I had the pleasure of chatting with Matt Miller this week for my podcast, The Balance. During our conversation, we explored aspects of the teaching profession that are time-consuming and create work-life imbalance. One culprit is the mentality that, “If I don’t grade it, the students won’t do it.” I disagree, especially when it comes to assignments designed to provide students with opportunities to review concepts and practice specific skills.
First, I do not think grades are an effective long-term strategy for motivating most students. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink points out that extrinsic rewards–points, grades, or the promise of a class party for good behavior–are not effective ways to motivate people over time. These “carrots” might work for a short period of time, but they are unlikely to be powerful long-term motivators. Instead, internal factors like the enjoyment of a task, a sense of achievement, and recognition of growth motivate people.
Second, asking students to do something meaningful with their work creates accountability and can motivate them to complete assignments. Simply submitting work that students may not see again for a few days or weeks is unlikely to compel students to prioritize that work.
Third, I worry that grading assignments that fall under the umbrella of review and practice robs students of a safe space to fail. Students need space to try, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. If teachers grade the accuracy of review and practice, it creates a climate where mistakes are penalized instead of treated as opportunities to learn and grow.
So, how can you reimagine traditional teacher-led workflows when assigning review and practice? How can we avoid taking stacks of literal or digital work home to grade on your evenings and weekends?
First, we need to acknowledge the time-consuming nature of traditional teacher-led workflows. Below is an image depicting a workflow I frequently see when coaching teachers. Teachers will assign work to provide students with practice or review. Each student completes the assignment. Depending on the number of students, the teacher collects anywhere from 25-160 individual work samples. They often spend hours outside of school putting comments, points, or grades on this work. Then they enter the points or grades into their online grade books. This workflow is time-consuming and positions the teacher to do the lion’s share of the thinking and the work.
Now, let’s reimagine this teacher-led workflow to create a more sustainable student-led workflow.
Shifting to Sustainable Student-led Workflows
Instead of assigning practice and review then collecting massive stacks of student work to grade, pull that work into your teacher-led station, or dedicate class time to self-assessment. Imagine students completed a sheet of math problems, a grammar or vocabulary review, or labeled the parts of a map or plant cell. If you want to know how accurate their work was, pair or group students strategically and give them an answer key. Ask them to work together to check, correct, and capture their questions. If they got an answer wrong, encourage them to work collaboratively to see if they can correct their mistake. If not, you can have a strategy in place so students can communicate which problems or questions they struggled with and could not correct on their own. This provides you with data you can use to identify the aspects of the assignment that need to be revisited in small groups or as a whole class.
If practice or review takes the form of a written assignment or something that cannot be easily self-assessed with an answer key, provide students with a strong example or exemplar and a simple rubric to guide their self-assessment. For example, if they wrote an analytical paragraph, give them a strong example to compare their work to and a rubric with 1-3 criteria to help them think critically about the quality of their work. Strategically pair or group students so they have a network of peer support to lean on as they attempt to assess their work. Alternatively, you can ask pairs to exchange their work samples and complete a peer assessment using the rubric.
At the end of this self or peer assessment, encourage students to take time to reflect on their skill set in a learning log.
- What did they learn about their skills from assessing their work?
- What aspect[s] of their work was particularly strong?
- What aspect[s] of their work could use more development?
- Where do they see growth in their work or skill set?
- What additional support do they need to continue developing?
- Is there anything they found particularly challenging or confusing?
Taking time to reflect on the experience helps students develop their metacognitive muscles. I would argue that students will learn a great deal more in a student-led workflow that requires that they think critically about their work and use their classmates as valuable resources in the process.
I know the fear that if you don’t grade work, then students won’t do it is real. However, I think our finite time and energy are better invested in designing dynamic student-centered learning experiences. How can we design learning experiences that are interesting, engaging, and position the learner as an active agent in the lesson? I believe shifting our focus and investing our time in design work to prioritize student autonomy and agency, instead of spending hours putting points and grades on practice and review, is likely to do more to motivate our learners over time.
If you are looking to create more balance in your approach to teaching, check out Balance with Blended Learning which explores strategies for shifting workflows, helping students develop their metacognitive muscles, pulling feedback and assessment into the classroom, and teaching students the skills they need to lead the learning.