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Warming up to feedback and dealing with grades

August 24, 2011

One of my big handicaps as a teacher is I never received any formal education training. I’m not certified, and in my early years, I was sort of led to believe that studying education theory would have been a waste of time. This year, I’ve been working with my mentee, A, who just completed a teacher certification program, and I’ve really amazed by some of the simple strategies he uses to get more engagement from his classes, and how much easier his transition to teaching is than mine.

One particular idea that I must be just about the last person in the world to try out is the idea of the warm up. I just put up a question on the projector, and have students spend the first few minutes of class writing out an answer on a notecard. Here are a couple of warmups I’ve used over the past few days, just in case you’re curious.

Students turn in the notecards and then I just write them feedback and return them the next day. In fact, the first week for me has been all about feedback. I’ve probably already written paragraphs of feedback to all of my students at this point, and today, when handing back some position vs time graphs when I wrote lots of feedback all over the paper, I heard a few groans and grumbles under students’ breath.

And so it was at this point that I stopped the class an asked in general why a student would grumble when getting feedback, and pretty quickly we decided it boiled down to two assumptions

  • Teachers only write bad things on your paper and point out what you’re doing wrong (I’m often guilty of this)
  • When teachers write bad things on your paper you grade goes down.

This logic is pretty easy to see, a lot of ink on the paper means a bad grade and just one more strike against the good grades that are going to help you achieve your dreams. Of course, the real problem is that the two assumptions above are just about the two most detrimental ideas to learning one could imagine. The teacher writes feedback in order to help you get better, and if you approach it with a sense of dread, your chances of improving are greatly diminished. Also, if you view every moment of teacher feedback and interaction as a chance to have your grade lowered, you are going to be much less willing to take the risks and make the mistakes you need to make to learn.

And that was a nice segue to a discussion about the environment we wish to create to replace these assumptions with principles that actually encourage learning.

  • Feedback is feedback, designed to help you improve, not evaluate your understanding. Therefore, more ink is a good thing (and I’m trying to be better about pointing out positive stuff as well)
  • I give feedback so that when it comes time to assess your understanding you know what to do and can demonstrate mastery, and I think you should have multiple chances to show that mastery.

From there we went into a deeper discussion of the grading system in this class, and it is mostly summarized in this keynote presentation.

Generally, students seemed to understand the ideas I presented and see that they came from the intent of trying to be fair. We had a good discussion about Capstones, and how they aren’t extra credit that can turn a B into an A, but are really designed to be deeply satisfying endeavors that last after the long after physics is done, and allow you to reach high-‘A’ grades. Students seemed to understand that in the case that you haven’t mastered all the concepts, Capstones only count for a a maximum of a point each in your grade, but once you have mastered all the concepts (reaching a grade of 90), they will count for a maximum of 3 points each.

It’s my hope that my students are starting to see that our class is an environment where learning and deep understanding are paramount, and we must actively work in our class to shape the culture of the class to achieve this. I will do all I can to control the structural elements of the class like grading and the design of activities, but the real burden is on students to either maintain, or rediscover a love of learning and continue to grow it throughout the year.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2011 8:51 pm

    these are fantastic! i will definitely be using this idea in my classes this year.

  2. August 28, 2011 12:15 pm

    Great point re:positive feedback. I never put a grade on my warmups for exactly the reason you suggest: when a teacher leaves feedback, your grade goes down.

    Another idea to try: put a warmup style problem at the end of class, too. A “closer”. Great for formative assessment of the day’s learning.

    • August 29, 2011 12:39 am

      Closers or exit tickets are on my list of things to try. Somehow, I find myself too often losing track of time and not being able to do them.

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