28 September 2007

Learning to Let Go

Even though I have made some drastic changes to my grading practices this year, I am not immune to stacks of papers. I listened to a teacher complain at length yesterday about grading---and how hated of an activity it is. I understand why a teacher might feel that way (and certainly have myself), but not anymore. I have made a mental shift from the mechanics of grading (marking answers wrong) to thinking about two things as I look at student work: (1) Does the kid get it? and (2) Does the class get it---and what will I do if they don't? To put it another way, I'm more focused on the forest than the trees.

On Tuesday, I played a game with my kids to illustrate how energy flows in an ecosystem. At the end, I asked them some questions. In the past, I would have just marked the papers, totaled up the number of right answers, calculated the percentage, and put a grade at the top. This time, I read through all of the responses on a student's paper. I looked at them within the context of the learning target. If the kid grasped the majority of the concept, I marked a "3" (at standard) on my record sheet for formative data. As I did this, the larger part of the picture started to emerge. I saw two major misconceptions kids consistently had about food webs. I marked a "2" on my record sheet. Being formative, it won't count toward the final report card grade, but it is a signal to me as to which kids I need to pay particular attention to the next time we do something with this concept. More importantly, it gives me some direction in planning for the next few class sessions.

This "gestalt" approach saves me a lot of time and ink as I grade (kids can correct papers in class when we talk about the work---I don't need to spend my evenings and weekends on most of that) and it is good guidance for the next class session. It means, of course, that I have to let go of a lot of the nitpicky stuff I used to do.

Don't get me wrong---there's definitely a time and place for being anal retentive about grading. There are just some concepts that kids have to nail. And as far as extended response items, they are always going to be time consuming. The difference here is that I'm continually forcing myself to consider the goal and ask myself "So what?" about the work. In class, I get to tell kids "Here is what I learned from looking at your papers..." I don't care so much that a particular kid missed item #2---does the rest of the work show that the kid seems to know what s/he's talking about?

All of this also helps me spend my time looking in detail at the papers of kids who weren't able to hit the target the first few times out. I know who to provide even more detailed feedback to---and who just needs a suggestion.

Grading is a subjective process. We are human beings evaluating other human beings. No matter how many "objective" items you use on assessments---there will always be questions as to item quality and match to a target. But I'm gradually learning to set aside some of those worries and embrace the messiness of it all. So far, the kids are okay with the idea that we are all going to take the plunge together and learn.


Ms. W said...

I should start directing my fellow science ed peers toward your blog. Here is the pedagogical stuff we've been learning actually being put into action by a real life experienced teacher. Wow. You are my idol. :-D

The Science Goddess said...

Ooo! Groupies! :)

I love it. Send 'em over!