Ask Yourself, Why Am I Grading This?

“If I don’t grade it, students won’t do it.” This reasoning leaves teachers with piles of work to grade, but I wonder how much of that time spent assigning points to student work results in improved student performance.

I fell into this trap at the start of my teaching career. I gave points for completing annotations, bringing books to class, and completing homework. By the end of the semester, I had over a hundred assignments in my grade book. I was exhausted by the neverending pile of paperwork that cast a shadow on my life beyond school.

A few years ago, I hit a breaking point. My grades didn’t feel like an accurate reflection of my students’ skills, and I was spending hours wading through paperwork instead of designing dynamic learning experiences for my students. Now, when I work with teachers, I encourage them to ask these questions: What is the purpose of this work? Why am I grading this?

Below is a simple flowchart to help teachers think about the purpose of student work.

Too often students are penalized for making mistakes on assignments that are designed to help them develop and refine their skills before an assessment. If teachers assign homework or in-class assignments with the goal of helping students to practice, I don’t think that work should receive a grade that goes into a grade book. Instead, the goal of that work should be to help the student learn the material. Mistakes during practice should be celebrated as part of the learning process. If we penalize students who make mistakes while practicing a skill, we create an environment where mistakes are scary. This negatively impacts student motivation and can cause students unnecessary anxiety.

When students are working toward a finished product that will be assessed for a grade, they need feedback and support. If teachers create time in class to provide feedback, they shift the focus from the product to the process. Too often, students do not receive feedback until they have submitted a finished product and receive a grade. Feedback on a finished product is not useful to students. I’d like to see more teachers design blended lessons that allow them the time and space to provide feedback as students work. This feedback pays dividends because the final products will be stronger.

Assessments and finished products need a grade, but many teachers either grade holistically so students are unsure why they received the grade they got or they use monster rubrics composed of so many criteria that grading a finished product takes weeks. I suggest teachers downsize and keep grading more manageable for themselves and their students. Use a simple rubric and select 2-3 specific skills to grade. For example, if students complete a research paper, teachers can limit their focus to three elements, 1) evidence, 2) analysis, and 3) organization. If teachers narrow their focus to a few elements and enter those as separate scores in the grade book, students and parents will have a better sense of what to work on in the future.

The longer I spend in education, the more I have come to embrace the mantra “less is more.” By grading less, we may actually give our students and ourselves more. The more time we spend grading work that doesn’t fall into the category of assessment or finished product, the less time we have to provide feedback, design engaging lessons, and recharge physically, mentally, and emotionally at home.

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Blended Learning: A Bridge to Personalization

Blended learning is the combination of active engaged learning online and active engaged learning offline with the goal of giving students more control over the time, place, pace, and path of their learning. Blended learning can take many different forms and the various models give students different degrees of control over their learning.

Some educators use blended learning and personalized learning synonymously. It’s important to make a distinction between the two. Blended learning models can serve as a bridge toward personalization, but it is not synonymous with personalized learning.

Personalized learning is a hot topic in education. Educators agree that each learner is different with unique interests, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Of course, it would be ideal if teachers could work with individual learners to identify learning goals, co-create learning experiences, and track progress. I honestly don’t know how realistic the idea of personalized learning is in the context of public education as it exists today.

As long as teachers are juggling large class sizes, seeing five classes a day for less than an hour each, and have limited access to resources, personalized learning or “tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn” may feel unattainable (iNacol 2013).

Instead of talking about personalized learning, as if it is a destination I have reached. I use the verb personalizing a lot in my work with educators. It signals that personalization is a journey. Just because we cannot personalize learning for every child every day does not mean it is not a worthy goal to work toward.

This is why I am such a big advocate for blended learning. It provides teachers, even those of us at public schools with limited access to technology, with a path toward personalization. We can use the various models–Station Rotation Model, Flipped Classroom, Whole Group Rotation, and Playlist–to provide students with more opportunities to decide when, how, and what they learn.
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5 Ways to Design Your Teacher-led Station

In my work as a blended learning coach, I observe a lot of teachers facilitating blended lessons. The Station Rotation Model is particularly popular because teachers do not need a device for every student to make it work. Instead, students rotate between offline and online stations.

One concern I have about this model is the way teachers design and facilitate their teacher-led station. Instead of using this station exclusively for direct instruction, I’d like to see more teachers mix it up. Below I describe five different strategies teachers can use to design their station to avoid talking the entire time. When teachers engage students at their teacher-led station, they can collect invaluable formative assessment data that can help inform future lessons.

#1 Hook the Group

Begin your station with a challenge or problem and allow pairs of students to work together to solve it. As they discuss the challenge or problem, observe them. Their conversations will provide invaluable information about what they know, what they are unsure of, and what additional instruction or practice they may need. As they work, you also have a few minutes to “take a lap” around the room to check in with the other groups and make sure they understand what they are supposed to do.

Then when you return to your group, you can ask pairs to share their process for solving the problem. You can use their explanations to drive a debrief in which you highlight strong strategies and answer questions. Finally, you can provide instruction/modeling for the group.

#2 I Do, We Do, You Do

This is a classic flow that works well at a teacher-led station. You begin with an explanation and model how to do something (e.g., solve a problem or structure a written response). Then you guide the group in another example where students chime in with their ideas. Once the group has worked through a problem or task, you can put students in pairs (random or strategic pairing) to work through another problem with peer support. Finally, students work independently to continue applying and you can circulate around the group to support individual students who may be struggling to complete the practice on their own.

In this flow, the moments when the pairs are working to solve the problem or apply the new information, you have time to take a lap and check in with other groups.

#3 Homework Check & Review

Many teachers collect homework and take piles of student work home to grade. Homework is designed to be practice, so I’ve never understood why it is graded and often becomes punitive. If teachers are assigning homework, it would be more powerful to use that practice to encourage students to reflect on their progress and identify the gaps in their understanding of concepts and skills.

If you provide students with a model, exemplar, or answer key for their homework, you can begin this station by giving them time to check their work, identify the places where they made mistakes or answered incorrectly, make the necessary corrections and capture any questions that surface for them. This can be done individually or in pairs. I often pair students up to encourage them to discuss their work and ask each other for help. While students check their work, you can take a lap around the room.

When the group is done checking their work, you can facilitate a follow up conversation addressing questions and providing additional explanation. You can then build on this homework check with the next level of instruction.

#4 Real-Time Feedback

When students are working on a process piece (e.g., argumentative essay, formal lab report, research project) that requires several steps and multiple days to complete, I encourage you to dedicate time at your teacher-led station to give students real-time feedback as they work. This approach shifts your energy into supporting the process instead of waiting to assess a finished product. It also means you don’t have to take stacks of rough drafts home to give students feedback.

Students should come to this station with a draft of one section of work completed. For example, if they are writing a formal lab report, they might bring their procedures section. If they are writing a formal essay, they might bring their introduction paragraphs. If they are working on a research project, they might bring their quotes and source citations. Then as they move onto the next section, you can hop in and out of their documents providing feedback on the section of work they’ve completed. It is helpful to keep the scope of your feedback narrow since you have limited time and encourage students to capture their questions on a post-it so they do not interrupt you as you work.

Providing feedback during the process is incredibly rewarding because students feel supported and the finished products are much stronger.

#5 Quick Assessment & Individualized Support

Begin your station with a quick quiz. I’d suggest using a quizzing tool that automatically grades the students’ answers (e.g., Socrative, Google Form in quiz mode, Schoology quiz feature). While students are working on the quiz, you can take a lap around the room to check in with the other groups.

Once you’ve collected their data, you can see exactly how each student did on the quick assessment. Some students will be ready to move onto the next challenge or level of instruction, which others will need additional support and practice.

It is important to have two assignments ready for students based on their performance on the quiz. For those students who need additional practice, you can provide them with a review activity and spend your time working with them. For students who are ready to move on, you can provide them a flipped video with additional explanation or provide them with practice that is more challenging or builds on their prior practice.

There are so many different ways to leverage the teacher-led station. I encourage teachers to think about the objectives of the lesson and which strategy will best meet those objectives. Even though it is a teacher-led, I encourage teachers to think about how they can actively engage their students at this station.

If you have another strategy you use and love at your teacher-led station, please take a moment to post a comment and share it with me!

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