(Practices to Support Hope and a Growth Mindset)
Chapter 11 of Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity book contains an eight-word sentence that made me stop, put down the book, and really--I mean really--start thinking about how I had approached grading my students in the past. I had wrestled with other questions that I mentioned in my previous posts, but this idea shook me. Before I get to that eight-word sentence, let me set up what he writes leading up to it.
Feldman spends the beginning of the chapter discussing research on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and how each plays a role for students in school: “The conclusion is now established fact among psychologists and education researchers: Contingent extrinsic awards--do this and you’ll get that--undermine intrinsic motivation” (p. 154). That’s not to say that extrinsic rewards don’t have their place in simple behaviors like providing stickers to children who stay seated during an activity or for formulaic tasks like helping a teacher stuff envelopes, but “when the task requires creativity and expansive complex thinking...extrinsic motivation lowers performance” (p. 155). Feldman also cites evidence that extrinsic motivation can increase unethical behavior and then sums up with the conclusion that “extrinsic rewards may reap short-term results but can smother intrinsic motivation and its benefits and cause undesirable side effects.” (p. 155)
How does grading fit in? Well, Feldman argues that grades often function as extrinsic and contingent rewards and punishments. If a student performs well, then they are rewarded with a high grade and if they perform poorly they are punished with a low one. I’m sure every teacher has encountered a student that is more concerned with getting a high grade than with the learning the teacher really wants for them. Feldman lays out an underlying rationale “Many of us assign Fs believing (or perhaps merely hoping) that those Fs will motivate struggling students to work harder, to improve their behaviors and approach to learning. These students often have weaker educational backgrounds, who come tour classes often already behind academically and with a history of struggle in school. And when they get an F (for a low performance, a missing assignment, or wrong behavior) and their next performance has not sufficiently improved, we give them another F, presumably to reiterate their subpar performance and to motivate them to improve. Each time we must think that the most recent F will be the one that finally spurs the student to turn around their performance” (p. 157).
Ouch. That hurt to read because I’ve actually had those thoughts--not on my good days, but on days that I’ve been frustrated by my ineffectiveness with a particular student or class. Thankfully, Feldman continues, “As we might suspect, no research supports the idea that assigning low grades as punishment encourages students to try harder or do better” (p. 157). Getting rid of grades altogether is one option, but for the majority of teachers that’s not likely to happen; we need to find a way to “reduce the impact of grades as a contingent, extrinsic reward and refocus students on learning. For our struggling students with repeated failure in school (and whose families for generations have experienced a history of academic failure), it becomes our moral imperative to stop using grades as punishment and instead reframe and reemploy them to give more students a sense of self-efficacy, endless capacity, and hope” (p. 159).
What to try instead? We must always provide hope. Teachers must show students that no matter where they start from or how many mistakes they make, success is still possible. Feldman reiterates the idea of minimum grading (see my previous blog post )--that is, adjusting our grading such that an F is recorded as no lower than a 50%, which will allow a student to recover from early failures. This practice restores mathematical accuracy and motivates struggling students by preserving the possibility of redemption and success. (p.164)
He next suggests renaming grades. He writes, “Replacing letters and numbers with short descriptors gives the teacher and school the opportunity to make their expectations and their beliefs about student learning more explicit for students” (p. 164). One example he gives is:
- Exceeding Standards
- Meeting Standards
- Approaching Standards
- Not Yet Met Standards
- Insufficient Evidence
The last half of the chapter is devoted to retakes and redos. I think it’s pretty obvious that Feldman thinks that retakes and redos are an important part of a classroom that motivates students, supports a growth mindset, and provides opportunities for redemption. He asks rhetorically, “Why should a teacher stop a student’s learning?” (p. 167), knowing that no teacher really wants their students to stop learning. He argues that every student, whether initially earning a D or a B, should have the opportunity to continue their learning. He goes on to say that this applies to all types of assessments; after all, “in equitable grading . . . where the student is in her learning progression defines whether an assessment is formative or summative” (p. 167). Feldman makes a point of saying that the summative/formative assessment division is and should be flexible in equitable grading. A retake of a formative assessment could be used as a summative one if the teacher believes the student has demonstrated proficiency on a standard.
He also offers suggestions on how to manage logistics of retakes by only asking students to retake portions of the assessment that they missed, rather than the whole, and organizing assessment questions based on standards to facilitate this. This can be especially helpful when working with some special education students who would benefit from “chunking” standards or ideas into smaller more manageable pieces. Before a student retakes an assessment, Feldman wisely suggests having students correct previous mistakes on assessments, receive tutoring, or complete and submit previous relevant assignments.
Now, I have resisted student retakes for the bulk of my teaching career for all kinds of reasons. Feldman spends eight pages (p. 174-181) deftly addressing common teacher concerns about permitting retakes and redos. (I don’t want to go over them, but let me just say, he dispels those concerns convincingly.) Even so, I was ready to start employing retakes in my classes next year, but Feldman’s take on whether to make retakes optional was the section that really, really shook me--made me put the book down, stand up, and say “Wow!” out loud in my apartment. On page 172 he writes, “Retakes are equitable only when they are mandatory.”
Should a kiddo taking a retake depend on them having parents that required it of them? Should it depend on them having a study hall for them to come and take a retest? Should it depend on them being willing to skip lunch to reassess? Should it depend on them having after school transportation? Should it depend on them not having an after school job, family, or extracurricular responsibilities? Should it depend on them already possessing a growth mindset? Should it depend on a student’s current level of belief in their ability to improve? In an equitable classroom, the answer to all of these is a simple no, for the simple reason that “students recognize that when we require them to succeed, we’re saying something about what we believe about their potential and how we feel about them” (p. 172).
Retakes are equitable only when they are mandatory. Those eight words made me realize if I was serious about providing hope, fostering a growth mindset, and I wanted to make my classroom more equitable, I needed to require retakes as part of my regular practice.
TLDR: A teacher’s grading should motivate students to achieve academically, support a growth mindset, and provide opportunities for redemption.
- Minimum Grading
- Renaming Grades
- Mandatory Retakes/Redos
Next up… What I’m trying this school year...