Saturday, November 6, 2010

Is this for marks? A need for Engagement!

"Is this for marks?"   This is a common question asked by many students in today's classrooms.

"It's worth a lot of marks, so it's important you do the work!"  This is a frequently used line by many teachers in order to motivate their students.  I too, can admit to having used similar lines in the past.

And what is the result of applying these extrinsic motivational strategies?  We have created a majority of students who are compliant learners.  Some of our students are reluctantly compliant.  They complete just enough work and study just hard enough to achieve a bare passing grade.  Others are obsessively compliant and spend countless hours striving to achieve a perfect grade.

As educators, we must not be misled by our students' compliance.  Even though students are performing well on all assessments, we must not get fooled into believing they are deeply engaged in their learning.
At a recent workshop I attended, Bruce Beairsto said that 'the use of marks is abused often in schools' and 'marks aren't always being used in a way that induces deeper engagement or increased intrinsic motivation'.   We need to help students believe that they can accomplish things so that  they have the confidence to step into and take control of their own learning. 

So just how can we use assessment practices to support student engagement?
First, we need to provide students with challenging but reasonable tasks that our students can experience success on and build their own perceptions of  competence from.  We should focus more on formative assessment and less on summative evaluation.  We should assist students in their areas of difficulty and provide constructive, encouraging and specific feedback about what they can do, rather than what they can't do.  Our goal should be to increase our students' self-efficacy beliefs and avoid the impression of incompetence. (Beairsto, 2010) Students who believe they can change and improve their abilities are far more likely to deeply engage in their learning.

Beairsto spoke of four levels of engagement: compliant, attentive, connected and fulfilled.
In order to move students along this continuum we must get our students interested in what they are learning, help them connect what they are learning to their lives and help our students see the importance of what they are learning.  

Students who care about what they are learning and continue their learning beyond the classroom...isn't this our goal?


  1. Great post Aaron! I taught high school for 7 years and then became an elementary school administrator. During this transition I was privileged to be involved in the BC Education Leadership Council and a big focus was Assessment For Learning. This changed my whole philosophy of motivation, engagement, and learning. Since 2007 I have not given marks for things(other than report cards) and this has worked well for my intermediate students. It was a struggle for the high achieving students and parents but it move the focus from grading to learning. Last year, I had the privilege of teaching grade 1 reading - do you thin I EVER heard the question , "Is this for marks?" not once, never.

    We, as a system, teach kids that grades and marks are important. They are not important to primary students but they become more and more important through intermediate, middle, and secondary years. By having conversations with our school communities based on posts like this one, it is my hope that we can eventually be in a system that focuses on learning rather than learning.

    More great educators/authors on this topic: Dylan Wiliam, Ruth Sutton, Alfie Kohn, Anne Davies, Daniel Pink, Tony Wagner, Joe Bower

    Let's keep this conversation going!!!! Thanks for the great post!

  2. Chris, it's very encouraging to hear that educators like yourself are changing practice to include Assessment for Learning. At the high school level, too many students lose hope of completing courses far too early in the school year. Applying an AFL approach provides the motivation for students to continue trying. Students who receive a '0' when they fail to complete an assignment are being provided an excuse for not doing the work.

    As teachers, we should be assigning work because it provides an important learning opportunity. And if it's important, we must insist that students complete the work, not give them an easy way out!

    It sounds funny, but convincing parents and students that its all about learning and not grades, can be challenging. Collaborating with colleagues to see the value of AFL and how to implement it in their classrooms is the real work. And the way to do this is one conversation, one individual at a time!

    I agree, let's keep the dialogue about AFL going!

  3. Great post Aaron, and excellent follow-up comment, Chris.

    We have taught kids that marks are important, I totally agree, and in some ways, we continue to do so. Certainly, gaining entrance into universities in British Columbia and beyond is most often predicated on GPA. Student participation in optional provincial exams is fading exponentially because students no longer wish to take a risk in demonstrating their knowledge in fear of losing their conditional acceptance or scholarship at major universities. While this very fact is sad, I don't blame them.

    As a result, I feel that we really need to emphasize and educate our consumers of education (students and parents) that the process of learning is the important piece, and will be the piece that ultimately leads to their success in higher education and beyond. The way to do it is through the very principles that you outline in assessment for learning.

    In our school, we have a teacher who has taken letter grades to a different level--he uses random letter grades to correspond to the rubrics that he generates to assess students. Rather than seeing the traditional "B" on a project, a student might see "Q"s, "L"s and other letters on their paper. They then have to see the teacher, who provides the rubric, and gives them the corresponding "letter key" that goes with the descriptive feedback in the rubric. After the student corrects the areas where they need work, the student will re-submit the work, and it is given a "traditional mark". As a result, the letter grade that the student gets initially forces them to go back and use the criteria to improve their product before they get a mark. The students actually read the feedback, rather than just looking at the "B" and walking away.

    I feel that this is a promising practice that allows students to use and learn from assessment, and one of the many strategies that we can adopt so students and teachers use assessment to improve instruction and ultimately improve student achievement.

    Thanks for the post, Aaron!

  4. Cale, the teacher at your school is on to a great idea! What a terrific way to get students to read the teacher's comments and act on the feedback. Too often, students look at the mark at the top of the page and never even glance at the teacher's comments.

    Along the same lines, I am a big proponent of having students learn from a test by allowing retests. Quite often we hear students say that they made a 'foolish' mistake and if they could do the question over again they would most definitely get the answer correct. This is one of the reasons I believe in allowing retests.
    I also think that if students are unsatisfied with their achievement on a test and they follow this up by demonstrating to the teacher that they are learning the material, we should allow them to retest. We must account for the fact that students learn in different ways and at different rates. An arbitrary one-time test date established by the teacher hardly supports students learning at different rates.

    Here is a method of retesting that works well:

    • Construct a test with separate sections divided by topic. Each section will have a total value
    • Students take the test and each section is tabulated separately.
    • Using a custom tracking sheet, each student calculates his/her individual scores from each section as well as an overall test score. The student will also indicate on the tracking sheet how he/she will change his/her preparation pattern for the next test.
    • Taking into account his/her academic goal, score on each section and overall test score, the student decides which section(s), if any, he/she wishes to re-write.
    • Construct a new test with the same sections and values but different questions
    • Using one standard template, cut and paste the section(s) selected by the student, print the document and administer the new test.
    • Mark the second test and determine which sections have increased scores.
    • Determine the new overall test score and track the improvement.

    Once again, the name of the game is improving student learning!

    Thanks for the comment Cale!