02 November 2008

The Symptoms of Grading

Does a dislike of grading indicate a "symptom" of the lack of fit between what teachers are asked to do and actual practice?

Susan Brookhart's (1994) observation is one of my favourite quotes on grading. I remember it every time I see something on Twitter concerning a teacher who is fussing about stacks of papers or have a conversation with an educator about classroom frustrations. I think about the years I viewed grading with the same amount of disgust.

In the last few years, I've changed my outlook. It doesn't mean the paperwork went away, but the way I used it shifted. Grading became an exciting proposition...and why shouldn't it be? It is a teacher's opportunity to find out what is and isn't working---and get creative about how to reach more students. Those assessments are gifts to be unwrapped: the ultimate surprise party.

I think part of the reason teachers tend to view grading with disdain has to do with the traditional approach: mark answers incorrect, count up points, calculate a percentage. This is incredibly tedious and the bang for your buck is pretty small. Unless you're going to track how many students missed each particular item and then cross-reference that with the standards each item was targeting, who cares that the class average was 82%? That approach really doesn't provide you with anything useful in terms of adjusting instruction. And yet, we're stuck in that mode for the most part. This is the disconnect observed by Brookhart. Actual practice doesn't get us toward the goal of supporting student learning in this case.

Can we change what's happening? We can---but there are really two pieces here that we have to work on. The easy one is getting teachers away from counting points and calculating averages. It doesn't mean that marking papers is going to go away (especially when those marks help kids understand what was done right/wrong), we just don't have to be nitpicky and engender habits in students which cause them to focus on points instead of learning. The second piece of changing practice here is more difficult, because it is the most precious commodity in education: time. It's not that the grading itself is more intensive, it's the opportunity to reflect on what you see and think about what course corrections need to be made. Classroom work is often based on submitting yourself to the tyranny of the urgent---and the simple truth is that students will be showing up again in the morning and you need to be ready. We tend to frontload our thinking that way, as opposed to increasing our focus for after the lesson.

This leaves me wondering about whether or not there are any public schools out there which have been able to restructure their resources so that student contact time is maintained, but opportunities for teachers to plan and reflect are increased. Is the answer smaller class sizes? Four day weeks with students with extended class periods...and one day per week as teacher workdays? Is it possible, I wonder, to assign 1.5 teachers to a group of kids so that every teacher could have some extended release time for planning and collaboration while their partner worked with students? None of these solutions are cheap, but I wonder what the collective costs are in terms of loss of learning for students. How does it impact their earning opportunities over a lifetime? How much extra might society spend building and staffing prisons? Is there a point where things start to break in the direction of schools?

In the end, grading is just one symptom of schools which are in need of better support. Perhaps addressing what we can within this realm is only piece of healing classrooms, but it represents taking one step in the right direction...a place to start.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Well, that was a fine piece.

I don't have much to add, except that I was talking with my wife, the alternative high school teacher, about the same subject(s) last Friday...and your questions begged to be answered positively.

Also, I was a little worried about you after yesterday's post! ;)

The Science Goddess said...


I'm fine---just too busy for my own good (and doing too many things which don't impact student learning). No worries.