Grading that motivates students

iStock_000021006935XSmallTraditional ways of grading are at least partly responsible for the anti-academic attitude and low student effort prevalent in schools, report Douglas J. MacIver, Associate Director, Center for the Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University, and David A. Reuman, Associate Professor, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. Most schools rely on percentage-correct grading which awards the best grades to students who rank highest regardless of their starting level. This commonly used grading practice does not take into account students’ current skill levels and, as a result, is a poor motivator because it over challenges some students while under challenging others. Problems with traditional grading practices become more severe in classrooms with students of widely diverse abilities and skills. As tracking is eliminated from schools, finding a grading system that motivates a wide variety of students to work hard is an increasing challenge.

MacIver and Reuman report that experimental programs aimed at increasing student motivation and effort are being field-tested. These new grading systems attempt to equalize the chance for success between higher- and lower-ranked students by using previous performance in combination with percentage correct as the basis for grading. With this system, lower-ranked students have a better chance of success, which increases their motivation to work hard. At the same time, higher-ranked students are motivated to work to their potential because they earn extra points for improved performance as well as for high grades.

Educators have learned from the workplace that the systematic use of assigned goals, specific feedback, and recognition for improvement result in greater effort and better performance. The success of workplace experiments has led some teachers to seek a practical way to modify traditional grading practices so that each student in heterogeneous classes is assigned specific goals that are challenging but reasonable. However, such grading procedures must be both manageable and affordable if they are to be used in public schools. Two improvement-focused systems for student accountability and recognition have been designed and refined by teachers in Connecticut and Maryland. In these experimental programs, previous performance is used as the standard against which achievement is measured, and recognition is given to all students who score high or who raise their performance levels.

Incentives for improvement program

One of the programs, “Incentives for Improvement” is an individual accountability program developed with middle-school students in Maryland. In this program, each student’s initial base score is established by subtracting five points from the previous year’s average in a given subject or by giving students a couple of challenging quizzes and averaging the scores. Students take three tests during each grading cycle which gives them the opportunity to improve their base score. The following system of points reveals how low-ranking students received recognition for improvement while high-ranking students were awarded points for improving or maintaining already high performance:

Beat your base score by more than 9 points – earn 30 improvement points.

Beat your base score by 5 to 9 points – earn 20 improvement points.

Score 1 to 4 points above your base score – earn 10 improvement points.

Get a perfect paper – earn 30 improvement points.

Score within 5 points of a perfect paper – earn 20 improvement points.

Under this experimental system there is no danger of “topping out” with a base score that is too high. After each three-week cycle students are issued an updated base score computed from the last three test scores averaged with the previous base score. Students win “personal best” awards when their updated base score is higher than the previous highest base score. When students average 20 or more improvement points on the three performances they receive a “rising star” award. The Maryland Incentives program has an electronic grade book that automatically calculates improvement points, improvement point averages, new base scores and awards.

Results show that the Incentives program had a modest but statistically significant impact on students’ efforts. Students reported working harder to master course content, studying harder for quizzes and tests and working closer to potential than students in control classes. This moderate increase in effort resulted in a substantial increase in student performance. Students in the Incentives program performed almost two-thirds of a standard deviation higher on assessments at the end of the year than did students in control classes.

Windham Challenge Program

A second program using an innovative scoring procedure is currently being evaluated in controlled experiments in heterogeneous classes at Windham High School, Willamantic, Connecticut.

The design of this program is predicated on the idea that although educators strive for intrinsic motivation in their lessons, grades continue to serve as a stimulus for student effort. However, as students get older, many scorn effort and admire academic achievement only when it appears to be done without effort. To combat anti-academic peer values and encourage high achievement in their courses, teachers in the natural and social sciences were the first to work in departmental teams to eliminate tracking and develop an approach to standards and assessment that motivates students and provides them with extra help. Individual students as well as student teams are accountable for improving their performance.

First-year results are only available for the Biology 1 classes. About 70 per cent of students who had signed up for either “basic-level” or “advanced” Biology 1 were randomly assigned to heterogeneous classes taught at the advanced level. The remaining 30 percent were placed in the class level for which they had preregistered. MacIver and Reuman report that in the first years after tracking is eliminated, many students who are used to the watered-down curricula of lower-level classes will feel over challenged in heterogeneous classes taught at an advanced level. Students in this situation typically expend great effort trying to wear down their teacher’s requirements. Teachers at Windham circumvented this tug of war by setting requirements and formulating exams as a department, independent of the individual classes. This allowed teachers to function more like coaches. Tests made up by departmental teams and scored on a rotating basis by teachers, motivate both students and teachers to work harder. External assessments also encourage closer relationships between teacher and student as they work together to perform well on the test.

In the Biology 1 classes, tests were given three times during each grading quarter. Each teacher graded only one exam per quarter. Students were organized into teams, and teachers in the Challenge Program received extensive training in the use of Student Team Learning. Teams of teachers developed lesson plans that used these methods to accommodate student diversity and to make activities more meaningful and rewarding.

Challenge classes used a modified version of the Incentives for Improvement Program’s system of scoring to ensure that all students are challenged and have equal opportunities for success, regardless of their starting skill level. Base scores are recomputed after every external exam (given at 2 1/2 week intervals). Thirty percent of a student’s semester grade is determined by his or her improvement point average on the six external exams for the semester. In addition, each student’s cooperative team can earn awards based on the average improvement points earned by team members. Team awards give members a reason to help one another and individual accountability ensures that each member of the team learns. Under these conditions, teachers report that students interact to instruct one another rather than simply to supply answers to questions.

Preliminary analyses of the first-year results from Biology 1 classes indicate that the Challenge Program is highly successful in combating anti-academic attitudes and it had a positive effect on peer support for achievement. However, student achievement on the National High School Biology Test remained the same after the first year. This was seen as positive because students in heterogeneous classes performed as well as tracked students and lower-achieving students wer not stigmatized. It is hoped that there will be increases in student achievement over time. Challenge Program students did not report any greater test anxiety than control students. Field-testing of the Windham Challenge Program in science and other content areas is continuing.

“Giving Their Best”, American Educator, Winter 1993/1994, pp. 24-32.

Published in ERN, May/June 1994, Volume 7, No. 3.

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