I recently realized that I was destroying some of the information that my tests collect. I was averaging scores of multiple questions together, blending a student’s performance in different areas into a single, summative score. Instead of keeping the information that Johnny could multiply matrices perfectly (100%) but couldn’t really find inverses (50%), I was telling Johnny, “Johnny, you’re at about 75% in this class!”
And so I hit my first personal inflection point of the year. I stopped averaging scores, and started telling students (and parents) about their strengths and weaknesses in specific skills. For the most part I am following Dan Meyer’s example, described briefly at http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=346, and working with a vague idea of what Hans, a logic teacher here, does. Instead of getting back a single big score for a month of class, the students get 10 or 12 separate scores. Check out Dan’s blog for more details.
The new system immediately started helping in three important ways:
- Student motivation increased (dramatically in some cases),
- Remediation became more informed, and
- I started getting feedback that helps me streamline lessons before I give them and assess their efficacy after I give them!
1. Student Motivation
After switching to this new grading system, I have seen an increase in motivation in almost all of my students. I don’t know if they like the check list, if they like to be recognized as masters of skills (and they are masters!), or if the simple act of breaking the course down into manageable chunks is what is doing it. But it’s great.
A student that works to improve a single skill, and gets a higher grade in that skill, feels a sense of accomplishment immediately, even if he has five other skills to improve over the next week. The change in the way I see students catching up is actually astonishing. They can more easily see that they can do it, and they love it!
Furthermore, students that have earned 80% or 90% already seem motivated to earn the “master” designation in all of the skills on their list. My experience with students in prior years has almost never been “I have a 95% already – can’t I please take the test again to get a 100%?,” but now it’s practically across the board.
In my old, averaging ways, I wasn’t giving my students this kind of specificity and manageability to work with. Students with failing grades simply got a big fat “60%” on the top of a unit test. Now they get “if you work on matrix multiplication, you’ll be at a passing level,” or “you are a master of linear equations – what did you do to get so good with those?”
2. Informed and Focused Remediation
When a student comes in to my office hours now, I can pull out my grade book and see that they aren’t yet passing in skills 13 or 18. Since these skills are more or less independent of any other skill (an important feature of this program), we can get down to the students’ misunderstanding much faster. Also, it’s natural to focus on skill 13, and then 18. There’s no pressure to do everything at once for a single makeup exam that will re-test every skill simultaneously. Especially for kids who perceive themselves as bad at math, I’ve seen an increased willingness to come to my office hours for help.
3. Formative Assessment
When I give a test, there are a few intro-level questions and a few master-level questions, and also a pretest question. These are tests of skills that I have perhaps never mentioned before, or mentioned only briefly. I let the students know that if they score well on these pretest questions they won’t have to take them in the future, but I don’t expect them to know how to do them (how could I?) and that they will absolutely not be penalized for doing them wrong, or just leaving them blank. I estimate that it takes between 3 and 7 minutes to give a pretest question. For that price I get a preview of my students’ current knowledge, before I plan a whole class about something they already know or plan to skip over something that they don’t know at all. I also get a measurement of my skill as a teacher when the students take a test on the same concept after my lesson. Knowing the difference between “my kids all aced this skill (but they learned it last year)” and “my kids all aced this skill (and they never even thought about it before this class)” helps me rate my lessons.
I recommend it, guys. The switch is pretty easy, especially at the beginning of a grading period. Writing tests is easier. All you have to do is separate the skills you most care about (ok, this is hard), and then stop averaging!