Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A graded paper stops learning in its tracks

Although I am still working through some of my thoughts on standards-based grading (I fully embrace the philosophy but how that translates to practice is another issue), one thing I feel certain about on the assessment topic is the need for more authentic, descriptive feedback and fewer "grades" or "marks" in the gradebook.

In his book, Embedded Formative Assessment, author Dylan Wiliam explains how learning is damaged when a grade is placed on a student paper. He cites research to support his explanation. And it completely makes sense to me and corresponds to what I've observed in my career as an educator.

Three groups of students were described in the study. One group received only a grade, another group received a grade and written comments, and the third group received only written comments.

Now we all know how productive it is to return a paper with a grade only. It's a terrible practice, but more common than we care to admit. Of course, the group that received only a grade performed the lowest for continued growth.

One might think the group that received a grade and comments would do as well as any, but the study found that students paid very little attention to the comments if there was a grade on the paper. Students who scored high enough to be satisfied with their score ignored the comments for obvious reasons--they were happy with their performance. But interestingly, students who scored poorly ignored the comments too but for differently reasons. They ignored the comments because they were frustrated and simply wanted to move on to the next topic.

I can remember feeling that way as a student too. "Wow, I really didn't get this. I'm going to have to kick it in gear on the next chapter," I thought to myself. And then I was ready to move on and did nothing to correct the deficiencies with what was supposed to be learned right now.

So as we are considering how to provide feedback to students, it seems most beneficial to provide many opportunities for practice with lots of descriptive feedback but no grade. This feedback can come from the teacher, from other students, or from strategies to help a student self-reflect.

If we want students to actually use feedback to continue learning, I would suggest teachers delay communicating a summative score until they feel reasonably confident the material is learned well based on evidence from practice work and from exit tickets and other formative measures.

It seems this is the best practice since research and experience indicate that when a grade goes on the paper, the learning stops in its tracks.

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