It's not about the data. It's about engagement.

I remember getting my report card in junior high and high school and opening it to see where I ended up every quarter.  Each time it was a surprise and a little stressful (even though I was pretty much a straight-A student). Why?  Because my report card was the one definitive piece of data I had that showed how I was doing as a student, and four times a year I could confirm I was on the right path.  Today’s students are much different.  Since my two boys were in 6th grade (one is a high school freshman and one a sophomore), they have had access to every grade, every score, every piece of data that shows how they are doing as students—in real time.  They check the portal everyday (sometimes twice a day) to see how they fared on a project, a report, a quiz, a test, or an online discussion.  I never ask them to check. It is a regular part of their behavior.  And their teachers have followed suit.  They are MUCH better about providing feedback in a timely manner.  Students want to know where they stand in real time.  The job of the teacher is to provide that.  And I am very happy with my boys’ teachers for their commitment to providing that information.

Last week I interviewed a number of higher ed instructors that were participating in a pilot of a new courseware product.  About half of the instructors in the pilot had been taking advantage of a number of machine-graded self-checks and quizzes to provide more opportunities for students to receive feedback and grades.  When I asked them if this had been a part of their teaching prior to using the product, I was surprised to hear “Students check their grades all of the time now.  And checking grades is a big piece of engagement. So I try to give more opportunities for students to affect their grades.  This product provides me a way to do that without additional work on my part.”  I hadn’t put those things together before—our secondary students today have used technology to change their behavior when it comes to being on top of their learning—they check their grades often.  But many of our higher ed faculty still rely on 2-3 exams per semester to provide the bulk of the student’s final grade, eliminating the need for students to check—and eliminating a major way that students engage in their courses.  How can we expect to generate actionable data for better teaching and learning if we continue to think about grading as high stakes tests?  Providing more grading opportunities has many benefits. 

More grades help students manage stress.  Stress is a major issue with our college students today.  We have seen a rise in suicides and depression.  Counselors are teaching coping skills along with the usual college readiness curriculum.   It’s time to move away from the typical high-stakes midterm/final exam approach where a student can tank a G.P.A. in no time flat and provide our students more ways that they can demonstrate their learning and more ways they can affect their grade.  This is not dumbing down the learning; it is making the learning more accessible.  And helping our students to control their grades; not be surprised by them.

More grades help students focus on areas of weakness before the exams.  “We just had our first exam and I imagine I will have many students come to me for help this week.”  How many times have we heard that?  The student comes to office hours (if they are brave) and are too often surprised by what they didn’t do well in.  Of course, by then it is too late and there is little motivation for the student to learn the material after the fact.   Assigning practice on a regular basis lets students know ahead of time where they are struggling.  They are checking their progress daily, so they can see in real-time what they know and what they don’t know so they can focus their studying better.  And we can probably reduce the number of D/W/Fs to boot.

More grades (and more ways to demonstrate learning) help students who do not count academic writing as their greatest strength.  With a couple of degrees in English, it is not surprising that writing is my preferred method of communication.  But as someone who has taught English, edited authors, and put a number of kids through school, I know this is not everyone’s preferred method.  I do believe that an academic career requires academic writing but I don’t believe this is the only way to demonstrate learning.  Providing students a variety of activities and assignments as well as multiple question types for practice, helps those whose writing or English language skills may be lacking. 

The great news is that so many of the ed tech products available today have these capabilities.  Most of them require nothing more than adding a couple of sentences to a syllabus and adding some more grades to your final assessment of your students.  The simple fact is that with just a little behavior change from our higher ed faculty, we can take full advantage of the student behavior change that has happened in our secondary schools—and increase engagement in a way that already makes sense to our students.