The grading paradox

If given the choice, what would a student choose: learning or passing? I bet most of them would rather pass. Ideally, learning implies passing, but students are often so concerned about passing that forget to care about learning.

In the social sciences (and physics and experimental physics) they have the observer's paradox, which refers to a situation in which the phenomenon being observed is unwittingly influenced by the presence of the observer/investigator.

In education, I believe we deal with the grading paradox. Teachers prepare students for summative assessment by providing (and assessing) formative tasks. Best case scenario, the summative tasks are open ended and allow students to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do. But when the task is a test or examination, it only allows the teacher to observe what the student is able to recall, do or demonstrate during the timeframe of the task.

I guess we all want our students to learn and understand, but I find myself fighting against mines' anxiety for passing the tests. I know... Why am I testing then? Well, at the end of the road, my students are going to face their SAT exam, which is not going to evaluate what they know, but rather what they are capable of showing to know during the exam.

So, I prepare this lessons to get my students thinking and I get asked "Is this going to be on the exam?". And there it is, is that all they care about? The exam? Sadly, in most cases it is.

After exchanging some words with Juan Francisco Hernández (great teacher and author of the blog Esto no entra en el examen which means "this won't be on the exam"), got me thinking about our responsibility, as educators, for those attitudes. In my case, despite my efforts to take the focus out of the exam, it is the tool I more often use to evaluate.

The paradox is that by evaluating learning, we are limiting our students' learning eagerness and, hence, their actual learning.

In his article The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn reflects about academic assessment. It got my attention that in 1999, he already wrote:

Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning. A “grading orientation” and a “learning orientation” have been shown to be inversely related and, as far as I can tell, every study that has ever investigated the impact on intrinsic motivation of receiving grades (or instructions that emphasize the importance of getting good grades) has found a negative effect.

From what I know, kids love learning and understanding, but at some point they break and start worrying about grades. I have not researched about it, but I guess it probably coincides with the time when they start to take exams and their evaluations start to depend on their grades, as opposed to on their teachers' observations.

I have been chatting about this topic with my colleague Gabriel Arencibia, early chlidhood educator and great thinker (here you can see one of his latest publications, in Spanish though). Let me share his thoughts that I found quite right and interesting:

"We can find the origins even before, since the kindergarten."

"What happens is that motivations shifts from intrinsic to extrinsic."

"There is a shift from a personal joy of learning to pleasing the teacher."

"This whole problem is rooted in the early child education."

"Ultimately, the educational system and academic structure relies on it, at least the system that still stands."

My inestimable María Cabrera, economist and IADB consultant, gave me another point of view about the problem around motivation:

Many often, when talking about learning vs evaluation and its relationship with motivation, we don't realize that while intrinsic motivation helps us to either kick off or shine, we mustn't forget that it's quite common in life that motivations are partially or totally extrinsic. And knowing how to deal with this kind of motivation is an exercise in maturity and resilience.

In order to have innovative but resistant citizens, this must be trained. Not to speak of having a sustainable birthrate and loving your children even when they show no gratitude or their tyrannical sides shows off...

I get that we can't solely relay on the motivation we get by our own curiosity or self-improvement. It might be naive of me to expect that my students want to learn "for the personal joy of learning", their motivation might need a "little shove".

I usually try with BreakOutEdu's and challenges. But it, sadly, only motivates a few, the ones with already enough intrinsic motivation to learn. The rest only get involved in those experiences when there is a "tangible" prize for the winners: extra credit in an assessment criterion or free mistakes in a test.

María continued with a few ideas that went slightly off-topic but that I find equally interesting:

It is very difficult that we move only based on intrinsic motivation. It's a somewhat childish idea that might be great for a few things, but can also create unreachable expectations and increase the anxiety and frustration when you fail to self-motivate or need to respond to external motivations.

So, beside the evaluation dilemmas, it might be worthy to also consider the necessary adaptation to the frustration generated by the motivation dichotomies.

Truth be said, the whole frustration topic deserves its very own post.

Coming back to the topic at hand: the grading paradox, I feel handcuffed under a system I'm not sure I believe in.

I can tell what my students know, but the system asks me to evaluate based on summative assessment tasks. And not every task can be performances of understanding, the SAT is not going to be.

The situation is frustrating, for us teachers that we want our students to learn, for the students focused on performing that are asked to think (how evil of us) and for the students who do know and understand but don't manage to perform on tests.

Mental note: Make another post about frustration.

Why can't we just go gradeless?

Update before publishing:

I had the post finished when I recently read Assess without grade: my experience and it's second part Grading at the end of a formative assessment by Jaume Feliu. I felt like recommending these two readings that have given me a lot to think about.