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Grading in an Online Classroom

Jun 30, 2020

Whether your building will be in a completely virtual setting or a mixed bag with the blended model, grading is going to shift in some way in your classroom this coming school year.

And, just like in our Flipped Teacher Facebook group last week, I have a challenge for you...

Let it.

Let the pandemic and the reality of remote learning thrust upon us make a shift in your grading structures.  I don't necessarily know what it should look like, or what the paradigm of grading will ultimately be, but I'd like to contribute some thought-provoking points on this whole grading thing, especially in the context of distance learning.

The Change we've been asking for

Could this pandemic and the necessity of remote learning be the catalyst we've needed to make some large, and necessary paradigm shifts in education?  Particularly with grades?

I don't necessarily have the answer to that question, but it seems to me that if we teachers have been begging for less testing, more authentic, real-world assessments, and less standardized testing, then let's start walking the walk while we've got the chance.

I'm not saying let's run amuck with no cares in the world, letting students learn whatever they want in our classrooms, which ultimately results in sheer anarchy.

Ok, that's a little dramatic, but I think you get what I'm saying.

It's all about finding the balance between rigid standardized testing and complete lack of measuring performance and, therefore, effectiveness.

There's got to be a middle ground.

And while the world is focused on much more important issues like saving lives with stay-at-home orders that happen to prevent children from attending school and, therefore, from being overly tested... let's RISE TO THE OCCASSION. 

Let's show them how we can remain effective with our students when the evil, micro-managing eye of standardized testing isn't looking.

Sure we'll have to do it in classrooms that are online, blended, or randomly cancelled for a few weeks due to safety concerns, but dang it, we'll have flexible, accessible classrooms built on relationships with our students that drives our success, and a little distance won't stop us from reaching our kids.

Let's forget the industrial-inspired clockwork of paying our kids with grades as if they're hired help who we compensate with some form of currency (grades) for doing worksheets, seat time, and obtaining certain scores.

Let's break the age old model we've been all but drowning under since the internet rocked our worlds (and our classrooms) and just see what happens.

I bet it all won't go to hell, I can tell you that much, so what's the hesitation?

The Focus moving forward

So if we are to change the paradigm around grades by focusing on them less, well then what in the world do we focus on?

I'm not saying you don't assign, measure, and track student performance through the system that's been used for eons (you know, A, B, C, D, F).  Let's face it, it's efficient.

Here's what I am saying.

Your grades can no longer be defined by a student's ability to do well in school, but more so should represent how well they know the material.

Understanding that a student's ability to do work in your class is NOT equal to showing mastery and therefore should not be reflected in their grades is a challenge.  Making grades reflect that understanding is even more difficult.

I can hear resistance to this idea already, and, not going to lie, sometimes a little voice in my own head gets snarky when I bring up this topic.  It says things like this...

A. "If a student is going to do well in my class, they have to do the work to do well."

B. "If it helps them do well on the test, then I'm going to grade it, therefore, making it important."

C. "If it's not graded, students won't do it."

Let me respond to each of these hesitancies one at a time.

A."If a student is going to do well in my class, they have to do the work to do well."

Of course.  You're exactly right.  You are an expert in how to learn, that's what makes you a teacher, and therefore when you assign a task it's because you know it will help students do well in proving their mastery of the content.  Students should absolutely engage in the learning process in the way you lay out for them because you've had years of education and experience to make you the perfect person for that task.  Please don't doubt that fact.  But why is it that you have to assign a grade to those learning tasks you create for your students?

I point you to option C.

B. First let's get to B though. 

"If it helps them do well on the test, then I'm going to grade it, therefore, making it important."

And, therefore, the only way that something is important in your class is if it's graded, right?  Meaning, the only way students will do something is if it's graded.

I point you to option C.

C.  "If it's not graded, students won't do it."

I'll respond to this one with a story.

A few years back, after I had purchased those cute little table top frames from IKEA (thanks #teachergram and Pinterest) and slipped in inspirational growth mindset quotes (grab the freebie here), a student of mine was reading one of the quotes, which read, "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right."  Good ol' Henry Ford graced us with that one.

The student was appalled by this quote.  She read it to me and said, "Mrs. Rice, this is so mean.  You're telling me that if I don't feel confident, then I'm right, and I'm really bad at something."

My response to her was, "No not at all.  I'm saying that the most powerful influence on whether or not you accomplish something is your very own voice.  Start believing in your ability to do things and watch how much more you succeed."

It's like a veil was taken off her face and she immediately understood the power she held in her own mind and self-belief system.

I will say the same thing to you here.

If you believe that the only way that students will do anything in your class is if you assign a grade to it, then you are right.

Grades are so ingrained in what we do in schools and in each of our individual classrooms that changing the paradigm, even slightly, will take a complete culture overhaul.

Lucky for you, all it takes is a culture shift inside of your classroom to make an impact, not necessarily across the entire field of education. Phew.  A bit more manageable, right?

The culture shift on what grades mean and how student-work is valued in your course will not change until it changes in your mind and in your actions.  And if we're all looking at some alternative setting for school this year where measuring and grading every little thing our students do will become an insurmountable task on day one, then we'd better change our actions, quick.

Steps to shift the culture of grades

 The steps I lay out here are not necessarily linear.  There's no particular order, but all are required to make change.

1. Make the change

Get out your syllabus, or whatever holds your grading policies, and make some changes.  Now, your syllabus might not lay out clear as day the fact that your grades are made up of mostly effort grades where if a student completes work, their grade won't be effected by the fact that they don't know a thing you've taught them. So you may have to dig a little deeper.  

How many points are dedicated to "work" - tasks they need to do in order to learn the material?  And how many points (or what percentage) are dedicated to proving mastery - that's right, assessments that measure their understanding (doesn't have to be your traditional tests)?

I would recommend that if you can get to as close to a 15/85 breakdown there (15% to work and 85% to mastery), you are right where you need to be.

2. Start preaching

From day one, right after you introducing yourself, you'll need to start preaching the culture of your classroom and that includes how students' learning will be measured.  And you'll have to keep preaching on this topic throughout the entire school year.

I call it preaching rather than teaching because when you're preaching, the topic is one that you believe as truth and therefore won't change.  It's also something that you believe is for the betterment of those you are preaching to.  In the case of grades, both of these are true, and you want to build it in to your classroom conversations often.

To get comfortable enough on the topic to preach it to your students I suggest you start talking about it to others now, and frequently.  The more you talk about the topic, the more clarity you'll get around your grading philosophies.  Get that clarity before you start preaching.

3. It will take failing and lessons learned

Do your very best to help each one of your students see how the process of learning - taking notes, effective study strategies, engaging with material, asking questions - is all necessary and directly related to assessment scores, and therefore they're grade.

Most will understand and buy in.

Some won't.

Some will buy in and not benefit.  Meaning they've known a certain way for so long, and now they are using the same techniques they've always used without the same effect.

For both of these students (those who buy in plus those that don't, both of whom ultimately do poorly on your first quizzes and tests), will need to do poorly in order to learn pivotal lessons in, well, learning.  They'll need to see, through natural consequences, that the technique of just sometimes listening to the notes, but most of the time checking their phone is NOT focusing on the content, and therefore is not learning the material.

They'll need to see that "studying" the way they've done previously where they just look over their notes or reread some parts of the text is not really studying at all, rather its just grazing info as if they'll absorb the information via osmosis.

Long story, short, some students can't be told this lesson.  They'll need to learn it with natural consequences.

This is why it's CRUCIAl you implement number 4.

4. Give them ample opportunities for natural consequences

Give students PLENTY of opportunities leading up to your larger assessments to learn if their learning is working or not.  That way, it's no surprise to anyone, and also teaches students a bit of metacognition along the way.

This means having frequent formative assessments (you can totally take those for a grade by the way) is required.  And you've got to have quite a few before the summative assessment.  Otherwise there's too long of a period of time between action and consequence for these immediate-gratification younglings we're raising up here.

So, am I suggesting a complete overhaul or throwing grades out altogether?

Well, maybe a small overhaul, but certainly not throwing out grades.  Baby steps.  Let's not make 2020 any worse for the poor parents who had to homeschool their children this year.  Tossing grades just might send them over the edge.

Plus that's even more work for you, so, like I said, baby steps.

A side perk that I won't go too far into here is that within this system of grading, it's more sustainable for you.  No longer do you have to grade every answer, every sentence, or every move your students make.  Instead, you get to guide them in the learning process.  How freeing is that - for you and them?

That's pretty awesome.

Here's to contributing to this paradigm shift, albeit slowly, but it might just go faster than we think thanks to this pandemic.

Until next time,

P.S. If the topics you find on this blog are inspiring enough to take action and you'd like to know more about techniques that will help you build an accessible and sustainable classroom so you can remain effective yet PRESENT at home, then check out my online course that's currently open for enrollment for a short period of time.  It closes this Thursday at 9pm EST.


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