Monthly Archives: November 2013

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education (Albert Einstein)

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In this module we have been involved in student-centred learning, becoming independent learners by actively choosing topics of interest for our blogs. My central focus has been on evaluating the grading process.  Grading is an integral part of the education system, yet its use is often questionable.

My initial blogs focused on the issues with grading, with the belief that with certain adjustments, the grading process could be improved. For example, there is a disparity between the subjective process of grading, and the ‘objective’ assessment produced (Kohn, 1994). Markers aren’t machines, and are subjected to a number of influences in the grading process (York, Bridges & Woolf, 2000). Therefore educators must decide whether to follow strict guidelines (or use automated marking) to obtain objectivity and reliability, or accept the subjectivity of grading, allowing students to surpass the mark scheme through novel creativity.

As I gained more insight into the unfavourable effects of grading, I realised I was naive to think that grades were an educational practice worth improving. Education should not focus on how to adjust grading, but question why we are even using it in the first place (Kohn, 1994). Creativity, student centred learning and treating students as individuals are concepts that have been identified over the semester as the building blocks of an effective learning environment. These principles could be implemented successfully in education, yet not alongside the current grading structures we have now. Grading stifles student’s creativity (Kohn, 2011), encourages destructive compliance and unhealthy competition amongst peers (Rohe et al., 2006). As a result, students are no longer intrinsically motivated in their learning, focusing on extrinsic, tangible rewards (Butler, 1988).

From my blogs I established that the grading system is broken beyond repair, and the provision of qualitative feedback as a replacement for grades could be the answer (Lipnevick & Smith, 2008). The removal of grades will reduce the ‘fear of failure’ that has accumulated in students, providing them a safe environment to engage in creative discovery learning (Bower, 2013). Hopefully, students will then begin to focus not on how well they’re doing, but what they’re actually doing (Bower, 2011).

Kat ‘s comment on my blog last week suggested that providing individualised feedback may be difficult to achieve due to teachers’ time constraints. This is a valid point, however if a teacher was grading accurately, it could be argued that they should be cognitively processing individualised feedback anyway, in order to provide the student with the correct grade. Therefore why not externalise these cognitive thought processes onto paper as feedback? In addition, a new focus on student-centred learning requires the teacher to act as a facilitator of learning, rather than the instructor (Biesta, 2009). Students’ increase in independence and autonomy should increase the time available for the teacher to produce individualised feedback for all students. The teacher’s main role shifts from the dictator of knowledge to the provider of informative feedback, with the student now taking an active role in the learning process.

Feedback is not necessarily the definitive solution; but any step towards student-directed learning is positive progression. Education should produce well-balanced, intrinsically motivated learners, not lists of uninformative grades, and using feedback instead of grades will help promote this.

Inevitably we must question the purpose of education. As suggested by Biesta (2009), the current system measures what is easily quantifiable in education (performance), not what we value (learning). Grades reduce the effort required off students, who can passively engage in learning, and teachers, who allow the grades to motivate the pupils rather than making classes intrinsically interesting (Bower, 2011). Education needs to progress from what is easy to what is important, with schools reconnecting with the true purpose of education (Biesta, 2009).

So what do you believe is the purpose of education? Is our aim to improve student performance and raise school standards, or is it discovering that hidden curiosity in every child that can blossom in to an inherent passion for learning?

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A B C D E F-eedback?

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In everyday life, if something is broken you fix it. Yet throughout my blogs over the last four weeks I have highlighted the disadvantages of grades, and how the education system is reluctant to change its outdated assessment techniques. Due to the saliency of grades within the current education system, it can often seem like there is no alternative. However solutions have been suggested within research, and should be considered before dismissing this much needed pedagogical change.

One of the key issues with grading is that for low ability students, constantly achieving low grades can be very demotivating (Meece, Anderman & Anderman, 2006). An alternative system that tackles the motivation problem is minimum grading (Carey & Carifo, 2012). Regardless of the quality of work, students never obtain extremely low grades, as a predetermined minimum grade is used by the marker (e.g. 50/100). The aim is to prevent demotivation and negative emotions in low ability students, which will in turn encourage these students to try again and recover from their failures. The main criticism of this method is that minimum grading may cause unfair grade inflation for struggling students; however research by Carey & Carifo (2012) suggests this is not the case. In fact, these students were still not reaching expected academic achievements. This method also only benefits low ability students, and as discussed in my blog last week, high ability students also experience the negatives of grading. Thus, due to the minimal benefit on a selective number of students, it is questionable as to whether this method is effective enough to be nationally implemented.

There are also ‘maintenance’ grade systems. This is where students start with the maximum grade, and then lose points as they complete graded work (Docan, 2006). Research suggests that students are slightly more motivated and satisfied when ‘maintaining’ their grade rather than ‘earning’ it through traditional methods. This may be due to the unfamiliarity with the unused ‘maintenance’ system, and Docan (2006) suggested as familiarity increases with this new system, motivation may once again decrease.  

Methods such as these do provide alternative solutions to grading, which can be more effective than the traditional use of letters. However, if students are distinguished from one another through categorisation into groups, it is technically still grading (Kohn, 2011). Regardless of the type of grading system, students will always be extrinsically motivated and stressed by grades (Docan, 2006). Therefore education shouldn’t focus on modifying grading; it should turn over a new leaf and develop a more effective alternative.

Alongside our grades at University, we also often obtain feedback. This provides us information on how to improve our work. Lipnevick & Smith (2008) found that feedback plays a more vital role in improving work than grades do. Providing detailed feedback instead of grades (rather than alongside it) was found to be the most effective for students. This is because if a student is provided both, they tend to remember the grade rather than the feedback (Butler, 1988). It is also important that the feedback provided is descriptive, rather than evaluative, in order to prevent social comparisons (Lipnevick & Smith, 2008). Social comparison with others is what makes students competitive and extrinsically motivated, preventing them from focusing on what is actually important in education: their own learning.  Alternatively, feedback increases the likelihood of self-evaluation (Butler,1988) which is likely to facilitate progression and learning in a non-competitive way.

The main criticism of using only feedback is how can jobs, universities, parents and students themselves determine the student’s overall performance? The solution is portfolios, which can be created alongside qualitative assignment feedback to highlight the students’ abilities. This could contain a personal statement, examples of assignments, and references (Kohn, 1999; Kohn, 2011). This method would provide a lot more insight into an individual student’s ability than a reductionist grade does.

Evergreen College in Washington is a real life example of using narrative evaluations instead of traditional grades to assess students. The students are also expected to self-evaluate, which is then combined with the staffs’ assessments to create an overall, extensive review. The statistics produced from Evergreen College help diminish the concern that future employers won’t know a students’ performance through qualitative feedback, as 78% of graduates from Evergreen College were employed within a year of graduating. I cannot help but question, if one educational institution can successfully implement this change, why can’t the rest of them?

As students ourselves, we are well aware of students’ resistance to change (Kohn, 1999). Therefore change within education needs to be gradual. The first step is for education to ‘dilute grades’ (Kohn, 2011), so that the detrimental impact of grades is minimized now rather than later. This can be done through providing descriptive feedback for in-class assignments instead of grades, and only grading what is deemed necessary. An example of this ‘dilution’ is in our Science of Education module, as we are not graded for our talks. Where grades are still used, the student should be allowed to discuss the grade with the teacher, encouraging the student to self-evaluate their learning and be actively involved in the learning process (Kohn, 2011). Teachers alone cannot successfully change the educational system, and an active involvement from students is required to produce optimal change (Wah, 2007).

The education system in the UK has proposed a change for grading (The Guardian, 2013). As of 2017, students will be graded with numbers from 1-9. The reason behind this change was to allow more differentiation between able students. However, this change is not tackling any of the issues I have raised within my blogs. Students’ complex work is still reduced to a single mark, the markers’ experience will still influence the grades, and students will still be externally motivated by a tangible number. The proposed change may alleviate difficulties for educators when differentiating students, particularly when applying for higher education, but should this be our focus? How can we begin to implement effective change in education, when educators choose to ignore the science and base new practices on previous, unsuccessful ones?

Perhaps feedback is the answer. Rather than fixing grades, maybe we need to discard them entirely. 

Mind over matter: If you don’t mind learning the grade won’t matter

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You have just received your blog grade back for last week, and obtained a ‘D’. You were expecting a ‘B’, so are disappointed and disheartened by the result. The next step you are likely to take is to ask others in the class what grade they received, in order to discover where you rank amongst other students.

This situation is likely to be familiar to a number of students reading this blog. It has been identified from my previous blogs that the grading process is neither reliable nor objective. The other question that needs addressing, regardless of marking quality, is what impact do grades have on the student? Is it beneficial or detrimental for a student to know if they received an ‘A+’ or a ‘C-’?

Research has shown grades can be extrinsically motivating for students, acting as a tangible incentive to meet task demands (Butler, 1988). However as Matthew’s blog last week suggests, it is intrinsic motivation that fosters optimal learning. This is where the student is interested and engaged in their learning, resulting in deeper processing. Grades decrease intrinsic motivation, as engagement in the task is attributed to the grade desired, rather than the intrinsic interest the student may have initially had (Butler, 1988). It is also important to note that although grades can be extrinsically motivating for high-ability pupils, struggling students may not experience the same benefits. Grades will become salient reminders of their inaccuracies, decreasing their motivation (Meece, Anderman & Anderman, 2006). This can prevent students from focusing on improving performance in later assignments (Lipnevich & Smith, 2008). Therefore if grades aren’t achieving their purpose of motivating students for the next piece of work, their use is questionable.

The majority of students cannot obtain an ‘A’ grade in every assignment. As questioned by Rowbottom (2013), why do we choose to use a system that is detrimental on every student who achieves anything below perfect?  Grading can also be detrimental for the high-ability students. Achieving perfect grades can become an obsession for some pupils, resulting in negative feelings and stress when standards are not met (Kohn, 1999; Docan, 2006).

The desire to obtain the highest grade possible can lead students to choose the easiest option available (Kohn, 2011). This is not laziness, but using logical thinking. It would be irrational for a student to pick a more challenging topic and risk the chance of failure, in expense of easily obtaining a good grade in an easier task. If convergent thinking allowed you to reach your goal, why would you choose to think divergently? As mentioned in my previous blogs, the necessity to conform in grading is stifling creativity. The stress and motivation encouraging students to reach the top grades prevents individuals from engaging in learning at a deeper, more explorative level.

The current grading system reinforces competition, rather than collaboration (Kohn, 1999; Rohe et al., 2006). For example if students worked collaboratively to all gain top grades, educators would simply tighten the grade boundaries, ensuring a normal distribution was maintained. Therefore students are less likely to help others, as doing so might detriment their own grade (Kohn, 1999). This attitude contradicts the majority of job expectations post-education; where employers are regularly expected to work together in order to effectively achieve a combined goal. In the workplace, you are unlikely to be given an ‘A’ grade for dealing with a customer, or organizing a filing system. Thus it is evident that grades don’t prepare children for the world beyond education (Kohn, 2011). This has been highlighted in medical students, who are not educated on self-regulatory skills required to be a doctor. Solutions have been suggested, for example using a pass/fail system instead of traditional grading. This has been shown to increase collaborative learning and intrinsic motivation of medical students, at no expense of their grades (Rohe et al., 2006; White & Fantone, 2010). Further discussion on feasible alternatives to grading will be explored in my blog next week.

Education should strive to create intrinsically motivated, creative students who are engaged in the learning process. Traditional grading prevents this objective from flourishing, and an alternative solution must be implemented in order to modernize the currently outdated education system. Solutions to grading have been created, and I will present several suggestions in next week’s blog. Inevitably, society must stop viewing education through rose-tinted glasses. This will prevent intrinsically motivated learners from becoming extrinsically motivated, as a result of poor educational practices. Education should prepare students for an engaging career of life-long progressive learning, not a job where boxes are ticked and progression is rarely made.

Throughout these blogs the message is clear: psychological research must be implemented into pedagogy.

Computer says no? (Little Britain, 2004)

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As third year students, we are beginning to write our dissertations. This piece of work, which will require hours of researching, writing and evaluating, will hopefully be something we are extremely proud of. How would you then feel if you were told your dissertation would never be read? Your work would never inspire a reader, simply uploaded onto a machine that churns out your grade. This controversial method is automated grading, which I introduced last week as a potential solution for the subjectivity within grading.

It is important to note the arguments in favour of using automated grading. Computerised marking is consistent and fairer than human marking, due to the removal of human error and subjectivity (Valenti, Neri & Cucchiarelli, 2003; Jordan, 2012). Additionally, as we have seen from several students’ blogs, technology has become an integral part our education system. We already use automated marking for MCQ’s, therefore perhaps it could be argued that automated marking within essays is the next logical step for technology. Supporting this, initial research into automated grading of short-answer questions has suggested that automated marking is just as effective as human marking (Butcher & Jordan, 2010).

However, short-answer questions often have a right or wrong answer. Conversely, there is often no right answer in university essays, which are of much greater length. This is where the significant flaw to this marking-style is evident. Consider language translators, such as ‘Google Translate’. This automated programme can translate text into any language quickly and accurately. However the translation is taken very literally, which can lead to fundamental issues regarding overall meaning. Similarly, automated grading cannot recognise the wider picture like a human can, and determine ‘What is the purpose of this essay?’ This relates to my discussion last week regarding creativity, where a student produces a novel idea.  Logical, original thinking are the most important qualities of effective writing, yet automated marking overlooks them (Byrne, Tang, Tranduc & Tang, 2010). In a module such as this where creativity is a necessity within our blogs, automated grading would be futile.

It is undeniable that these programmes are extremely clever, using artificial intelligence and complex statistics to determine a student’s grade (Valenti, Neri & Cucchiarelli, 2003). However some aspects of writing, such as fluency of knowledge, cannot be directly measured. As a result, programmes measure correlates to fluency, such as essay length (Valenti, Neri & Cucchiarelli, 2003). One must question if a concept as complex as fluency can be reduced to something as simple as essay length? Students may try and ‘beat the system’, producing long essays (regardless of content) in order to achieve a higher grade. Research has shown students’ work is extremely influenced by what they believe the system expects from them (Jordan, 2012), encouraging destructive compliance rather than valuable creativity.

Despite research suggesting automated marking is fairer than human marking, this doesn’t recognise the issues faced by children with dyslexia or those who are second-language English (Jordan, 2012). Automated programmes often fail to identify misspelt words, or analyse a sentence if it is poorly constructed (Mitchell, Russell, Broomhead & Aldridge, 2002). Computerised errors can also benefit the student unfairly, failing to identify incorrect statements when key words are used within the sentence (Mitchell, Russell, Broomhead & Aldridge, 2002). This evidence suggests automated marking isn’t as accurate as it initially appears.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of debate has emerged about this controversial method, with a petition created against the use of automated systems. Regardless of this method’s effectiveness, I believe it is important to question the effect this method would have on students if it was universally implemented. What would motivate students to engage in their learning if their work was never read? Students will become robots, striving for the right answer with no motivation to discover novel ideas beyond the guidelines. If automated grading is to be integrated within education in any form, it should be used alongside human marking as a confirmation of accuracy, and definitely not as a stand-alone pedagogical tool (Markoff, 2013).

Although my first two weeks of blogging have focused on the flaws of the grading system, I believe there are solutions. I will focus on viable solutions in a later blog; however automated marking isn’t one of them. Inevitably, the only way to determine an effective solution is to eliminate flawed alternative suggestions. Grading has become an integral aspect of our education system, yet its effectiveness is questionable. As psychologists we believe nothing and question everything, and this approach should (but often isn’t) applied to pedagogy.

I end this blog with a question, if we are not machines, why should we be evaluated by one?