When Grading Harms Student Learning

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

There are so many forces at work that make educators grade, and grade frequently. For sports eligibility, coaches constantly look at grades to see if a student is at an academic level that will allow him or her to play. Colleges review transcripts to examine what type of courses students took and their corresponding grades. Teachers must follow policy that demands them to enter a certain amount of grades every week, month, or marking period. There’s no stopping it. However, we need to reflect upon policies and practices like this — and possibly consider regulating them. Is grading the focus, or is learning the focus? Yes, grades should and can reflect student learning, but often they can get in the way and actually harm student learning.

The Dreaded Zero
I used to give out zeros in the hopes that it would force students to do work and learn. This was a terrible idea! I’m so happy that I received the professional development and resources to challenge my thinking on how I was graded as a student. Myron Dueck notes that students need to care about consequences, and many students simply don’t care about zeros. In fact, some of them will say, “Fine, I’ll take the zero,” which totally defeats the intended purpose and in fact destroys any leverage that I have to help students learn. Zeros do not reflect student learning. They reflect compliance. Instead of zeros, we should enter incompletes, and use these moments to correct behavioral errors and mistakes. Often, one zero can mathematically destroy a student’s grade and pollute an overall metric that should reflect student learning. Here, grading is getting in the way of truly helping a student, as well as showing what that student really knows.

Points Off for Late Work
I’m guilty of this one as well. Similar to using zeros, when students didn’t turn in work on time, I threated them with a deduction in points. Not only didn’t this correct the behavior, but it also meant that behavioral issues were clouding the overall grade report. Instead of reflecting that students had learned, the grade served as an inaccurate reflection of the learning goal. Well, I certainly learned from this experience, and instead began using late work as a time to actually address the behavioral issue of turning in late work. It was a teachable moment. I had students reflect on what got in the way, apply their problem-solving skills to these issues, and set new goals. Students should learn the responsibility of turning in work on time, but not at the cost of a grade that doesn’t actually represent learning.

Grading “Practice”
Many of our assignments are “practice,” assigned for students to build fluency and practice a content or skill. Students are often “coming to know” rather than truly knowing. Consequently, these assignments are formative assessments, reflecting a step in the learning process and not a final outcome or goal. Formative assessment should inform instruction. It should not be graded. If we assign a grade to failed practice, the overall grade won’t reflect what they learned. It won’t be a reflection of success, and it may even deter students from trying again and learning. Practice assignments and homework can be assessed, but they shouldn’t be graded.

Grading Instead of Teaching
As mentioned earlier, many teachers are required to enter grades on a frequent basis. While this policy may be well intended, in practice it can become a nightmare and run afoul to the intent. Districts and schools often call for frequent grades so that students, parents, and other stakeholders know what a child knows, and what he or she needs to learn next. This is a great intent. In fact, we should formatively assess our students and give everyone access to the “photo album” of learning rather than a single “snapshot.” However, if we educators do nothing but grade, we rob ourselves of the time that we need to teach. We’ve all been in a situation where grading piles up, and so we put the class on a task to make time for grading. This is wrong, and it should be the other way around. Teaching and learning should take precedence over grading and entering grades into grade books. If educators are spending an inordinate amount of time grading rather than teaching and assessing students, then something needs to change.

Our work as educators is providing hope to our students. If I use zeros, points off for late work, and the like as tools for compliance, I don’t create hope. Instead, I create fear of failure and anxiety in learning. If we truly want our classrooms to be places for hope, then our grading practices must align with that mission. Luckily, standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, and competency-based learning are making strides in many schools, districts, and states. These methods more accurately align with the premise that “it’s never too late to learn.” If you want to learn more about equitable grading practices, read work by Ken O’Connor, Myron Dueck, Dylan Wiliam, and Rick Wormeli.

With that, I will leave you with an essential question to ponder: How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?

PBL Elementary Teachers Offer Field-Tested Advice

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

I’ve worked with so many teachers across the world, much of it on the subject of PBL. I’ve learned more from them than they have from me, because who better to give advice about PBL than the teachers doing it? In fact, this post is based on advice from elementary PBL teachers in the field. We can all learn from each other, so here are some of those field-tested strategies.

Build Success Skills
Although many like to kick off the year with a project as a context for building success skills like collaboration and communication, many elementary teachers recommend taking time before the project to set the stage by scaffolding these skills to ensure that content learning in the project is even better. Erin Starkey says:

Start with teaching the skills — critical thinking, collaboration, communication — before you start a PBL unit. I start every school year with what I dubbed “20 days to PBL,” where I strategically taught students what those skills looked like, sounded like, and meant in a unit.

If you take time to build these skills, the project may go more smoothly, but don’t forget to scaffold and assess them in the project as well.

Start Small
Before jumping into a full-blown PBL project, many teachers try out some PBL components in the classroom, not only to familiarize students with processes and procedures, but also to familiarize themselves with these elements and master them as teachers. For example, a teacher might start by giving students some voice and choice in activities or doing a smaller inquiry unit. You don’t want to go crazy in your first PBL project, nor do you want your students to feel overwhelmed. Elementary art teacher JoAnne North says:

Start small and focus on making a few of the PBL components really solid — you will get better with each project (and so will the kids). Use your strengths and you will feel more comfortable with the process.

Build Background Knowledge
It is crucial that, even when launching the project, you start to build background knowledge with students. When students have knowledge to start with, they can experience successes. First-grade teacher Abby Schneiderjohn says,

As a PBL teacher, it is crucial not only to assess background knowledge, but to use that information to scaffold learning for students. Students will feel engaged and empowered when they can connect their new learning to their past learning.

As you build background knowledge, apply it immediately to project work rather than waiting until the end.

Be Intentional With Assessments
We want to make sure that our PBL project and products truly assess student learning, so we need to build and allow our students to build products that will show their learning. Use the right amount of voice and choice with students to ensure alignment with learning goals, and make sure to have them in place before the project begins. Myla Lee did many PBL projects in her elementary classroom and now coaches teachers. She says:

Be intentional about assessments, check points, and reflection time. Put it in your plans. As a newbie, you can get caught up in the excitement of student engagement and forget those important accountability pieces.

Share the Story
While PBL is quickly becoming well known, not everyone is truly going to understand it. In fact, when you say the word “project” to a parent, a look of dread may appear in their eyes as they imagine creating a volcano science project while their child does something else. It’s simply baggage that takes time to leave behind in the process of PBL. Communicate with parents about the great work that students are doing, and celebrate the success. Teacher Lori Burkhardt says:

Tell anyone who is willing to listen about project-based learning, and it will allow an opportunity for the community to be part of the process.

Be Patient
Building the culture for PBL takes a lot of time and effort. Any climate takes quite some time before it actually becomes culture. The same is true for PBL. It takes months for routines and norms to be part of the classroom culture, so as students engage in more and more PBL, the culture will come with it. Brianna Hand, who teaches third grade, echoes this concern:

Be patient. It’s not going to happen overnight, but when it does finally “click,” the culture of the classroom is amazing!

Trust Yourself
You work hard for your students every day, and you know what works and what doesn’t work in terms of their learning. When trying out PBL, there will be mistakes, and projects won’t always go how you want them to. That, however, is where the great learning is. You’ll reflect on the project and make improvements for your students. Fifth-grade teacher Cary Grimm says:

Do what you think is right for you and your class. What you are doing in PBL is best practice. There will always be obstacles and questions from administration and peer teachers. Stay true, and the truth of what is awesome of PBL will come out.

All of this advice just goes to show you that the “wisdom is in the room.” We can all learn from each other to make our PBL projects and practices even better for our students. In addition, although this advice is from elementary teachers, it can of course be applied to PBL teachers at all grade levels.

What’s your advice for getting started with PBL?

Valuing All Kinds Of Data For The Whole Child

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

When thinking about data, I use the “3 U Acronym”—Useless Unless Used. We must take action from data. We have so much of it, and, frankly, it can be overwhelming. Often, we immediately associate the word data with test scores, but test scores are only one—very limited—type of data we can analyze. In fact, there are much more powerful and relevant data we can collect and examine to support the whole child and make sure each is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Data for Safe and Supported
How do you know if your students truly feel safe and supported at school? It’s critical that we uncover data related to students’ sense of safety and support so we can ensure that high-quality learning occurs. To do so, we can use action research tools from How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School and Classroom, by Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Ian Pumpian. One such tool is a student focus group, where select students from all walks of life share answers to questions such as “Are there times you don’t feel welcome?” or “What are some things teachers do to make you feel like you are an important part of the classroom?” Or, we can get similar data by administering surveys—to both students and parents—about perceptions of safety, bullying, and excitement for school.

Data for Engaged and Challenged
One of the best pieces of data educators can collect is on-the-spot formative assessments. These can be formal, like a draft of practice presentation, or they can be informal, like observations and questions. From formative assessments, we can immediately decide what kind of differentiation is needed to keep students appropriately engaged and challenged. When we know our students and what they have or have not learned, we can provide them with just-in-time instruction. Another interesting piece of data I have collected was a survey on my students’ sense of time. Student who are engaged tend to lose a sense of exactly how much time has passed. We’ve all heard students say things like “Wow, it’s been 20 minutes? I thought we were only working for about 10.” This is one indication that students are engaged and challenged.

Data for Healthy
This one may seem obvious, but how much do we know about the overall health of our students? Schools and classrooms can survey students about foods they eat and use that data to inform health curricula. We can also look at absences related to illness and look for patterns and trends. Also, mental health is equally important. We can collect data about student anxiety, for example, by giving students surveys through which they can rank their feelings using a scale. It’s important that we know about the health of our students and find ways to create structures and supports in school to make them healthier.

These three categories of data, based on ASCD’s Whole Child tenets, include a select number of examples. Even so, you might feel overwhelmed. I suggest working in teams to uncover this data. For example, one team can create essential questions related to the safe and supported tenets, while another might investigate the healthy tenet. Data-driven instruction and support is a team effort, and we should leverage each other’s passions and expertise to make data useful.

Formative Assessments To Build Student Engagement

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


One of the tenets of the ASCD Whole Child approach is that all children are engaged. This is a perennial issue that is always on the minds of educators everywhere. We try all kinds of strategies to engage our students. We use brain-based strategies to get students up and moving. We build PBL units to create real-world work. We build relationships with students to show we care. All of these work together to create engagement in our classrooms, and we know there is no silver bullet to keeping all students engaged. However, one area we may overlook is how formative assessments can help us keep our students engaged.

I know that some may be initially apprehensive when I use the words assessment and engagement in the same sentence. But let’s be clear: I don’t mean major exams or tests that students have to take. Those are usually summative assessments, whether course based, grade based, or even school exit exams. I also don’t mean graded assignments. I’m talking about formative assessments—that is, nongraded assessments for the purpose of informing instruction and monitoring students’ progress toward mastery. Formative assessments are check-ins throughout a unit of instruction to see how students are progressing, not an evaluation or “end” of learning. When we accept these characteristics about formative assessments, we can then see how they can help keep our students engaged.

Imagine you are giving a lesson on an important concept or skill in your classroom. You start with a model or think-aloud to demonstrate expert reasoning and thinking to students. From there, you decide to move into a collaborative learning activity where students work in teams to learn from their peers and try tasks out with some support. You work the room and provide excellent prompts and cues to support student thinking. Then, to end the lesson, you provide a short formative assessment to see what students learned. From it, you find that many students didn’t quite grasp the concept or had major gaps in their understanding. You also find that many students did in fact learn the concept and are ready to do an independent task or activity. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to return to whole group instruction and not differentiate. We’ve all made this mistake. Sometimes we do it out of fear: “Will my some of my students really be able to work on their own while I provide further instruction to other students?” We should be optimistic and say, “Yes!” Imagine that you do return to whole group instruction. What will inevitably occur? Some students will be engaged, but many will not. Why not? Because they don’t need this instruction. They are ready to move on! If we instead return the next day and differentiate based on our formative assessments, we are giving students the instruction and tasks they need. This is “just-in-time” instruction created from effective use of formative assessment. When students get the instruction they need, they will be engaged. Educators should use formative assessments to move past their fears and give students the instruction they need.

6 Strategies to Truly Personalize PBL

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

In the past, I wrote about how, along with other teachers, I’ve ventured into truly personalized project-based learning. I discussed the challenges we face as well as what it looks like in the classroom. Many of us may be personalizing PBL without even knowing it.

Teachers have always had students pursue their own research projects on their own questions. Students around the globe are engaged in genius hour activities about their passions and are given voice and choice in how they show their learning. These are just some aspects of personalized PBL, and we can improve the model further still when we adopt more tenets of personalization into the already-existing PBL framework. In addition, many teachers are claiming that they’re personalizing learning for students when in fact they are not. However, PBL and personalized learning make an excellent match that creates engagement for students through authentic, personal work on content and skills that they want and need. Here are six strategies that you can try.

1. Know the Whole Child
If you don’t know your students, it will be impossible to personalize learning for them. Assessment (not grades) is key here. Pre-assessments and ongoing formative assessments can provide excellent information on how students are doing, what they need, and what we can do as educators to empower them in the learning process. Schools can use ASCD’s School Improvement Tool to assess for the whole child and set goals for improvement.

2. Scaffold Questioning
Our students are naturally curious, but they may need further support to articulate those questions and ask even deeper and more targeted questions. As students start to identify their interests and passions, we should be giving them tools like question stems, models of asking great questions, examples of leveled questions, graphic organizers, and the like to help them ask about what they want and need to know. Protocols like the Question Formulation Technique or the 5 Whys can also be great tools for scaffolding questions. If we want students to learn, we should encourage all types of questioning that lead to deeper learning. The best part is that, through this scaffolding, students ultimately own the questions and can personalize their project from the answers. Students are the true creators of PBL driving questions. In this Teaching Channel video, a teacher helps students learned leveled questioning.

3. Know and Align the Standards or Outcomes
There may come a time when learning will be so open that students will be able to learn whatever they want. However, in this day and age, we are accountable to learning standards and outcomes. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be flexible in how we help students reach these learning objectives. And personalized PBL can help us find that flexibility. As students generate their questions, project ideas, and products for learning, teachers must align their work to standards and outcomes, which means that teachers need to know their standards deeply in order to serve as translators of students’ personalized projects to the standards. Teachers can create checklists of the standards, sub-standards, and outcomes to work through the “weeds” of hitting the standards through personalized projects, and they can use these checklists with students to co-create project ideas and assessments. See Edutopia’s Building Rigorous Projects That Are Core to Learning for ideas.

4. Build the Infrastructure
Although there is more openness and flexibility in personalized PBL, we do need some processes, protocols, and procedures to make sure that students can self-manage and complete projects with reasonable timelines. Student planning forms such as calendars, task lists, and the like can help students create deadlines and benchmarks for peer feedback, teacher feedback, and reflections. Technology tools can also support an infrastructure in which students have control over the scope of the project. The Teaching Channel offers a video about group contracts for collaborative work.

5. Assess Often
Ongoing assessment is an additional part of a good infrastructure for personalized PBL. Teachers and students should assess the work often to align the resources and instruction needed for success. These ongoing formative assessments can allow students to set goals while allowing teachers to give students “just in time” instruction in a variety of ways. These assessments should not be graded, allowing students the opportunity and safety to improve toward a summative final product. Teachers in this Edutopia video on multifaceted assessment explain how they assess along the way.

6. Get Out of the Way
One major challenge for any PBL teacher, and especially with personalized PBL, is getting out of the way. Although a teacher needs to be present, he or she also needs to relinquish control to the students, allowing them to explore their passions in learning. However, through letting go, teachers can move strategically from student to student as they all engage in different personalized PBL projects. Aviation High School’s Scott McComb not only lets his students pick their teams, he also has them set norms, make mistakes, and adjust goals accordingly.

I truly believe that we can make personalized PBL happen and would love to hear your stories about how it has worked with your students or how you plan to try it out. Since we all know that students are engaged when they receive the learning and instruction that they want and need, why shouldn’t personalized PBL be that learning model?

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