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Evidence does not equal learning.

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

I've known too many teachers who do not use grades effectively. The challenge, of course, wasn't ever that their grading practices were ineffective per se but, whenever I'd present an approach that was more effective, their response would involve some iteration of how their grading practices are already effective enough because "they work" - a rationale that seemed to put the end before the means.

I've since come to understand that this rationale for keeping a grading practice simply because "it works" does not only apply to teachers and their grading and reporting practices. This kind of thinking can be seen in many professions by people referencing a desired end to justify their means.

For example: restricting an entire food group to lose weight; guilt-tripping or manipulating friends or family into agreement; decreasing salaries to increase or balance profits; these are examples of ends justifying the means in the short term by ignoring or dismissing long term effects. This is often a means of survival, or self-preservation, as part of a belief, or mindset, that views those short term ends as more important than the long term ends.

More specifically, if losing weight is meant to increase overall health, restricting an entire food group may not provide the kind of long-term effectiveness you actually want. If having friends or family agree with you is meant to maintain a cohesive network of relationships, guilt-tripping or manipulation may result in them distancing from you over time which can actually prove quite ineffective in the long-run. If you are increasing or balancing profits to keep your business from going too far into debt, making cuts to staff salaries may decrease the quality of product output and, subsequently, negatively impact your bottom line. These examples are clearly not universal and are dependent on many context-specific factors but they reflect a kind of thinking that I've observed in education when it comes to grading and reporting.

We have to consider how we define our ends before we can reflect on our means.

For teachers whose end goal is for their students to "do the work", it is logical of them to use points to motivate students to complete tasks and then grade students according to overall accuracy and completeness of tasks. Teachers who exercise this grading and reporting practice have experienced that, yes, this does work for most students most of the time - a rationale that's hard to challenge because "it works".

Unfortunately, this practice is only "effective" because the end goal is for students to simply "complete the work" which is an end that is inherently flawed because of the following false equivalency being applied:

  • 'evidence' is to 'learning' as 'reporting evidence' is to 'reporting learning'.

In other words, when a teacher reports student evidence, we assume the teacher is reporting student learning because we're assuming student evidence is equal to student learning...

...and it's not.

Not all students who accurately and completely submit the assigned work will have accurately and completely learned the assigned concepts and skills.

One popular solution teachers apply to address this issue is to increase the "weight" of marks on in-class quizzes and tests to reflect a much larger percentage of the final course grade. One side-effect of this is that students lose motivation to engage in classwork, participation, or homework - particularly those students who have not been coached on the importance of such exercises as opportunities to practice for those in-class, independent quizzes and tests. Another side-effect of this is that quizzes and tests suddenly become far more "high stakes" and can induce unnecessary stress and pressure on what are meant to be opportunities for reflection and growth.

When the end goal is "turn in accurate and complete work" because of a false causal connection between evidence and learning, the means by which teachers motivate their students logically support the use of extrinsic rewards in return for work submitted accurately and completely and regardless of the actual student learning taking place.

Marks (i.e. grades on an assignment) are effective as a tool for learning only so far as their use is designated as a means for communicating forward progress of student learning and not for collecting (and reporting on) completed work as “evidence” of assumed learning. That's where this article by Thomas Guskey highlighting 4 important conditions for using marks effectively can provide some meaningful insight.

My takeaway from Guskey’s article is that the purpose of marks must be communicated as clearly and as specifically as possible to parents and students at every grade level; that purpose being for schools and their community of families to have a shared understanding of marks (i.e. grades) as temporary and forward-focused guidance for learning, based on defined levels of proficiency for objective course criteria, and complemented by narrative feedback to students on specific strategies for growth toward proficiency.

While that specific and desired end sounds like it would surely increase the effectiveness of marks as a tool for effective feedback in the classroom, it would also negatively impact the efficiency of current grading practices - a concern I've found drives many teachers' resistance to change.

Currently, teachers are able to mark dozens of student work samples instantaneously - electronically. Algorithms can calculate a "percentage score" far more efficiently than a teacher who marks student work by hand. It seems inherently impractical to expect teachers to provide meaningful and personalized feedback on every student work sample, especially now that we know computers are able to efficiently report percentages of accuracy and completeness of student evidence collected and immediately report back to students their percentage scores. The issue, however, is not that current practices are ineffective - it's that these practices are aligned with too narrow of an end goal, based on a false equivalency that evidence (any evidence!) equals learning such that reporting on collected evidence is reporting on assumed learning.

(Again, the idea here is that not all students who accurately and completely submit the assigned work will have accurately and completely learned the assigned concepts and skills.)

The most popular solution I've observed in other teachers' classrooms and in conversation is to insist that students complete classwork, participation, and homework with intention and the students who abide by their teachers' insistence of positive messaging will benefit from that practice and succeed on the quizzes and tests.

The issue is that, at the end of the day, students will react to grades much the same way any human reacts to any kind of extrinsic reward - they will be trained to respond to the reward with any behavior that achieves that reward.

This leads to student behaviors which cause teachers to react in ways that assign points to classwork, participation, and homework because (as I've heard many teacher colleagues say to me), "students won't do it if you don't assign points", without ever acknowledging that this student behavior is learned by the insistence of teachers' ineffective use of marks, or grades, throughout a student's academic career (or simply across grade levels).

The solution for this is not a simple shift in a particular grading algorithm, a conversion chart, or a simple change in a classroom routine. The solution for this requires that we first acknowledge that not all students who complete all assigned work are mastering all academic standards across grade levels (re: a false equivalence of evidence and learning). The solution for this requires teachers to willingly share their assumed authority and responsibility over the feedback process with students.

For example, I know many teachers who have come to believe, because of the larger culture and values of a school and its community, they are the gatekeepers for what, when, how, and why students learn. Parents might recognize this when their child tells them that they have to do a homework sheet a specific way because that's how the teacher said to do it.

When course criteria is defined by specific academic standards and proficiency of each standard according to specific depths of knowledge, accessible by the course curricula and teachers' resources/materials, it is no longer a secret and teachers are no longer the keepers of what proficiency levels are required for which academic standards to meet a specific course's criteria for full course credit. Instead, that information is presented and continuously clarified as students and parents work with teachers, staff, and administrators to develop mastery of the specified course criteria and its relevant proficiency expectations for specific academic standards in - and across - grade levels.

This makes the desired end more about meeting proficiency expectations of specific academic standards than it is about "completing the work". With this shift in the school and teacher's end goal, the means by which teachers coach students in achieving that end will inherently shift as well since simply finishing a task and receiving a mark will not achieve the same end as providing a relevant explanation exhibiting that student's understanding of the concept or skill. This also opens up the potential for students to exhibit their mastery of specific concepts and skills to incorporate their various individual strengths, be that verbal or written presentation, which can then be coached in ways that helps students synthesize their understanding into more standardized formats (if needed).

For a school to adopt this new purpose for marks (i.e. grades) as temporary and forward-focused guidance for learning, based on defined levels of proficiency for objective course criteria, and complemented by narrative feedback to students on specific strategies for growth toward proficiency, they can start by:

  • redefining the Structural Relationship of teachers, students, and parents

  • clarifying and internalizing values such as Trust, Responsibility, and Community

  • training teachers on student peer coaching

  • redesigning policies for whole class lesson plans to be more student-centered

  • allow for a minimum of 3 years for these transitions to begin taking root

Coaching students to accept authority and responsibility requires a shift in expectations related to specific elements of culture (discussed in this post here). Also, for a teacher to share authority with students, there must be an explicit and shared language and understanding of specific values such as Trust, Respect, and Responsibility (discussed in this other post here). In a more student-centered classroom learning environment, the role of the teacher is redefined as more of an academic coach, or a "guide on the side". For example, the coach may still instruct the whole class in small doses and often resemble "mini-lectures" which require highly effective explanations of often complex ideas - teacher mastery of concepts is required! - but most of the class session will be open for students to collaborate with each other, using the curricula and other resources available to them, to work through exercises which target specific academic concepts and skills according to predefined course criteria.

In this context, the purpose (or end goal) of a “mark” is no longer assumed to be a percentage of correct responses out of total possible and, instead, communicates a specific level of proficiency met for specific course criteria which students can openly discuss how best to move forward with specific learning strategies in different contexts of their different courses. In this way, marks (i.e. grades) become a tool for communicating forward progress of student learning rather than collecting (and reporting on) past work as “evidence” of assumed learning.

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