Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Please help: Student-centered and -initiated learning vs. students' grade anxieties

So. . . I'm heavily involved with an institute on teaching and technology this week. This afternoon I participated in an interesting discussion that was inspired by a brief reading on how to make learning truly student-centered.

I've always been a big adherent of student-centered learning, but I've frequently hit a wall: when I try to have my students take responsibility for their learning by, for example, giving them a fairly open-ended project that calls on them to reflect not only on content but on process--my students get very anxious.

Why? Because the students admitted to this university have been acculturated to value grades above all else. The overwhelming majority were admitted based largely on their standardized test scores and grades. So that becomes their end goal in every class: a good grade. Students here are famous for asking exactly what they need to do to get an A on a project.

Such an attitude, you can imagine, stifles student creativity and learning in most cases. It means grading process as much as the finished product, which means significantly more work for the instructor.

So I ask you, oh wise and faithful readers: how does one encourage, inspire, assess, and reward truly student-centered learning in a culture where students seem to value grades over the learning experience?

7 comments:

Susan M said...

Narrative evaluations. :)

Laura said...

read my dissertation. :)

Seriously, though, one thing I do is not grade individual assignments. My students turn in 5 papers. We discuss them, talk about revisions. In some cases, they turn in additional versions. Over 50% of their grade comes from participation--class, conferences, and blog. Only 20% is the actual final portfolio.

If I could get rid of grades altogether, I would. Instead, I try to shift the focus of evaluation on the process parts of the class rather than the products.

Barbara said...

I agree with susan and laura about taking the grades away. I have students build the grading rubrics with me over the course of the semester, and then in addition to a hypertext narrative self-evaluation, they have to come into my office to propose and defend a grade. It's wonderful practice for workplace evaluation and helps them understand the grades.

The most important thing I do, though, is right up front during the first two weeks of the semester, exercises to foster a sense of reciprocal apprenticeships and deep learning: http://mt.middlebury.edu/middblogs/ganley/bgblogging/2007/05/umw_faculty_academy_day_two_wo.html

Mikaela said...

I've been wondering about our students' lack of interest in expanding their own minds too lately (not exactly what you're discussing, but pretty related), mostly because of The Achievement Gap in US Higher Education by Mano Singham. (GREAT thought-provoking book.)

So lately my thoughts have been drifting to increasing the "metacognition" of our students by discussing openly with them that grades will not give them the skills they'll need to keep a good job, enjoy their lives, or do anything better than a computer can. I haven't tried it yet (I rarely get to teach undergrads), but it seems like an upbeat tone about how much bigger the world is than grades might help some students look beyond them.

I guess this sounds naive, but I still think I'll try it along with these other ideas of narrative evals, getting students to create the rubrics, and having students justify grades.

Field Notes said...

I've noticed that same connection between lack of creativity and grade-motivated students. I like these suggestions - especially narrative evaluations and having to propose and defend a grade. That does sound like a wonderful way to introduce students to how the real world works.

Stacey said...

Preschool teachers are so lucky! My kids don't know what grades are. They show an interest in bugs and we get out the shovels and paper cups. :)

Trying to look at this from a student's perspective, I wonder how many have been "burned" by open-ended assignments. They found something they were interested in, created a project, and were graded down because they thought outside the box. What about having them write proposals at the front end of assignments? Similar to a grant proposal, have them explain why they want to study a certain topic and how they will show whether their objectives have been met. I'm trying to remember some of the other prompts on the applications I've filled out...

Paul L. Latreille said...

I recognise the problem in my (UK university) students too, which suggests the issues is international. For what it's worth my feeling is that we're dealing with (the consequences of) educational systems that have become fundamentally geared to meeting achievement targets, so the whole becomes narrowly focused on measured outcomes as evidenced by grades.

In terms of how we tackle this issue, I think there is much that is commendable in the responses proposed here; the notion of student-centred, self-motivated development and learningmust be something we aspire to as educators, for ourselves and our students. Following up on Mikaela's post, one of my own modules focuses in part on issues of employability and emphasises the value of metacognition, self-directed learning and reflective capacity in that context, but it's still hard work convincing most of the students (even when I got one of our former students to come back and tell them!)...

I really like the idea of the narrative and of negotiating grades too - and think that this is a beautiful solution in smaller groups. However, my first year class is 360+ students with no TAs (and one of six courses I teach); if someone has some low cost suggestions for such an industrial scale, I'd love to hear from them!! I'm trying to address this at the moment via a technological route (via e-Portfolios, blogs, etc.), but still have some way to go before I get it right...