If the purpose of school is more than the transference of curriculum, then assessment must be more than numbers. The very idea of genuine learning contains the growth of the individual learner as a central goal, and it raises the very real question of how to assess personal growth. Certainly, it will be much harder to come up with a quantifiable result - we humans are much too complex for that blunt of a symbol - so another approach must be taken.
What is needed is a broader definition of communication over successes and challenges, preferably dialogues between the teacher and students and the teacher and parents. Grades can serve a valuable function as a springboard for those conversations. They become a means to an end, which is their appropriate role.
As in any dialogue, the nature, even the subject of the conversation depends on the needs of the people who are conversing. This is true of a teacher-student conversation as well as a teacher-parent conversation.
It’s time for another conversation about grades with my students. It’s an important topic, of course, and one in which old habits often rear their ugly heads if we aren’t vigilant. We will come back to the topic a number of times in the course of the year, which is as it should be. It’s part of what we are all learning.
The reason this time is that it has come to my attention that several parents of my students have been looking at their grades on HAC, the Home Access Computer program, are wondering why there’s much less information available for this class than their other classes. I should explain about HAC. After floundering for a number of years in an attempt to create a computerized grade system for the entire school, the new system allows teachers to post their students‘ grades on a daily basis and gives parents full access to those grades.
Many teachers have seized upon HAC as a powerful new tool to communicate with parents and keep their students up-to-date with how well they are doing, what homework assignments they still haven’t completed, and so forth. But there is a price to pay, of course. While there are several options for what format grades can be entered in, and some flexibility in “weighting” the various grades, there is certainly a focus on quantifying every aspect of assessment to a precise number. For a number of teachers, including me, this is another step down a slippery slope.
Given some parents’ concerns, I feel the need to discuss the matter with my students, and follow up with a letter to their parents.
“Before we get into the lab that’s set up in the back of the room, I’d like to get a sense of how you are experiencing the grading structures from your other teachers. Things have been changing pretty quickly in how we report grades, so I’d like to get a better feel for your experiences.
“I’m curious - how frequently do your other teachers post grades, and how often do you check up on them?”
“My teachers are all over the map,” says Mike. “In my Algebra class, we get a grade posted on HAC every day, and a summary of those grades are posted on the wall once a week.”
“And do you find that useful?”
“I don’t find the daily HAC thing all that useful, but I do check the weekly report to see if I’m missing any work, for instance.”
“What about your other teachers?”
“Most of them are in the middle, somewhere. They’ll post a HAC update every week, or so. Some of them post grades on paper, some even hand them out. Some just assume you’re going to check on the computer. Then there’s this class, of course,” he says with a laugh, “and we’re lucky to find anything on HAC at all.”
“You’re right, of course,” I say. “As you know, I have some real reservations about focussing on grades too frequently.
“Does anyone else have anything to add about how your teachers do grades?”
“Yeah,” Jasmine says. “I think most of my teachers are very focussed on having us keep up with all the work. They want us to know if we’re missing anything that would lower our grades so we can make it up in time.”
“How many of you feel that that’s a basic reason for posting grades frequently?”
Half the class raises their hands.
“And does it help you keep on top of making up work?”
“Nah,” says Sam. “Sometimes I’ll pay attention, but I’m almost never surprised to learn I’m missing something. I know when I’m not doing work. I think it might help some people, if they are disorganized or can’t keep the deadlines straight.”
“Yeah, and it also helps to know when your grade is slipping for any reason. Right now, I’m working hard in my U.S. History class, because I know parent conferences are coming up, and I want that grade to be higher before my parents show up.”
“Well, that raises the question of how parents use HAC. How many of you have parents who check the computer regularly to look at your grades?”
Again, maybe half the class responds.
“And what happens as a result? How do they interact with you when they have this information?”
“My parents have become a real pain about it,” Sam says, to wide-spread laughter. My mom lets me know every time I’m missing any homework in any class. I tell her ‘Mom, I already know it’, but she still nags me about it. To be honest, I wish I could put some parental controls on her.”
I can always count on Sam to find the humor in a situation.
“And the rest of you? How has HAC changed your relationship with your parents about school?”
“Well, they know so much more now,” Jessica says, “so in one sense it’s a good thing because they don’t get surprised when they get a report card. But on the other hand, they seem more stressed about school now than when I was younger. Maybe it’s because I’m applying to colleges right now, and they are worried about whether I’ll be able to get into the school of my choice.”
“I wish it were that simple with my parents,” George adds. He often avoids these whole group discussions, so I’m surprised to see how animated he is about this. “My mom has gotten into ragging me on a regular basis about how my grades have slipped this year. I’ve actually left the dinner table a couple of times, it’s so bad. Now my dad is talking about taking away the car keys if I don’t get my math grades up. I guess I don’t blame them for being worried, but the pressure is definitely on.”
“And I have the opposite problem,” Nadine says. “My parents are looking at bribing me with money for every “A” I get. I don’t want to be doing school for money. I mean, I’ll take it, don’t get me wrong,” - there is laughter - “but it doesn’t seem right.”
“Yeah,” Sam chips in. “I would hate it if my parents did that.” More laughter.
“Okay,” I say, “we’ve talked about this before, of course, but I want to remind you about my reasoning on why we do grades the way we do in this class, so you can talk to your parents about it if you want to. I’ll also be sending a letter to your parents to explain.
“In the meantime, let me break this into two parts. I believe that putting grades in the computer on a daily basis is actually counterproductive and contradicts the philosophy that is the basis of this class. First, we don’t need the computer to tell youthe grade you are getting. Here are a few of the specific reasons why using the computer is a bad fit for this class:
We don’t have points in here.
You are self-evaluating your work, so you already know how you’re doing.
You also know your own test grades and whether you need to resubmit or retest.
“My point is that, if you believe the grading system is fair, you can keep your eyes on the prize of learning, and trust that the appropriate grade will follow. And if you need a summary of where you stand grade-wise, you can always come to me and we can work out the details very quickly. But as you know, I believe that getting the grades out of the day-to-day business of learning is healthy and allows us to focus on why we’re really here.
“As for your parents, and whether I am communicating well with them, here are a few other wrinkles they should be aware of. As you know, grades are often in flux - maybe you’re in the process of resubmitting a test, or your latest contract is a few days late. Putting down a grade knowing it will change in a day misleads and sometimes scares your parents unnecessarily. More importantly, though, learning is a process that takes a while. Think about how you are learning the contract we’re working on now - some of it makes sense, some of it doesn’t. You are working on building a body of knowledge, and in a couple of weeks, we’ll have a pretty good sense of how well you’ve mastered it. At that point, it makes sense for you to turn in your contract with a grade, and for me to post that on the computer. Taking the temperature of the learning process every five minutes adds a layer of pressure and even anxiety, which is counterproductive to learning.
I strongly believe that I learned more in this class than I did in any other science class throughout my high school career. I was able to learn the material for what it actually was, rather than just memorizing the information to be able to spit it back out simply to get an A on a test. I also don’t think I was ever fully aware of truly how much I was learning until the first semester exam rolled around. After discussing the test with other fellow physics students who had other teachers, they were stressed out about how little they felt they knew on the test. I, on the other hand, felt much more prepared for the test and although my grade might not have been absolutely perfect, I felt confident while taking the test.
I think as a student I really benefitted from the structure and style of this class. The fact that the grade I received was not based solely off a point system was a completely new concept to me. I think this fairly displayed the effort and level of understanding I truly had about physics. I wish more teachers would adapt this system because I think it would be extremely helpful for students to become engaged in a different outlook.
It is a lovely evening, one of the last good ones of the fall. We are sitting around a large table outside on the deck, drinking wine and talking. Inevitably, the conversation turns to schools. It never ceases to surprise me how often people want to talk about education. Sometimes I think I am involved in these conversations because of my own preoccupation with the subject, but tonight I decided to not bring it up and see what happens. These are total strangers at a surprise party for a mutual friend, and it turns out they are preoccupied too. To be fair, everyone there except me and my wife have children in high school.
At first, one of the men at the table expresses his frustration and bafflement at his own students. He teaches a graduate level course in biology at a nearby university, and he sees his students as having serious limitations.
“They simply can’t think for themselves,” he says. “These are some of the best educated people in the world, and after sixteen years of school, they remain passive, sponging information and lacking curiosity. I just don’t see any originality in them.”
I explain my notion of “doing school”, and he responds, “That’s it. They are still doing school, even in graduate school. How can they become good citizens, good doctors, if they don’t have the ability to think critically. They fit right in, they do good work, they meet expectations. They just don’t think for themselves.”
“My theory is that doing school is actually a simulation of learning,” I say, “and that students become preoccupied with their grades and doing what is required of them. I believe it actually prevents students from becoming actively engaged in their own learning process. What you’re experiencing is the direct result of how students do school before they get to you.”
“That makes total sense. The question is what can be done about it.”
“Well, I remain hopeful. I had enough experiences with high school Juniors and Seniors who had had a decade of doing school rise to the occasion when they were given the opportunity to take real responsibility for their own learning process. It can definitely be done.”
We continue talking about grades and how important they seem. I mention that when I first started teaching, we gave grades four times a year, but it was understood that the first and third quarter grades were basically progress reports, snapshots of how they were doing mid-semester. It was only the two semester grades, the ones that determined the student’s grade point average and the ones that colleges looked at, that really mattered.
Then, six years ago, we were required to produce grades mid-quarter, or eight times per year. And then, as the grades were increasingly put into the computer, we were encouraged to let students know their grades even more frequently. Some teachers began posting grades every week, primarily to encourage students to make up missing work.
But the big leap occurred when the technology improved enough to put grades on the internet so that parents could, (and were strongly encouraged to) see a detailed grade report at any time.
The professor’s wife says, “I have to admit it - I used to check my son’s grades once a week, but now I’m looking at them at least once every day. Last week, I asked him why he had missed an Algebra homework assignment. I know I’m getting too much information, but I can’t seem to stop myself.”
“I have to tell you that the two issues you and your husband have been talking about, the lack of critical thinking skills he sees and the addictive lure of grades, are actually two sides of the same story. Let’s say you could monitor every aspect of your son’s academic life, and you could somehow get him to get perfect grades, accumulating every possible point in every class. My question is whether that is actually a worth-while goal - your husband is talking about the problems he sees in students who are living with the results of a lifetime of that kind of success. What I’m saying is that being good at doing school may not ultimately be a worthwhile goal at all.”
Grades are often considered an important mechanism for communicating with parents about their student’s level of academic success. Increasingly, teachers are coming to believe that there is a moral obligation to post grades as often as possible, preferably on a daily basis. That way, parents will know if any work is missing or a student’s grades have been slipping, and will be able to take prompt action in keeping the student on task.
Grades by themselves aren’t a very sophisticated way to do that. A poor quarter grade may be due to low test scores, which may due to too much incomplete homework, which may be due to a drop in motivation, which may have to do with the student’s social life or sleep deprivation or any one of a number of psychological or physical problems. Sending a “C-” home doesn’t inform the parent what the problem is in a subtle enough way to be truly useful.
Now that grades are entered into computers and are readily available to students and parents, everyone in the system, students, their parents, their teachers and administrators are being actively trained that the purpose of school is to improve the student’s point count.
When teachers, and students confuse grades with feedback, learning takes a back seat. When students are doing school, feedback through grades tells them how to do school more effectively, and in particular, how to raise their grades.
Aaron is frantic. He is an easy-going guy, normally sits at our lunch table, but today he is wolfing down a sandwich and is going back to his room. Parent conferences are tonight, and he has hours of work to do before then. He just gave students a test, and there is a backlog of homework he has to grade and enter into the computer so that he can print out up-to-date grades before the parents show up.
I recognize that frantic quality, and Aaron is certainly not alone in feeling this pressure. I also question how important or useful this approach to parent conferences is. I question whether having grades printed to two decimal places will convey what most parents want or need to know. I worry that focusing on those numbers may actually preclude sharing information with parents that could be important for everyone concerned.
In any case, there are a number of us who approach this evening differently. When I meet with my classes today, this is what I tell them:
“As you know, parent conferences start tonight, and that means we’ll need to spend a little time to get ready. What I’d those of you who have parents coming to do over the next few minutes is put your journals up here in neat piles. If you’re not sure which of the three sessions they’re coming, the sign-up sheet is posted on the wall over there. Just make sure your journal is in the right pile.
“The other thing I’d like you to do is make sure your portfolio is in good shape, so that I can show your parents your work. If you can have all your contracts in order and your first quarter grade summary, we’ll have plenty to look at and talk about.”
For my part, I make sure that my gradebook - yes, an actual, physical binder with grades I have entered with a physical pen - is up to date and complete. (I know I could have all that information in the computer, and that I could look it up for the parents that way, but staring at a screen while I’m talking to them feels different somehow than looking at my gradebook. My doctor does that, and I always get the feeling that the data is more important to her than I am.)
That’s it. If parents want specific information about a particular test grade, I can certainly give that to them. In my experience of nearly fifty of these events, that is not where parents generally want to focus.
I’ve been playing poker with the same group of friends for over twenty years. Early on, Boris, the founder and host of the games, came up with a way to display our attendance, which he named “the Honor Royale”. He produced it with a flourish at the start of every game. It included the date when each of us had started with the group, who were founding members, how many games we had made and which we had missed and, above all, our rank based on the percentage of games we had attended, calculated out to three decimal places.
Needless to say, we mocked him mercilessly at first for putting so much effort into so meaningless an exercise. He had clearly put a of thought into the design of this thing, and all we wanted to do was play poker.
Of course, the joke was on us. After a while, we began looking forward to the Honor Royale; it took on its own meaning. For years, when I was involved in local Gilbert and Sullivan productions, I would miss every October game and I would fall farther behind my arch-rival Craig, who had almost exactly the same rank as I.
Then Craig had a child and could no longer make our annual out-of-town game, while I, having quit G&S, surged ahead. When his second child was born, his fate was sealed and I left him in the dust.
At one game, Boris announced his computer had died, and there was no Honor Royale that month. The confusion and disappointment were real. How could we tell our rank? This pointless exercise had become meaningful for us. We had forgotten how silly it was.
Now imagine you are a senior in high school. You have had several dozen teachers over the years and, although they had had many styles of teaching and many different grading schemes, they have all communicated your grades in points. They have given you points for learning something, or behaving in a certain way, and taken points away for not understanding something or behaving in a way they thought you shouldn’t.
Is there any chance that a young person who has spent most of his young life with this system relentlessly applied to every academic endeavor will not come to see points as deeply entwined wit the meaning of school? It becomes the currency of learning, and not just for the student. Many teachers I know have come to see the accumulation of points as a valuable exercise, a way to motivate students if nothing else.
“Good” students are the ones who are most successful at collecting points and therefore have the highest grade point average. Like the Honor Royale, their GPAs are calculated out to three decimal places. Only now, they know those three digits can have a powerful effect on their future. The arbitrary and unreal has become deeply meaningful.
Imagine then the consternation in my students when I would remind them that in life outside school, there are no points. (Yes, I know there are things like credit ratings, but it is possible, perhaps preferable to live without taking them all too seriously.)
Our discussion would often revolve around the notion that the skill of accumulating points is not one that prepares a person for life very well. We should therefore turn our attention to those skills and that knowledge that will be useful in life after school, and make sure that however we do come up with a grade, it seems fair and flows directly from doing a good job of learning.
"This year was the first year that I had a chance to talk and discuss my grade. I found this very useful because sometimes the grades you get on a test don’t really show how much you know. For example I tend to make careless mistakes, but I knew the answer and being able to go back and discuss this error helps." - Jonathan H.
One of the most important opportunities to talk seriously with my students happens at the end of every marking period. I have created a process of determining a grade together with each student that causes both of us to look very closely at the successes and problems he’s faced over the past couple of months. Today, I’m introducing the form that we use to document the process.
“I’m about to hand out your first quarter self-evaluation sheet. This form, along with all the material you’ve been accumulating in your portfolio, is what is going to guide our conversation during your grade conference.”
I hand out the forms.
“Take a look at the front of the sheet,” I say. “You’ll see that the contract work you’ve done will be about 40% of your quarter grade; that represents how well you’ve done the process of learning. Right under that it says that the “evidence of learning” is another 40%. This includes all the test grades, test resubmittals and retests you’ve taken, and learning summaries, if you’ve done any of those. For both of those categories, you’ll see that there is already a grade, because they’re already been evaluated - I’m just reporting what is in my gradebook.
“You’ll notice there’s another part of the grade under the title “personal outcomes” that represents roughly 20% of the grade. This section is about how well you did the job of being a student in this class. This section is completely blank because I want to know how you see your performance as a student before I weigh in on my point of view.
“Under personal outcomes, I want you to determine how self-directed you were in your learning, how well you participated, how well organized you have been, and what you have contributed in your classroom job. In order to help you decide on these grades, I have created a set of questions for you to answer.
“Look on the back of the sheet. Under “self-directedness”, there are three questions. “Did you use class time effectively?”, “Did you push yourself to learn as intensely as you were able?”, and “Did you use time in the Science Study Center when needed?”. Answer each question by considering how consistently you did that task. If you think you did it consistently, put down an “A”. If you usually did it, call it a “B”. Sometimes is a “C”. Rarely, a “D”, and never an “F”.”
“When you are done with all these questions, summarize what you put down on the front of the sheet, and decide, given everything that is on the sheet, what you believe a fair grade for the quarter should be.
“Some of you noticed that I said ‘about 40%’ a while ago. That’s because these percentages are guidelines; they are there to help us start the conversation. Think about it - since we don’t have points, it doesn’t make sense to try to be precise about how much your journal work should weigh. What we want to do in our conferences is come up with a grade that seems fair and appropriate to both of us.
I have them fill in the forms and turn them in before we move on to the next activity.
When I have some time to look at what they’ve written, I can see whether I agree with their assessments or not. If I disagree significantly for any reason, I mark it so that it becomes a part of our conversation. Honest and accurate self-assessment is an important skill in and of itself. It is also essential for the smooth running of this type of classroom.
"I liked how you as a teacher gave us the opportunity to be as adults and treat us as adults because throughout all four quarters we were able to grade ourselves and have you give us feedback on what we really deserve. Every time when we did the self evaluation I always gave myself a lower grade, but you proved me wrong because you saw the potential I had and how well I could do in the class." — Jennifer C., student
“Meredith, you’re up,” I shout across the room. It’s the end of the first quarter, and we’re in the midst of grade conferences. She comes to the table with her portfolio, and spreads her work out on the table.
I’ve looked at her self-evaluation, and she has given herself a high grade under the question about time management - did you make due dates consistently. I happen to know that she has blown a number of deadlines along the way, and that, more importantly, there seems to be this frantic rush on her part at the end of every contract.
“I’d like to start with the personal outcomes, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, that’s fine.”
“I notice that you gave yourself a “B” for meeting deadlines.”
She responds with a laugh. “Yeah,” she says, “that may have been a little generous.”
“I’d like to get a better feel about how you manage your time. When we get to the last day or two of the contract, how close are you to having done enough work. Take this last contract for instance. There were sixteen items due, and you only had fourteen of them done when you turned the contract in. So, how many of those fourteen did you do, say, in the last two days before the deadline?”
“Probably four of them.”
I detect that she is slightly embarrassed by admitting it.
“Meredith, we’re here to find out what challenges you are facing and figure out how to get better at learning. Believe me when I tell you, I’ve seen it all. Doing a lot of work at the last minute is not the end of the world, but it does say something about how you manage your time. So, no matter what we talk about today, there’s no place for shame or blame. We’re just diagnosing how you work.
“So let me ask you this: do you procrastinate doing the contract work?”
“I procrastinate doing everything,” she wails. “I’m so busy doing so many things at the same time. I can’t tell you how out of control I feel about keeping up with schoolwork. It’s a disaster.”
“Okay, now we have something to work with,” I say with a smile.
“First of all, you are not alone - a lot of people are procrastinators. I’m actually better at it now than I used to be, but I was really bad at managing my own time when I was your age and throughout my college days.
“So I have to ask you this: do you think this is a serious problem in your life, or are you just irritated with yourself? Because unless you really believe this is something you have to deal with, there’s not much point in us talking about it.”
“I want to say it’s a serious problem, but I know myself, and anything you and I come up with isn’t going to stay in my head for very long.”
“Let’s finish coming up with a grade, and we’ll talk about this again in a few days. In the meantime, I’d like to think about the question of how much you’d like to break this habit.
“As for the grades, you’re doing okay - your journal work is pretty good, although there are often a few too few items completed, like the one we just looked at. And your test grades are a little erratic, as you can see. How much of an effect do you think procrastinating is having on your work and how much you are actually learning?”
“I have no doubt that that is the biggest reason why I’m not acing this class.”
“And do you care about your grades?”
“I do, mostly because of how my transcript is going to look in my college applications.”
“So maybe that provides you with some additional incentive to face up to this problem, don’t you think?”
We meet again the following week and come up with several plans to deal with the problem. She and I sit down at the beginning of every contract and set up interim due dates for specific contract items that she is going to have me check in. It works reasonably well, with occasional lapses. It also leads to a number of pivotal conversations about developing this important skill. The fact that we are looking at this problem together and that she doesn’t have to hide it is an important part of our working relationship.
“Do you see a pattern here?” I ask him.
“Yeah, I know. I’m doing great work, but my test scores suck.”
“You sound like this is a pattern you know.”
“It’s true in every class. I just don’t take tests well.”
“You know, I hear that a lot. The problem is, once you’ve said it you aren’t any better off. People don’t do well on tests for a whole range of reasons. Do you know why you don’t do well? For instance, do you find yourself feeling panicky because you don’t have enough time?”
“No, I always finish with time to spare. It’s not so much that I feel panicky, I just get surprised by what’s on the test.”
“Jacob, I notice you have more difficulties with the skills tests. Are you able to do the problem solving homework well?”
“But when you see the same kind of problem on a test, you don’t always know how to do it, right?”
“That’s true, but I feel like there’s always something I’m not sure about.”
“Let me ask you this; when you do a problem set at home, are you sure you can do every problem by yourself without looking at the helpful hints?”
“Well, there’s usually one or two of the harder problems where I need a little help.”
“That’s fine. But then do you do the back-up practice problems?”
“Sometimes, but only if I feel like I don’t get it.”
“Jacob, it’s very easy to gloss over something that you haven’t quite mastered. ‘Yeah, yeah’, you say to yourself, now I get it. But unless you can do every problem start to finish completely independently, and look at the answer key and see that you did the whole process correctly, you’re not ready for the test.
“It’s like somebody practicing a piano piece, and getting a couple of notes wrong, but feeling good about it. Then, during the recital, those mistakes rise up and bite you. You discover you’re not ready, you get blindsided, you lose confidence. Does that sound familiar?”
“Yes it does.”
“So what are you going to do differently next quarter, do you think?”
“I’m going to watch very carefully whether I need helpful hints, and whether I’m dead on right when I see the answer key. And if I need to practice, I’ll do more practice.”
“That’s a plan.”
I write down some comments to summarize what he just said.
“We’ll look at this again at the end of the next quarter, and see how you do with this plan.”
“You must be feeling pretty good about this,” I say.
Gwen is beaming. “I do,” she says. “Actually, I can’t believe it.”
“Did you think you’d be nailing this class when you walked in this room for the first time?”
“No, I didn’t. I’ve always been bad at math and science. This is the first time I’ve gotten better than a ‘C’ in any of my high school math or science classes.”
“I know. I remember reading your letter from the first week. So what do you think happened? How is it that you are acing one test after another?”
“I’m not sure. I’m just learning it. My study group is a big part of it, I think. We talk everything over, and when I don’t get it, there’s always someone who can explain it to me.”
“I’ve noticed that you have started explaining things to some of your study group partners yourself. So it’s a two way street, no?”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
“And looking at your contracts, it seems like you’re making good use of the optional work. Do you find yourself doing busywork, practicing this much?”
“Absolutely not. I’m just so glad to have things to practice. Even when I think I’ve got it, I like to do one more round of practicing to be really sure I’ve got it.”
“And as a result, you are doing more than the minimum required number of items. That’s a sign that you are taking the learning more seriously than the grade. If you were only in it to get an ‘A’ on the contract, doing the minimum number would be good enough.
“Gwen, the truth is that you are really good at learning. You steer yourself well, you take advantage of all the support you need, you work until you’ve mastered the material. You definitely have earned this ‘A’. Congratulations.”
“Thanks. I feel like I’ve earned it.”
“You have. Good work.”
Alex is an outstanding student. She is well-organized, energetic, consistent in completing homework and acing tests. Her journal is a thing of beauty. She is, in a word, very successful at school.
I ask her how she feels the course is going for her. As I do with all my students who are doing well, I ask her whether she is ever bored, or whether the pace of the class lags for her.
“No”, she replies, “I wouldn’t say bored exactly. It’s true that I understand the material and am able to do the problem solving early on in the contract, but the activities that we do and the conversations we have in our study group keep it interesting for me.”
I remark on how she is assuming an increasing role as a teacher in her study group, particularly when they are reviewing homework and how helpful I am sure that is for the other students.
“How about the homework you are doing. Does it feel like busywork? Do you find yourself doing something just so you’ll reach the minimum required number for the contract?”
“No, I don’t think so. Even when I’m repeating working on problems after I’m able to do them successfully, it’s good practice, and it builds my confidence. It’s just that it’s at the same level of difficulty as before.”
“Alex,” I say to her, “you are clearly mastering the learning goals faster than the class at large. When you find yourself in that position, there are a couple of things you can do to keep it interesting and deepening your understanding at the same time. You can turn around and teach what you know. Teaching always solidifies and deepens your understanding. When others ask you questions, it is a perfect check-up on your level of mastery. You will be surprised by what they don’t understand and are asking you about, and that will test your own learning. You’re already doing that in your study group, and I’m noticing how often you are taking that role when you guys are going over your homework.”
“Yes, I’m really enjoying that. It keeps the work fresh in my mind and I agree, I learn a lot by trying to answer questions and explain what I know.”
“In addition to teaching what you know, a second option is to dive into the Above and Beyond items on the contract. That way you’ll keep the challenge at a level that’s appropriate for you. And in working at a more sophisticated level, you are also clearly ensuring your mastery of the level you’ll actually be tested on eventually.”
“I guess I should start taking on some of those A&B problem sets. I know I can do it, and I know that it keep it interesting.”
“So a goal for the second quarter would be to take on A&B items on the contract whenever you feel you have mastered the material and still have a few things to complete on the contract. Now think for a moment what you are doing here. You are volunteering to do challenging work, not because you will get credit for it or because it will raise your grade, but because you want to push the learning experience to the level that you are capable of. Have you ever done that before?”
“No, I can safely say I’ve never been in this position before now.”
“Well, congratulations. This is a major accomplishment. It has everything to do with being self-directed, and nothing to do with points or grade point averages.”
She knows this is true. She is clearly pleased with how this has developed, and rightfully so.
“I need this ‘B’.” Sarah’s voice is plaintive. “If I don’t get an ‘B’ in this class this quarter, I can’t get an ‘A minus’ for the semester, and then my grade point average won’t be good enough for three of the colleges I’m applying to.”
“Well, I understand what you want, and why you want it, but the real question is whether an ‘B’ is an appropriate grade for you. Just looking at the grade summary, it doesn’t look like it to me.”
We have the sheet in front of us, along with five contracts that she completed this quarter, and it’s clear that her work has been inconsistent.
“Sarah, your work has gotten much better in every way over the past month. You did more work, you did more of it on time, and your test scores were better, too. Why is that? What were you doing differently?”
“Those middle two contracts were during YAMO (a theatrical production), and I was on the crew and put in a huge amount of time. Towards the end, I wouldn’t get home until 10PM, and I wouldn’t have enough energy to do all my work.”
“And after that, you were able to get more work done for class?”
“But even then, there’s room for improvement. Looking at these last two contracts, you did exactly the minimum required. Your test scores improved, but not as much as they might.
“The fact that there’s a trend in your work gives us some flexibility in interpreting what an appropriate grade might be. Talk to me about this quarter and what you think you might be able to do better next quarter.”
“For one thing, I know I can’t put that much time into an outside activity and still get good grades. Physics isn’t the only place where I lost ground.”
“Okay, but aside from your outside commitments, what have you learned about your work habits that will help you be more effective this quarter?”
“It took a while, but I realized that I save homework for the last thing I do before going to bed pretty much every day. A lot of times, I’m so tired that I give up before I can do everything I need to.”
“So what could you do differently?”
“Obviously, doing homework sooner in the day would be better. It should be possible to do some of it, maybe most of it, before I start texting friends or getting online.”
“You know, I have a similar problem. When I get home from work, I like to dive straight into reading the paper, and when there are bills to pay or errands to run, they often get pushed back and sometimes I just don’t get around to doing them. So just like your idea, I started by doing the things I have to do before anything else, and I think of the paper as a reward for taking care of business.”
“A reward. That sounds like it might work.”
“And one more detail that’s worth thinking about is that you consistently do well on your conceptual tests, but your skills tests are pretty erratic. Any thoughts on that?”
“Sometimes I just don’t have enough time at the end of the contract to do enough practicing.”
“So one improvement might be to figuring out earlier in the contract what you still need to practice. That would give you more time. Does that seem plausible to you?”
“Yeah, I can do that. I know when I’m having difficulties, I just need to get to the review problem sets right away rather than waiting til the end of the contract.”
“Okay, so back to your grade. What if we were to call this quarter a ‘B’ so that you are within striking distance of the grade you want. But in order to make that legitimate, let’s say that it’s contingent on your improving in the ways we are talking about here. That will give you some additional incentive to do the things you need to to be more successful.
If you aren’t able to work more effectively, your grade for the second quarter will probably look a lot like this one, and the semester grade you’re after won’t be possible in any case. In order to raise your semester grade to an ‘A minus’, you will have to have a solid ‘A’ for both the second quarter and the exam. Do you think you can do that?”
“I do, too. So we’re leaving the door open. We’re anticipating a trend. Does that make sense?”
“So we have a plan?”
I write down comments summarizing what Sarah has said she’ll work on, and we both sign off on the grade summary. She’s clearly happy with the outcome, and motivated to improve.