More on why the most important parts of education may not be quantifiable

This post is a continuation of my thinking on the Product of Learning. I was discussing with a colleague the way I grade process over product in my research methodology course. I respect this colleague a great deal, and these remarks should not be construed as a criticism of his views, but rather a narrative about how his views enhanced my own thinking. I told him that 60% of the grade in the course was based on competently completely a series of assignments which cumulate into a final research paper. I told him that if students did a competent job, they got full credit on the assignment, but if they didn’t, they were allowed to redo the assignment to get it right. My colleague argued that he thought it better to urge his students towards excellence rather than mere competence. I agree that excellence should be our goal, but how do we get there?

One way to teach for excellence is to be a very tough grader. This is what I used to do. I would tell students, “Here is the standard for an A. You should all strive for this. Now go for it.” Students would turn in an assignment. I would either make careful suggestions for improvement (if it was a draft), or explain where it fell short of ‘A’ work (if it was a final version). One problem with such an approach is that it assumes students fully understand the standard for an A, and that if they fall short, it’s because they are not putting in appropriate effort to achieve that standard. Of course, the hidden assumption is that not all students are capable of excellent work. I question that first assumption, and wonder if more students would be capable of excellence if we explained to them more clearly what it was.

I have another colleague who used to write exam questions which many students found ambiguous. When asked about that, he responded that an important part of the course was learning how to correctly interpret the questions. Perhaps, but I found myself wondering, if students don’t know what you’re asking, is it any wonder they don’t give you what you want?

I think there may be a parallel here between my second colleague’s approach to exam questions and my first colleague’s approach to student essays. In my research class, the purpose of the research assignments and their competency-based grades is to get students to engage in the course work more fully than they otherwise would. It may be that the best students would do this anyway, but this approach aims to capture they rest. And as I demonstrated in the previous post, it works.

In class, I explain (for example) why researchers do a literature survey or search for appropriate data or ask an interesting and significant research question. I model how to do the task. I ask students to practice in class what I’ve modeled. And then I ask them to do it on their own in the form of an assignment. For years, I’ve told them they don’t have to do these things perfectly to excel; they just have to do them all. I now think I was right about this though I didn’t fully understand why until the other day. There’s something synergistic about the process which achieves the goal of the course for those students who participate in all (or nearly all) of the assignments. If they don’t complete most of them, they don’t end up getting it. [ I described what ‘it’ is in the last post.]

Students see the research assignments as “easy points,” but that’s not their purpose. The fundamental purpose of the course is not to write an excellent research paper, nor is it to get students to go through the motions of the process. The purpose is to teach students how to genuinely engage with a subject, which I would argue is more important than “the product” per se. Or rather, it’s not the product (e.g. research paper) that’s the product—it’s the process that’s the product. It’s what a liberal education is supposed to be about.

P.S. to my first colleague: Students still have an incentive in the course to write excellent papers. They get to take those to present at a professional conference each year. Isn’t that a better incentive than a grade?

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2 Responses to More on why the most important parts of education may not be quantifiable

  1. Jenny says:

    The excellence/competence question is a good one. Excellence is a lofty goal and a worthy one. However, I doubt that we truly expect it of all students at all times. Any more than we expect it of ourselves at all times.

    Many of us at the opposite end of the educational spectrum from you (here in elementary school) would love to see the opportunity to teach students for the sake of learning rather than for the grade. It sounds like that wouldn’t be too big a switch for your students.

  2. Steve Myers says:

    Bravo for competency. The excellence will rise like cream to the top, but having a classroom of students achieve competency is the way to go. Perhaps your colleague confuses competency with grades of Cs and would rather spend time only with the As. Perhaps he confuses grades with competency, the latter being a stage on which the student can demonstrate their performance.

    As a linguistic and conceptual challenge, I wonder how quantifiably different are competency, proficency and mastery.

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