How Can I Communicate What I Value?

An email from a colleague a couple of days ago has my brain buzzing a bit. Here is the note he sent me:

Hey Jim, I just made a connection from our conversation this evening with an earlier conversation. It manifests mostly as a question/challenge.

You have said, and I agree, that we ought to value what we assess and assess what we value. So, if we value collegiality and collaboration amongst students, what is a fair and appropriate way to assess that? I feel like your group quizzes are part of the answer, but I also feel like there is more to it.


The night he sent me this email I went to twitter to see if I could get some feedback/pushback and I did in a lively conversation with Michael Pershan (@mpershan) where he questioned whether grades were the proper avenue for communicating what it is I value in class. He closed with a couple of important points:

I’ve never been happy while using grades to motivate (it flops) but your experiences might be different than mine here. +

One further thought: an assessment is a promise to a kid that we can help them improve on what we’re assessing.

Some background here might help me clear my thoughts and might help you, dear reader, understand the origins of this whole train of thought.

Years ago, I read a powerful piece through NCTM written by Dan Kennedy of the Baylor School. Dan had been an AP admin for some time and was around when some of the sea changes were happening with the AP math curriculum. He wrote a terrific piece called Assessing True Academic Success: The Next Frontier of Reform. You can find it here, it is worth a read. The quote my colleague referred to is from that article and it is a point I raise with my department when we talk about the role of assessment. I have written before about my commitment to trying to create a culture of communication and collaboration in my classroom and the colleague who wrote to me had just spent a week in my Geometry class observing my team in action. He references a habit I started just a year or two ago where I have one group quiz each term here. I know that this is a baby step, but I am still trying to figure out how to find a balance between personal responsibility for showing knowledge, the ability to work productively within a group, the meaning of a grade on a report card, the reality of what lies ahead for them, etc. etc. etc. I feel that a group quiz each term is a beginning, I hope it is not the end. So, my colleague is asking/urging/challenging me (and himself, I suspect) to really dig in and think about how to effectively communicate to my students that I value communication and collaboration. I have always reflexively felt that the clearest way to communicate to students what I value is to make sure that those stated values are transparent in the assessment process. If I tell my students that I value problem solving and process in mathematics but I then give them multiple choice tests, then they will suss out that I probably do not really believe what I say I believe. In comes Michael Pershan with his measured challenges. I have a few thoughts that are coherent enough to air out here about Michael’s comments. The first comment about grades is a real challenge. I work in a college prep day and boarding school. For better or worse (probably aspects of both) grades are a HUGE force in our school. As long as I feel I am being intellectually honest about what I communicate to my students through my grading practices, I am willing to accept Michael’s statement as a deeper, long-term truth while also accepting that, in the now, my students’ behaviors (and, hopefully) beliefs can be steered a bit by how I evaluate them. Given that, the struggle is to figure out a way that feels honest, transparent, and not too terribly subjective to incorporate the values of collaboration and communication into my grading system. I have been in too many classes where students ‘participate’ in conversation by simply echoing the opinions of others so that they can get their names on the participation roll. I do not want to clutter my class this way. I also want to recognize that there are students who do not want to, who do not feel comfortable, talking out loud in whole class conversations. Most of these students are willing and able participants in smaller group conversations.

One of the things I love most in life is the sense of synchronicity I have when I realize that what is on my mind is also on the minds of others. When I suddenly see references over and over to something that I think I just discovered. Well, I took a few minutes break from this post and saw a link to a lovely post crawl through on my twitter feed thanks to the MTBoS Blogbot. The post is called Why Do You Have Us Do Things That Aren’t For a Grade?. You can find it here. It was written by @viemath. Maybe this article will spark some important insights.

I have long told my students that their numerical average in my class simply represents the worst grade that they can earn. I tell them that a student with an 88% can be an A- student if they are good citizens, if they contribute to class, if they are largely consistent or on an upward arc. I also tell them that a student with a 90% is an A- even if that student is not such a great citizen. I kind of feel good about that stance. My thought at this point is that I will simply continue to emphasize this strongly and make a distinct point that one of the major mitigating factors in figuring out whether i need to lean on turning averages into grades is to attend to class engagement as the primary point of emphasis.

I am hoping for some bolt of wisdom…

3 thoughts on “How Can I Communicate What I Value?”

  1. This is a line of thought that leads us back to the debate on extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation, and the undermining effect (the notion that the introduction of extrinsic rewards reduces intrinsic motivation). Although many educator preparation courses treat the matter as fairly cut-and-dry, there is a lot of back-and-forth between supporters and critics of the undermining effect. The purpose of this reply is not to take a stance on the issue. However, I bring to your attention a recent meta-analysis – drawing upon 950 research articles published over the last 40 years – in which Cerasoli, Nicklin, and Ford concluded that
    “intrinsic motivation is a medium to strong predictor of performance… The importance of intrinsic motivation to performance remained in place whether incentives were presented. In addition, incentive salience influenced the predictive validity of intrinsic motivation for performance.”
    In other words, whether or not the undermining effect exists, performance is positively correlated with the presence of both intrinsic and salient extrinsic rewards. Additionally, the authors noted that “intrinsic motivation predicted more unique variance in quality of performance, whereas incentives were a better predictor of quantity of performance.” This is not much of a surprise.

    So, why all this academic discussion? Because, quite simply, the evidence says that extrinsic rewards (such as grades, the gold standard of extrinsic motivation) correlate to higher performance, albeit strong quantity of performance rather than quality. Still, quantity has its place in educational work. Indeed, repeated exposure to a certain way of thinking or processing gives us an opportunity to reconsider hastily formed judgments and to develop intuitions that would otherwise have been unavailable.

    In all of the above, there is one word that really stands out, salience. If it is salience that correlates to enhanced task performance, then salience is what we should be questing after when we grade, and this brings us back to the topic at hand. If we grade the acts of collaboration and participation in a community of learners, will the students perceive it as salient? My sense is that this depends a whole lot on the classroom culture in which you are operating, something which you do not exercise total authority over. Still, if you work (as mrdardy clearly does) to make these acts a regular avenue for classroom discourse and to make it explicit how you will grade this engagement (Bean and Peterson have a nice 6-point rubric – … no paywall), I see no strong argument against assessing collaboration in a traditional classroom setting.

    If you would like to read the cited article, it is not behind a paywall at the University of Hartford:

  2. Love when mpershan kicks in – there will always be awesome questions. I don’t think this is necessarily grades for motivation (which I find helps least the students I worry about the most). But grades for things you don’t value will speak the lie to the students.

    Finding ways to have the students show problem solving so it can be assessed can be done, but I’m a little leery of it become a dog and pony show. What I strive for now is having problematic situations on which students can show content understanding. Then the grade isn’t based on right answer, it’s based on demonstrated understanding. Which for me is shown by explanation of thinking. Of course, good understanding leads to a lot of right answers, so they’re not uncorrelated. I think stepping away from points is another way to make this case.

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