Friday, September 26, 2014

Understanding is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Why can't skill-based grades reveal achievement in an understanding-based subject?

This is the question I wish I'd been asking five years ago as I was making my first grading scale.  Over my teaching career, I've graded on such categories as writing, presentations, projects, participation, tests and general homework.  These are all important things to assess... the problem is, they are all primarily skill-based.  A good writer can occasionally mask a lack of understanding through their organization and eloquence--I speak from experience here--and even if is clear that they do not really understand, their high marks in the technical aspects of writing will offset weak understanding to at least some extent.  The same goes for eloquent speakers, artistic project-designers, and savvy test-takers.  On the flip side, students who may understand perfectly, but struggle with the skill-set necessary to complete the assessment are unlikely to be accurately represented either.  I was confronted with the fact that none of these categories purely get at what a student understands; not really.

This year, I decided to include Understanding as a category in my Humanities grade-book all on its own.  Each unit has between three and five enduring understandings: big takeaways based on the departmental objectives.

There will be at least one official assessment for each understanding, often two.  For example, in this first unit on "Conquest, Colonists and a City on a Hill", one of the enduring understandings revolved around the reciprocal relationship between trade and demand.  Demand leads to the establishment of trading relationships, which in turn lead to new and higher demands.  The first assessment on this was a test.  Most of the test consisted of different economic scenarios for the students to respond to.  When I graded the test, I entered the scores under the "Trade & Demands" heading of the "Understanding" category in my grade-book.
The second assessment required the students to select a contemporary nation and conduct basic research into the top imports, exports, and GDP, as well as the relationship between the nation's economy and culture/lifestyle.  I explained to the students that while everybody needed to complete the contemporary economics posting for a completion credit, they could opt to have me evaluate their posting more deeply if they felt it to be a better representation of their understanding of economics than the test revealed.  I told them that if they scored higher on the economics posting, I would replace their test score with the posting score.  Several students took me up on this offer right away and did a beautiful job of researching and sharing about the economies of such varied nations as India, Qatar, Russia, Hong Kong, Argentina and Japan.
We wrapped up our unit today with a journal reflection, in which I asked the students to respond to the big questions we'd covered over the past month.  This was another opportunity for the students to demonstrate their understanding--I told the students that I'd only assign a specific grade to their journal if they felt it was a better representation of their understanding than anything earlier in the unit.
Finally, I informed the students that if they were dissatisfied with any of their "Understanding" scores, they could schedule a time to meet and conference with me: either to discuss a better way to demonstrate their understanding, or to actually demonstrate to me verbally that they understand what I hoped they would.

I want to give as many chances as the students need to reveal their understanding, because I, myself, understand something now that I did not understand five years ago: understanding is not a zero-sum game.  If they don't "get" a concept on the test at the start of the year, I shouldn't etch that into the grade-book in stone; rather I should mark it in with pencil, with the hope and expectation that the student will correct their misunderstanding and come back to me later, ready to show that they've studied, thought, and grown in their understanding.  My desire is to see the students grow and gain understanding, and I want the grades to reflect this rather than reflect the errors that accompanied the earliest trials.  After all, understanding can be won.  Sometimes the battle is fierce and exhausting, but even a loss does not mean that the war is over.

I've already seen positive responses to my new system and I am looking forward to watching this play out over the course of the entire year.

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