “jump out” at them. They pay less attention to the linear progression of a module, and treat every element as individual components. One powerful thing about online learning environments is that the teacher can "overload" them with multiple representations of the same ideas. Student B needs these options, because they want to follow their creative muse. The end product that is developed by Student B might take a little longer to produce but as an instructor I want to encourage them to see it through, guiding them as best that I can toward a relative learning goal that gives them unique authorship.

From my vantagepoint, one of the best ways to disassociate grades from learning achievement is to make them part of the epilogue rather than the climax of a student’s learning experience. Make qualitative feedback and ongoing dialog the never-ending goal of learning. We learn to learn things so that we can then learn more things, not to collect letters in our alphabet soup. The true organic incentive is that you and the student are in this together and it’s exhilarating to continue that collective journey. You can brush that off as utopian, but think of any of your best days as a learner or teacher … that’s where the reward really is the learning itself.

Teacher-student interactions do not need to be a grand gesture every time. It could be few comments on completed work, a quick face-to-face or screencast critique, a thumbs up emoticon, or a “Hey, I saw what you did … I really liked … did you think about maybe doing … ” kind of conversation. Just a few great interactions that provide feedback to students on how they're doing. Doing this in a timely manner for each individual student as they reach certain milestones in their learning is valuable in sustaining and guiding their journey with you. Learning becomes a cohesive and interconnected thing, rather than a compartmentalized alphabet soup of grades.

[T]he child is now in a position to experience success and failure not as a reward and punishment but as information. -Jerome Bruner

In my next TAG post, I want to talk more about the right time to give grades. I would really appreciate your thoughts on this issue:

How do you position grades in your classroom (when do you make them known to students)? What do you think is the best way to use grades?

About the Author

Jeff Gerlach

Jeff Gerlach

Jeff Gerlach (@JGer1) is an instructional design coach for Michigan Virtual University. He works with teachers to design blended learning experiences for students through presentations, school partnerships, online courses and 1:1 coaching. He holds a master's degree in educational technology from Michigan State and has experience as a face-to-face teacher in the metro Detroit area where he blended his classroom for six school years.

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