The more I look at school grading schemes, increasingly I wonder: ‘why do schools put an unhealthy amount of emphasis on WHEN learning took place compared to IF it took place?’
For whatever reason, many educators continue to award a higher rank (or grade) to the student who learned something sooner than another student. Maybe we could refer to this as the Christopher Columbus Effect (CCE)*. Don’t get me wrong; a fair degree of earned notoriety does come with being first. Neil Armstrong, Emila Erhardt and anyone else who achieved a notable ‘first’ deserves as many medals as we can mint. But does the CCE apply to my Geography lesson? Arguably not. Perhaps in the realm of the classroom, IF it is learned should trump WHEN it is learned a little more often.
Let’s first look at the real life context. At the Portland Grading Conference in December, Tom Schimmer challenged the audience to consider the following argument:
When has it ever been relevant that you used to not be good at something?
This argument certainly caught my attention. Imagine this conversation…
Bob: ‘Hey Myron, I learned to ride a unicycle this afternoon! I feel so proud!’
Myron: “Yeah, but you didn’t know how to last weekend.’
Myron: “Furthermore, Bob, I would like to point out that a lot of others have learned to ride unicycles prior to you. This means that they learned it before you did. Just sayin’.”
If I made comments like this I would have even fewer friends than I do now. What possible relevance would there be to pointing out to someone who just learned something that some sort of bizarre chronology rendered the accomplishment less meaningful? However, in schools we have acted in a similar manner for quite some time. Despite overwhelming evidence, in fact our very own test data, we often ignore the manifestation of learning WHEN it does not conform to a specific timeline.
The conversation could go something like this…
Student: “I finally get it, I figured it out! Look at my work…”
Teacher: “Too bad the test was yesterday.
Student: “Darn it.”
Teacher: “Yeah, you seem to have mastered it now. Imagine if you had demonstrated that learning at the appropriate time. I suggest you study sooner for the next test.”
If universities were at one point the consistent and solid bastions of WHEN over IF, that pendulum seems to be swinging more to the centre as well. Consider this screen shot from the MIT website concerning undergraduate grading:
WHEN Does Matter
In attempting to remain consistent with the real life conversation, there are times WHEN a student must perform, and indicate in the moment IF he has learned the material. Perhaps the teacher’s suggestion of ‘studying sooner’ is good advice. In a school system that relies on timelines and schedules, we cannot ignore the reality that WHEN often matters. I personally feel that teachers who offer seemingly limitless reassessment opportunities are not only compromising the authenticity of the assessment data, but are also setting up students for a nasty shock should they encounter a more rigid testing system. We cannot ask our teachers to grade reams of assignments and tests every time a student feels that an improvement is possible. Furthermore, there is a time when we must move on. If you drop a jar of pennies on the pavement while waiting for a bus, you may be forced to make the decision to leave a few behind in order to catch the bus before it leaves. Advancing forward at times comes at the expense of leaving something behind. That is real life. (keep in mind you could wait to catch the next bus, which would cost more time).
The Need for Balance
Perhaps educators need to continually search for a balance in the WHEN vs. IF saga.
Consider a quote from a very capable student who experienced my retesting system in History 12 and observed it as a peer tutor in my grade 9 classroom.
Question: What do you think of the retesting system, especially seeing it from the ‘outside’ as a peer tutor.
Testing is quite a cold, calculated experience – in my opinion, the testing experience is in contrast to what school is all about.
I have heard teachers say that testing once is crucial because the world is not one of second chances – I tend to disagree. Sure there are times where that is true, but I think it is the exception rather than the rule.
…I mean, on one hand, I’ll joke with a teacher and be cordial. Everyday seems to be “happy day”, until test day, and then it is suddenly cut-throat. That guy over there figured it out before you did, he got it right on the day he was supposed to, and so he is ranked higher. This type of testing system is inconsistent with what school should be.
That said, I am not suggesting retest after retest, that is impractical, but at least giving a student one more chance will indicate what they know and don’t know.
The idea is to learn, not be punished for not learning faster.
History 12 Student – Princess Margaret Secondary
I have come up with a one possible solution to the WHEN vs. IF struggle that also complies with my ‘grade smarter, not harder’ philosophy. I have come to refer to it as the ‘Double Dip’.
As I have noted previously, and covered in detail in my Education Leadership article from November 2011, ‘How I Broke my Own Rule and Learned to Give Retests’, I split my tests by topic. Note the image from a Geography test front cover:
In the Double Dip system I match the value of mid-unit quizzes with the corresponding values on the unit test. A 5-point quiz on ‘directions’ taken on March 5th will be matched with a 5 or 10-point ‘directions’ section found on the unit test 2 weeks later.
Students can be informed prior to the unit test that a Double Dip opportunity awaits them. Anyone who has learned more about directions since March 5th can demonstrate that on the unit test and replace the quiz score with an updated, and usually higher, test section score. Students who need a little more encouragement to study for the unit test may find the Double Dip opportunity to be a healthy nudge. It is rare that a student scores lower on the test section compared to the previous quiz, but when this happens I attempt to investigate the causes. In most cases the student is confused or made a simple error and is offered the chance to reestablish a good score on the unit test reassessment (and usually this is limited to one opportunity).
Teachers who are already burdened with a heavy grading load will appreciate that the ‘Double Dip’ system does not require the construction of a new set of ‘directions’ quizzes, and nor does it require another session of grading. Even the tracking of the improvements can be placed upon the students and lead to a sense of responsibility and empowerment. I have asked students to track the original quiz scores and to notify me of an increase on the corresponding test.
The WHEN vs. IF conversation is alive and well in my current circles of educational collaboration and this dialogue is healthy and refreshingly contemporary. I see the need for educators to align on a common belief and then to look for practices that more closely align to that belief. Perhaps most people agree that IF something is learned does trump WHEN it occurred. What might be needed as a next step are more examples of how to measure IF learning occurred within a system that has time and energy constraints.
ps. Looking forward to seeing people at ASCD LA. Here is the info on my main session:
SESSION NUMBER: 3221
DAY and DATE of SESSION: Monday, 3/17/2014
SESSION TITLE: Creativity Is Great, but How Do Educators Assess It?
As well, I will be a panelist at the ASCD writers information session on Sunday, March 16, 1:00-2:30.
* Christopher Columbus is considered by many to have ‘discovered’ North America, but from a European perspective.