This is another in my irregular musings about teaching, learning and how grading should help rather than hinder the latter.
Does the textbook have a responsibility for student learning? No, it’s just a source of course content. Does the teacher have a responsibility for student learning, or is the teacher as expert just another source of course content? Most people would say the teacher does have a responsibility for student learning, but are most course environments set up that way? I would say no, not really.
For some time, I’ve been thinking about the parallels between sports and school. Participants generally think sports are fun, otherwise they wouldn’t participate. School? Not so much.
Once the sports team has been selected, the purpose of coaching and the objective of players is to improve performance. There is regular assessment with clear consequences: players that perform the best get more playing time. The purpose of coaching is to improve performance. If the team’s performance doesn’t improve, the coaching hasn’t been very successful. (Admittedly, this is a collective goal, like a group project.) But by and large it is successful. Virtually every team I’ve witnessed improves over the course of the season.
Can we say the same thing about teaching and learning in school? I’m not sure. There’s certainly evidence to the contrary. In a recent article in Peer Review, Bain and Zimmerman retell the story of the experiment conducted by physics professors to see how much learning actually took place in their intro classes. They conducted pre and post-tests of the some of the fundamental content in their course. When the professors gave the post-test, several months after the course, they discovered essentially no change in the survey scores, indicating no learning of the fundamental content. More alarming was their finding that the change in survey scores was unrelated to the grades students earned in the course. ‘A’ students scored better on course exams and other graded assignments, but they didn’t learn the fundamentals of physics any better. Bain & Zimmerman argue that this result is not limited to physics but applies to all disciplines.
In school, when a student receives a poor grade, they usually feel bad, even guilty, and they often blame the teacher. As teachers, we tend to discount the student, thinking ‘they failed’ Our emphasis is on delivery of the content, more than on coaching over and over to help the student get it right. There are some exceptions to this: composition courses where students write and get feedback repeatedly, and teachers who go out of their way to provide recurrent feedback to students who can’t seem to get it. But this is not the norm. Usually, the content drives the schedule, and students are supposed to get the content and move on to the next topic.
I think that teachers teach with the expectation that successful students will earn an A. Anyone less than that, isn’t really successful. We teach the content; we assess learning of the content. At that point it’s sink or swim. The expectation is that the good students will get it, and the rest, well, they’re not good students so the fault lies with them. We claim to offer help to students who don’t make the grade. But we don’t really expect that everyone or even very many students will come to our office hours. By and large, we expect that students will do the lion’s share of their learning, their remediation on their own. We test them, we give them the correct answers and we expect them to figure out where they went wrong on their own. There’s a certain contradiction in thinking here. At one level, we act as if everyone should get an A. (We often teach to the level of A work.) But we don’t really believe that, and in an important sense, for those that don’t, we wash our hands of them.
Compare this with sports and coaching. In sports, there is little expectation that players will perform perfectly on the first attempt. Once players have made the team, the purpose of practice is not to delivery content (how to field a grounder), though there’s a great deal of that done. The purpose of practice is to provide repeated opportunities to improve performance. The objective of coaching is to help players improve from where they are. After all, if the goal is to improve the team’s performance, helping each player to improve will contribute to that goal, even if no players become all-stars.
In school, grading tends to be a sorting mechanism of whittling students down. The grade is perceived as a judgment about one’s personhood, rather than as helpful feedback. Not surprisingly, students push back against grades.
In sports, assessment is more directly connected to performance. The goal of learners and teachers is to build one up, not document how one falls short of perfection.
I wonder if teachers could learn from the sports approach. That is, if we are more interested in learning than sorting.