How to Help Students Focus on What They’re Learning, Not the Grade

Last updated: 12-03-2020

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How to Help Students Focus on What They’re Learning, Not the Grade

Remote and blended instruction have forced an unprecedented review of teaching and learning practices. The result: an increased awareness of what works and what doesn’t and a renewed interest in what learning looks like and how we assess it.

Questions that learners ask about an assignment are telling. How long should it be? How do I get an A? What do you want us to turn in? When is it due? These questions focus on the grade, not the learning outcomes. They highlight the assessment trap, or a focus on “What do I have to produce?” versus “What am I learning from this assignment?”

Historically, problematic assessment practices have taught learners that the grade is the goal by doing the following:

Digging our way out of the assessment trap means shifting to learning experiences focused on skills that we want or need to measure. Education experts Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe called this “backward design.” Instead of the above problematic practices, we shift learning experiences to focus on demonstrating skill and expert learning. In this way, we take the focus off what students are expected to produce and place it on the act of learning, or the process.

1. Reduce stress and anxiety: This year, I’ve learned about assessment anxiety from my seventh-grade son. He was a straight-A student, and grades meant everything. Every late assignment, every B, every red mark, in his mind, equaled failure. As with many students during remote learning, seeing “failure” day in and day out on a digital dashboard or grade book shut down his ability to learn.

Add the stress of isolation and a global pandemic and learning challenges piled on top of challenges with motivation, memory, and ability to complete tasks. Student needs and stressors vary, but one thing is certain: Stress affects thinking and memory. These tips from the Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST, and education expert Katie Martin can reduce assessment stress and anxiety:

Start by avoiding a sense of finality in grading. As student (and educator) mental health becomes a priority, find ways to increase flexibility, support, and an attitude of continuous improvement.

2. Develop expert learners: Author John Spencer distinguishes between product goals and process goals. Process goals, he says, develop habits and routines in learners versus a focus on deadlines and completion. CAST defines expert learners as “purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed.”

To support expert learning, we need to increase opportunities for step-by-step goal setting and reflection. According to Allison Posey from CAST, “Students [should] get continuous feedback on how they’re doing. They’re encouraged to reflect on their learning and whether they met lesson goals. Grades feed into that discussion.” Grades are partof the discussion, not the discussion.

Shifting our emphasis from the final product to the process of learning might mean the following:

Looking for ways to develop expert learners? Try Smart Start activities from eduprotocols.com. Or convert proven discussion protocols to an online or blended format using tools like Pear Deck and discussion boards.

3. Measure what matters: Identifying where we want learners to end up helps us know where to start. Aligning assessments, activities, and materials with overall, measurable learning objectives or goals is step one. Backward design reduces grading and improves outcomes by eliminating meaningless assignments and helps learners and teachers focus on what is most important.

We should measure what is “construct relevant.” This means avoiding measuring what is irrelevant or can’t be measured. Construct-irrelevant factors might include creativity, effort, or tool use. For example, if writing is not part of your overall course or assignment learning outcomes, consider whether learners can successfully demonstrate learning in a variety of other ways, such as a podcast, video, or graphic representation of learning. Adjusting the grading practices below can shift focus to what matters.

According to teacher Mariela Tyler, "Grades have never served students well; they don’t show a student’s ability to think, write, and problem-solve. They just show which kids have the luxury of finishing their homework at home or on time.” As you consider the value of assessments, your workload, the mental health of yourself and your learners, and the need to develop expert learners, remember that less is more. Fewer, more targeted, and more flexible assignments reduce stress for everyone and give time for reflection, revision, and deeper thinking, leading to better results.


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