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Assessment

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

Work that emphasizes students’ developing skills instead of a graded product reminds them to see learning as their goal.

November 30, 2020
Illustration showing pencil erasing scribble
Michael Morgenstern / The iSpot

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.

The Assessment Trap

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:

  • Assessing for a score or grade
  • Assessing for compliance (due dates, formatting, following instructions, etc.)
  • Assessing to demonstrate “effort”
  • Assessing for “rigor” (more work turned in = more rigor)

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.

3 Reasons to Focus on Process Over Product

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:

  1. Promote a sense of belonging, support, and collaboration.
  2. Have clear, simple expectations.
  3. Encourage manageable, realistic learner goal setting.
  4. Connect learning and assessment to meaningful life experiences.
  5. Offer choice and autonomy to avoid a “narrow view of smart.”
  6. Offer multiple attempts and revisions/resubmissions.

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 part of the discussion, not the discussion.

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

  • Grading a project in stages using scaffolded templates, completion credit, and teacher and peer feedback
  • Using choice boards for learners to select how to demonstrate learning based on their strengths
  • Using quick collection (i.e., Google Forms, quick writes, and other formative assessments) that emphasizes the importance of learners’ identifying their strengths and gaps for goal setting
  • Being flexible and listening to student suggestions for projects, resources, and final products
  • Involving learners in assessing their progress

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.

  • Grading practice: If you wouldn’t grade it in face-to-face learning, it doesn’t need to be graded online. Marking completion supports goal setting. But grades feel final, and practice is not a final stage of the learning process.
  • Grading intangibles: If you can’t observe it, it shouldn’t be measured. Provide feedback on skills like creativity, effort, and collaboration to emphasize importance.
  • Grading compliance: Due dates, formatting, and word counts don’t show a learner’s ability to apply information or demonstrate a skill. Find a way to hold students accountable without penalty.
  • Assessment bias: Learners are variable. Avoid measuring what supports your own bias (such as what creativity looks like). Use rubrics with simple, observable skills.

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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