Pedagogy

Pros of Participation Grades 2

Continuing my series on the downsides and benefits of grading participation, here is another benefit.

2. It makes effort important.

Though this post won’t really deal too much with motivation and grading (ie. whether or not students actually view grades as “important”), there is a good case to be made for allowing effort into an assessment plan. I will not argue that effort is the only thing that matters of that it should be the main factor of a grade. I think that position is a weak one to hold.

However, I do think there is room for students’ effort in some parts of grading. One reason is the fundamental problem with focusing exclusively on success. This is even something that comes up a lot in the skeptic movement. Consider the file-drawer effect: positive studies are over-represented in scientific journals. This creates many problems in science because we are only seeing part of the real picture. Similarly, a recent episode of the SGU podcast talked about how the Nobel Prize is awarded for successful discoveries only and how this is a problem. We need to learn from failures and focusing too much on success created real world problems. Funding for science winds up getting skewed and subtracted when the results aren’t stunning successes, but we need to know about what doesn’t work too.

My students recently watched part of the TED talk “On Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz. She highlights a problem that occurs when a child gets many answers wrong on a test. Other children label that child as “dumb” and this whole situation fosters an attitude that mistakes aren’t okay. We must always be right, because being wrong feels so bad.

A much better TED talk, Julia Galef’s “Why You Think You’re Right – Even If You’re Wrong” shows why this kind of thinking is so bad. Like soldiers, we defend our wrong beliefs against anything that opposes them. But, if we adopt a different attitude, that being wrong is okay, we pave the way to being able to change our minds and think critically instead of only with motivated reasoning.

Effort is worth grading because it allows students to be wrong without being punished for it. They can learn from mistakes without being slapped down because of them. Teachers don’t have to focus exclusively on the narrow aim of students getting everything right. Students can succeed by actually trying.

There are a lot of external factors which affect a student’s actual ability. Grading purely on how “correctly” they can answer questions winds up with the result of assigning grades based on the effects of external factors, like SES or their situation at home. When effort plays a role in a grade, students with the fewest opportunities in life can get a slightly better chance at not being so disadvantaged in schools.

But what about the problems with grading effort? How can teachers actually measure something so abstract? Again, I must point out that there are already a lot of things that teachers grade which are abstract and subjective (consider art, for instance). And once again, a well-designed rubric can preemptively address many of these problems. Still, there can be a real conundrum in deciding that one student didn’t put the same effort as another on a project. If a student is extremely high level, they might not need to put as much effort in to get a great result. This objection brings me back to the topic of this series: participation grades.

The effort I am suggesting that teachers grade is based on what students do in class. That is, what teachers actually observe, in context. It’s one thing to just decide that one paper looked like a student spent more time on it at home, but quite another thing to observe students playing games on their phone instead of writing in class and then turning in an incomplete draft as a final essay. Another student, who may struggle with the language but actually spent the time working, asking for help, and visibly put effort into writing, could get the same grade as the gaming student under purely performance-based criteria. Participation grades allow the hard-working student to be rewarded for actually working hard. Like the socialization argument, this is an attitude that schools want to actively foster in students, hence its logical role alongside other grading methods.

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Jay

Jay

Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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