Podcast: Switching Students’ Focus From Grades to Learning - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Switching Students’ Focus From Grades to Learning

Switching Students’ Focus: From Grades to Learning

Many teachers get frustrated with students’ questions such as, “Does this count in my grade?” or “What can I do for extra credit?” Middle school math teacher, Crystal Frommert, shares strategies that teachers can implement to encourage students to focus on learning rather than “getting a grade.” Crystal’s goal: making grades more accurate, collaborative, and much less stressful.

Find Crystal’s article, “Five Ways to Help Students Focus on Learning Rather Than Grades” here.

Find Crystal on Twitter: @mrs_frommert

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!


Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Teacher edition of Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding and my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers, the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.

Steve: 00:34 Switching students’ focus from grades to learning. Joining us today is Crystal Frommert, a secondary math instructor who had joined me earlier, a few years back on a podcast. More recently I read a piece that she had written in Edutopia and I wanted to invite her back. The title of her article was, “Five Ways to Help Students Focus on Learning rather Than On Grades” and it struck a chord with me because it really connects to the work that I do on promoting student learning production behaviors. And often, the behaviors that are focused on grades aren’t the behaviors that students need to be focused on learning. So I’m excited to have Crystal join us here.

Crystal: 01:32 Hi. Thank you for having me.

Steve: 01:34 Your article starts sharing frustrations that arise for you when students ask those questions such as, “does this count? Is it on the test?” And, “how do I get an A?” And I was smiling to myself because I’ve actually heard those questions when I’m teaching teachers in graduate level courses and I get just as frustrated then. So you mentioned that you found out that other teachers in your school shared some of that same frustration.

Crystal: 02:10 Exactly. And it comes from parents as well. You know, some parents have that grade mindset and then it rubs off on their children. And I teach middle school primarily, and I have my little middle schoolers thinking about how do I earn an A, how do I get a hundred on this quiz? And I’m really making that effort, I’m trying to help them to see that we are learning here, and this is not for a grade, which is really difficult to undo that mindset, especially if they’re hearing it from home. And as you said my fellow colleagues are having the same issue where, how many points off did you take for this rather than, how can you help me understand what I missed here?

Steve: 02:52 So I’ll give you a history lesson. .

Steve: 02:57 I started teaching in 1972 in a non-graded school. We didn’t have a report card. We had parent conferences. And using carbon paper at parent conferences, we wrote notes as we were reporting out to the parents where their children were at. And I would have this graph where I would show the parent all the different math concepts we were covering that quarter and I’d show which ones their child has mastered and which ones their child was still working on. And we get all the way to the end and they would always look at me and go, “what grade is that? And I would have to look at them and go, I don’t know.

Crystal: 03:48

Steve: 03:51 But it was so embedded and here we are coming up on 50 years later and the same struggle is still out there. It is a battle. In your
article, you offered five adjustments that teachers could make to point students more in the direction of focusing on learning. And I thought what we could do in the podcast is, I just mention those one at a time, and you provide us a a little bit of your thinking around them. So the first one you mentioned was adjust your language both with kids and parents.

Crystal: 04:34 I think this is the most important one. That’s why I started with this adjusting language because it starts with me and the change starts with how I approach grade outlook in my class. So I have stopped using the word grades as often as I used to. This is my 23rd year of teaching and way back in the day, I was right in that mindset of you earned an A or A+ and this is gonna count for a grade and my language was promoting this grade obsession. So I’ve made a huge effort in my class to change my language with kids and parents. I focus on words like performance or how did you do on this concept? And avoid the whole grade conversation completely the best so that I can. When I send an email to parents, or I’m talking to parents in a conference, I do focus on what the child is learning, what their progress is like and I try to avoid the whole number and letter grade conversation completely.

Steve: 05:36 I’m smiling as I’m listening to you because I know that waving the grade as the carrot can be so easy at a frustrated moment to throw out the the threat or the encouragement for the grade. It could almost pop out – I’d have to be conscious of holding that back.

Crystal: 05:59 Exactly. One of the things that I do with parents, if they push, because some are very interested in grades, and if they push, “well, how did he do? What was the grade?” Like you mentioned with your story, in 1972, what’s the grade? This might be a little sneaky, but I will say, okay, well, they earned 35 points out of 42 if they’re pushing for some sort of numer representation. And I know that’s a little sneaky, because that doesn’t really tell you your percentage. You have to think a little bit or use a calculator for that. And I hope not to deceive anyone, but I’m really trying to deemphasize the whole idea of points and more of the learning.

Steve: 06:41 So the second suggestion you had was delay the grade.

Crystal: 06:45 Yes. This is another favorite of mine. And I avoid talking about grades, but I also avoid putting their grades on their
papers. At first, my middle schoolers were very annoyed by this. They get used to it as the year goes on. And I’ll grade a test because we have traditional tests in my school – traditional quizzes, traditional tests, pencil and paper. And what I do, and I learned this from another teacher, I can’t take credit for this myself, but what I do is I mark their test with comments, circles, arrows, notes, but I indicate on another sheet of paper, separately, how many points were deducted for that particular error. The kids never see that unless they ask for it. I think I’ve had one child in two years come to me and say, can I see how many points you deducted on my test?

Crystal: 07:37 But the beauty of delaying the grade is I hand back their test, they’re looking at their actual performance rather than a number grade. They’re looking at my feedback because there’s research that supports once they see a grade, they stop looking at the teacher feedback. And my kids have actually gotten pretty good at this. They will look through their test, they’ll see my markings and my feedback, they pretty much have an idea of how they’ve done on this test. And they’re starting to use the language rather than “I earned a 95, I earned a 85.” They’re starting to use the language of I did not do so well with graphing absolute value functions, which is – now it’s not perfect. Of course, they’re not all talking like that, but that’s the goal, is to get them talking about their actual performance on a concept.

Steve: 08:23 Whenever I’ve addressed that I use the example with teachers that you know, imagine your administrator came in and did an observation, and they just took two pages of really good notes and feedback suggestions, but when they got to the bottom of the second page, they had to check a box that said “outstanding, satisfactory or needs improvement,” I asked the teachers, how many of you think you’d turn and check that that box before you read the comments? And then how do you think having read the box, it would influence the way that you read through the comments? And everybody agrees – they totally get that the kids are in effect responding the same way we do.

Crystal: 09:10 Right. And what that does to us. I mean, kids and adults were not that different. And just seeing that number grade, psychologically, it can be damaging to say, “you think I’m a four out of five?” It’s too heavy for us. It’s arbitrary in many ways. And think about in corporate world – my husband works in corporate and he never gets a grade for his performance. He gets a narrative from his supervisor and a conversation and that’s very standards based assessment. That happens in the real world.

Steve: 09:45 The next one that you suggested was lower the stakes.

Crystal: 09:49 Yes. If you’ve ever taught really high achieving kids who love grades, love getting their hundreds, love getting their stickers, you probably have seen tears. And sadly, I teach middle school math and I’ve seen tears. You know, “I earned an 81 and I’m devastated.” That kind of thing. So I’ve tried to lower the stakes in a few ways. One is I do have to give quizzes and to help ease some of the anxiety that comes with that assessment, I automatically drop the lowest quiz grade. That right there eases – I can see it in their face. I can see it in their bodies. They’re like, okay, I didn’t know this topic all that well, but it’s right because the lowest rate is dropped. I get a little bit of a freebie. And I think that’s really important, even though it doesn’t really affect their final grade all that much.

Crystal: 10:43 It’s very much helping them to realize it’s okay to have a mistake. It’s okay to have an off day. It’s okay to not understand something right away, because learning is obviously not a race. So that’s one of the things that I do. I also don’t grade homework. And I know that can be a controversial topic, but I teach middle school and you get some teachers who will say, well, will they actually do the homework? There’s so much research that Dr. Peter Liljedahl does on if it’s a grade, you’ll find that kids are just kind of mimicking homework or copying homework or faking, and I want them doing their homework for learning. And I don’t take a grade on it. If you don’t do it, there’s no penalty on your grade, but it’s gonna penalize your learning. And I have that conversation with my kids often.

Steve: 11:31 That really matches when I talk about a learning production behavior. So if the homework is appropriate, if it’s the right homework, it’s reinforcing a learning production behavior. It’s a practice of a skill or a strategy, or it’s the exploration of another option, or it’s a quick way to get feedback. So nothing should prepare me for the test like knowing when am I stuck on homework. If I’m stuck and struggling, I should be checking back in with the teacher. If I can do the homework all along, then I should be pretty confident when it comes time to the test if the teacher’s doing an appropriate assessment.

Crystal: 12:15 Exactly. And I still expect them to do homework. I have high expectations for my kids. And if I notice a trend, you know, they’re not putting in the practice, I will have a one-on-one conversation with that kid or their parents if I need to, because I still have that expectation that the practice is done.

Steve: 12:33 And also, again, the chance for them to get the feedback. If they’re not doing the homework, you can’t give them the appropriate feedback to be helpful and supportive to them.

Crystal: 12:41 Exactly.

Steve: 12:43 I’m guessing that lower the stakes kind of connects with the next one, which is providing retakes.

Crystal: 12:50 Right. They are connected, and it depends on your school’s policy on offering retake tests or offering corrections for points back. And I think this can be a little bit of a controversial topic depending on the school culture that you’re in. But like I said, learning is not a race. So if a student has to take their chapter four test on Tuesday, but they’re not quite ready for that, I still do expect them to sit for the test and take it. But afterwards, we have a test reflection time. We talk about, how did you do with this? And depending on your school and what they allow, you could have them study the things that they’ve missed, revisit that or reteach a tutorial session and then come back and retake that test later, or do some kind of correction for that.

Crystal: 13:41 Because if you are in a traditional grade school, you do have to give a grade for that test. But why does it have to be, “did you know everything in chapter four on Tuesday?” Could it be, “you didn’t know everything on Tuesday, but with some remediation, some help, he knew everything mostly on Friday.” And I know that adds so much more work for the teacher, but it does help the kids realize this is a growth mindset. This is not a deadline of learning because I’m continually growing.

Steve: 14:12 I worked with a teacher who did retakes, but she had a requirement and the requirement was you had to document what you did between the first test and the retake in order to qualify for a retake. So you couldn’t come and just roll the dice again. So if you documented here’s the things that I didn’t know and here’s the help I got, and so now I’m back and I went back and I reread that chapter and now I’d like to retake it, but you had to document there’s something you learned from not passing the test not doing as well as you wanted. There’s something you learned that lead you to a behavior that now qualifies you for the retake.

Crystal: 15:04 Exactly. And that’s why I have a test reflection. And so after each test, every student, they reflect on – it’s a metacognitive activity. They reflect on what did they do to prepare for this assessment. I ask them to indicate specifically, what did you do well on? And what could you improve on? And they have to write down, not, I earned a 90, I’d like to earn a hundred. That’s not the point of that. It’s, I would like to do better with adding negative numbers, or something like that. So they’re really thinking about their own learning and what you’re saying, with the teacher who requires them to reflect on what they’ve done to improve their learning, that all comes down to this overarching thing of relationships and having that relationship, knowing your kids, showing them you care, showing them you want them to learn and being side by side with them in that journey, I think that that’s the overarching theme of the whole idea of un-grading.

Steve: 16:03 And your last one allows self grading.

Crystal: 16:06 Yes. So I do get some feedback from you know, some of my kids – especially the ones who are getting ready for high school, but grades are so important. I gotta get in the best college and all of these teachers and parents will say the same thing, but grades are so important because of college, because of college. And I’m really tired of talking about college when it comes to a 13 year olds, because it’s so far in the future. Don’t worry. They’re gonna get there. They’re gonna be alright. And one of the things that I can do to still give you that grade that everybody’s looking for, and everybody kind of wants in the end is have a conversation about a self assessment. And there’s, a company called Mastery Portfolio that is a great book system, but it it’s based on standards based grading.

Crystal: 16:53 And they do have a self assessment feature in their software, which is fantastic because it’s giving the children a chance to say, this is how I’ve grown, this is what I’ve learned. And they can help you, you and the child and the teacher together create a grade for them. And it’s a collaborative process. So I’ll give you an example of this where I met with a student who was struggling with a particular concept in my algebra class, and we sat together and discussed, what grade do you feel that you’ve earned through this process? And he was really taken aback by this conversation. Like, what do you mean you want my input on this? And we talked, we had a rubric based on how much have you grown? What do you know about this? And he was so honest about his own learning, and we came together to come up with a grade that he would earn for this particular test. And this was a unique situation. But there, there are times that you can sit with a kid on a project and have a rubric, have them self assess themselves on a rubric, and then it becomes a collaborative process of their final grade, if you will.

Steve: 18:02 So, all the way back to my beginning of my career story with you. I was teaching grade five and six at that time and we wrote the
parent conferences one on one. Oh. So I would take almost the full day before parent conferences and meet with kids one on one, and we’d go right down the different content areas, looking at their work and coming up with what the report was gonna be to their parents and you just can’t beat that kind of time investment with kids.

Crystal: 18:35 Exactly. That is so important to give kids ownership of their own learning, to give them that responsibility. And I do something similar. We have to do narrative comments at our school. We write a paragraph for each child, for each term report card, and I have my students write their own narrative. Only I see it, it’s not published. And they write this on a Google form, and I get to see what they’re thinking about their own progress and their own learning in my class for that term and it helps me in turn to write the narrative comment for them. So it’s student informed comment that I’m writing to their parents. So it’s not as ideal as meeting them one on one. I would love to do that if I had more time, but this comment is helpful because it’s making them think about their own progress and journey.
Steve: 19:27 Very cool. Very cool. Well, as we wrap up, there’s a comment that you wrote at the end of your article that captured me. So I wanna read it out loud and have you respond to it. Your comment said that your goal is making grades more accurate, collaborative, and less stressful.

Crystal: 19:54 Yes.

Steve: 19:56 That’s just an awesome statement.

Crystal: 19:58 Thank you. I think there’s so much research out there about how grades are inaccurate. We are mixing in handwriting, did you turn something in on time? That has nothing to do with your learning. Those are behaviors or your aesthetics of how your paper looks. And the collaboration, which I just talked about is involving the student in that conversation of their assessment and their final grade. That is extremely important, especially for secondary kids. You can start as young as 10 years old of having that conversation of your own learning and the stress. The stress is unbelievably high, at least – I work in an independent school, and we do have a bit of an obsessive culture with grades. And my goal is, I’m only a math teacher. I’m only one classroom, but my goal and many of my colleague’s goals are to make school more fun, less stressful, and more about learning.

Steve: 20:59 Terrific. Thank you so much, Cystal, for joining us. What’s the best way that people who are listening to this can touch base with you with a question? We’ll put the link to your article in the lead-in to the podcast so it’ll be easy for folks to find.

Crystal: 21:15 I’m pretty active on Twitter, and my Twitter handle is @mrs_frommert. If you just search Frommert, I think it will come up. There’s not many teachers with that last name. And I love to engage on Twitter with questions and conversations about, especially math education.

Steve: 21:39 Alright. We will post that. Thanks.

Crystal: 21:42 Thank you, Steve. This has been great.

Steve: 21:45 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com

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