Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Earning or Learning?

Just over a week ago, we distributed first term report cards to students. In the days that led up to this, many of the comments I overheard students say reminded me of the question, "Is the focus on earning or learning?"

Here are a few examples of students comments:

"I have to get the assignment done. I need the marks so I pass the term!"

"I'm already getting an ok mark in that class. I need to spend time studying for the test in the (other) class so I can raise my mark for the report card."

"It's marks cut-off time. I have to finish it before the cut-off otherwise it'll be too late and won't be counted towards my report card mark."

"Whatever...I totally don't know what I'm doing in that class. I'm failing anyways. What's the point in doing the assignment?"

"Seriously, why does every teacher have to give us a test right before marks cut-off? Couldn't some of them wait until next week? I need to keep my grades up and this is stressing me out!"

When I hear comments such as these, a number of things come to mind about these kids.

Their motivation to do the work and study for tests is marks and grades.

Not even the threat of a low mark/grade is enough to motivate some students.

Our obsession with marks and inflexibility about due dates is causing stress for some students.

Sadly, these kids seem more interested and concerned about earning marks than learning.
Is their focus on marks something they have arrived at independently or have we, as educators placed such a high value on marks that we have coached them into this thinking this way?

I think back to the beginning of my career, full of energy but very inexperienced. I remember wanting my students to believe that every class period is important. So, I attached marks to almost everything my students did. This would teach them to come to class and hand in all their work...so I thought! By the end of a term/year my marks book was bursting with entries. Of course, I figured the mark I would assign each student would have to be valid. I'd have so many entries as evidence to back it up.

But what I started to notice is that my students were asking lots of questions about their marks, how to gain more and how much an assignment/test would be worth. Fewer and fewer of my students'  questions related to their learning. Rather than motivating my struggling learners, many were getting overwhelmed and turned off by a lack of success. They were disengaging, withdrawing and some were avoiding class. The impact on the higher achieving students was no better. They were becoming so consumed with point gathering that they were afraid to make mistakes and they were no longer asking deep questions. The constant pressure of meeting deadlines and having their work judged was contributing to leading to anxiety and in some cases caused them to cheat!

As I look back, I realize I was really missing the point.

I should have placed much greater emphasis on formative assessment.

I should have provided greater opportunity for students to make mistakes without punishing them in the gradebook.

I should have provided much more descriptive feedback that would point out to students what and how to improve.

I should have been more flexible with my arbitrarily decided due dates.

When determining grades, I should have exercised my professional judgment when looking at the data I had collected on each student. Data should be nothing more than a guide.

So now think about the students in your class..."Is their focus on earning or learning?"


  1. Unfortunately admission systems place greater emphasis on rewarding students with high grades so it's only natural that this motivates students to do assignments for the marks, not the learning.

    I'm not sure if being lenient with deadlines is beneficial for students although that may depend on the nature of the task. Deadlines help students take responsibility for their time management. Consequences of missing deadlines in the real world are much more dire than just a few percentage points.

    1. I agree that admissions systems place a great emphasis on grades. However, at the high school level we are trying to prepare students to become healthy, positive contributors to society. Will many of them go on to pursue some sort of post secondary training? Yes. We shouldn't cater to just these students though.

      I also agree that deadlines are helpful for time management and organization, not just for students but for people in general. The reality is that deadlines and timelines provide guidelines for people. If a student fails to complete a task by the deadline, what should we do? Hopefully, not assign a '0' and give the student the easy way out. I believe the best way to hold a student accountable for the work her/she didn't complete is to have him/her complete it.

      Where I disagree with you is your suggestion that in the real world there are much more dire consequences for missing deadlines. In my experience, when a professional/employee fails to meet a deadline, his/her supervisor typically asks why, provides redirection and if necessary works with the employee to guide him/her through the process. If this type of behaviour persists, then of course there will likely be larger consequences, but not to start with.

      I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on this as well!


  2. Ah, the "real world" rears its head again. Arguments about best educational practice based on analogy to business (which is part of "real life" but not all of it and not even the most important part) are not sound. Of course there are true "dead" lines in some parts of life - like income tax and submitting a competitive bid - and developing good habits for life is part of growing up, but its a long leap from there to looking to what people call "the real world" in order to determine what best supports learning and enables students to achieve their greatest potential. And if we do want to create schools in the image of "the real world" then we need to look at all of that world, including the part where smart managers mentor their employees in much the same way as effective teachers nurture student growth and not just the sink or swim world of 1950s style authoritarian bureaucracy. I challenge you to find any modern text on organizational theory or administration that advocates such practices. Our understanding of human behaviour has come a long way since Skinner argued that folks should be treated like lab rats or pidgeons.

    But once you allow this argument about "the real world" to start you are easily lost in confused thinking. IMHO, its best to just not go there at all. In order to decide what is best practice in education stick with educational research. In that world it is clear that learning is maximized by a heavy focus on formative assessment and that using grade incentives and sanctions to achieve behavioural objectives is counter productive. At the end of the line, of course, every IP has to become a grade by a deadline, but there is simply no cogent argument for using marks to either punish or reward. Marks, as you point out, are not "payment" or "reward" for hard work, good manners or compliance. They are not a tool for either student control or motivation. Marks should be based on demonstrated learning and nothing else - otherwise they lose their meaning.

    The sad truth is that abuse of marks by teachers has a long, sad history in education (of which I was a part in my early days) and we are far from banishing this misguided practice, but thank heavens that more and more people are getting it right and talking about it. It will take a generation, but the direction of change is clear and unstoppable. Marks as a reward with go the way of the Dodo Bird just as we have stopped using the strap and gotten rid of desks that bolt to the floor despite the fact that there are still people whom mourn their loss.

  3. Love how you phrased the questions; it's exactly the discussion we're having as a staff, and those questions are informing our decisions, especially as we are planning our iPad integration next year. I would say that your experience as a beginning educator mirrors both mine, and my colleagues precisely. I don't know about you, but when we approach students (Middle grades, in our case) with a new paradigm for demonstrating their learning, we get one of two results: one group can't wait to run with it, and the other feels cut adrift and very uncomfortable. We're showing them that it's ok to work through that, especially in reflective teams. Thanks so much, and will follow you now.
    Posted this entry on Twitter by the way @PTurkin

    1. Paul, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree, some students require greater amounts of coaching when approached with a new paradigm. From my experience, we also have to work with parents and educate them as to why we are placing the focus on 'learning' rather than 'earning' For most parents, this is a departure from the system that they went through as children. And if the system of 'earning' is one that they navigated well as a student and have experienced as a parent for the greater part of their children's schooling, a shift in assessment and grading practices may be met with some surprise and possibly some resistance. On the other hand, once parents understand that the shift away from marks and grades is designed to support their children's learning, I find that they are quite receptive.


  4. It is so true that our students give back to us based on what we ask of them. If we convince them that the message is about earning your grade, this is what we will do. Even in working with student teachers, they initially found it hard to conceive of a professional program that was not about grades, but about developing and demonstrating growing competencies - learning.

    I think a great piece done by a colleague of mine captures a lot of what you are getting at here.


  5. Thanks so much, and will follow you now.

  6. Thanks so much, and will follow you now.