Sunday, November 26, 2006

Regarding Grades, Some Students Get It and Some Students Don't

"How can I improve my grade?"

"By doing better on tests and quizzes."

"Is there any extra credit I can do?"


How often has that dialogue occurred in my class, and how often will it occur in future years?

There seems to be a disconnect between me and some students. They view a grade as the goal, the purpose of taking a class. On the other hand, I view content mastery, partially reflected by the grade, to be the purpose of taking a class. In the view of some of them, I should give as many opportunities as possible to get a higher grade.

They don't understand that tests and weekly quizzes are exactly the opportunities I provide, since those account for 80% of a student's grade in my class.

I don't understand the purpose of extra credit. Sure, I give bonus problems on tests and quizzes, but those relate directly to what I'm teaching. Extra credit--writing a paper about a famous mathematician, or something--exists only to boost a grade artifically.

"But if I have that B+ on my transcript, I won't get into Stanford!"

I guess they don't see that if I give them an unearned grade, I might be contributing to keeping someone else out of Stanford--someone who knew the material better.

And so it goes.

I started writing this after reading a post at Joanne's site (see blogroll at left) in which a high school English teacher has labelled the first three weeks of school in a manner reminiscent of the stages of grief:

The first week is Disbelief and Dismissal Week
The second week is called Haggling and Hating Week
In week 3, Resolution and Restoration....


Anonymous said...

I give extra credit actually pretty frequently, but it is (1) very challenging, usually on the theoretical side, and (2) at the end of a timed assessment, so in order to be able to get to that extra credit the student has to be fluent in the material on the test to the extent that they can get through it quickly. So the extra credit is a carrot that (hopefully) entices students to get the basic test material down cold.

(For example, on the last calculus test the extra credit problem was to prove that the derivative of log_a(x) was 1/(x ln a). Not really that hard if you have studied the book or could be clever with implicit differentation but basically impossible otherwise.)

nq said...

i tutored for AVID for a while, before the program's goal of raising grades became too ridiculous for me. yes, AVID is an amazing idea and has some amazing techniques for really grasping and dealing with materials, but understanding concepts is different from getting good grades, especially for many of the esl students i worked with. and compareing grades seems unfair to me when half the kids struggle with english and the other half are in the same advanced science classes and just don't pay attention. also, college isn't for everybody, and most colleges aren't for most people (i mean that in more of a, 'everyone needs something different' way, not an elistist way) and telling students that it's the only path fro their future...well, damn.

Anonymous said...

We have quizzes on content online (one per week) that students may do for extra credit, one point for each quiz, with a maximum of ten points (that's out of a thousand total). Other than that, there is no extra credit, and grades are assigned centrally by program, so individual instructors can't "bump up" or "bump down" any student's grade. There is no subjective component. Grades are determined wholly on quiz, assignment, and test grades, and all quizzes, assignments, and tests are graded by program (either VBA or scantron).

There is no curve. Grades are assigned on a strict 90-80-70-60 points-based system.

Anonymous said...

It's because too much emphasis is placed on grades these days.

Nick Lopez said...

See, I'm a fan of asking the teacher how I can improve my grade. I'm pretty sure I asked you last year when I was struggling on some quizzes, but I was more specific. "What can i do to study for these quizzes better? I'm going over the problems you say to do, I'm doing all the homework, what can I do?" It's definitely not going to hurt anything, even if the only answer you get is, "Do it again" or something else entirely unhelpful.

Plus, I like to think it shows to the teacher that I actually care about my grade in that class. Oh, and mastery of the material or whatever. ;)

Anonymous said...

I offer some extra credit assignments (usually memorizing and reciting states and countries), but I have found that very few students take me up on it anyway.

All of my extra credit assignments are worth 30 points, and students may only do one per trimester. In the end, it may make them feel better, but it doesn't help their grade all that much.

Darren said...

Nick, there's a big difference between "what can I do to bring up my grade?" and "how can I better study for a test/quiz?"

How often did I give you unhelpful suggestions? Always? Sometimes? Not so often? Never?

Feedback is good.

Anonymous said...

The first THREE weeks? Only in High School...

In middle school its more like the first 12 weeks.
The first 4 weeks are Disbelief and Dismissal Weeks
The second 4 weeks are called Haggling and Hating Weeks
In the last 4 weeks, Resolution and Restoration....

then we go off track for a month, and start all over again...sigh

Youth is wasted on The Young!

Anonymous said...

"There seems to be a disconnect between me and some students. They view a grade as the goal, the purpose of taking a class. On the other hand, I view content mastery, partially reflected by the grade, to be the purpose of taking a class. In the view of some of them, I should give as many opportunities as possible to get a higher grade."

I've discussed your policy on test retakes with my parents. Your policy is as such: No.

Anyhow, couldn't you argue that some students learn on slightly different timetables? Whoops, no, you can't. Because that's a fact. Everyone learns differently. However, you can argue that if you want the students to master the skills, then you would want to give them the opportunity to retake tests.

You said that because school is essentially training for the real world (for example, if an engineer makes a mathematical error and the bridge collapes, he doesn't get to ask for a retake).

But school isn't the real world. It's TRAINING for the real world. So for us (the students) to truly master the material, we may sometimes need to be given the extra incentive to extend our knowledge of the chapters at hand to the point of mastery.

This extra incentive being the test retake, of course. You can't expect students to study chapters that they failed if they don't have a chance to retake the test, can you?

You would get fewer requests for extra credit if you offered test retakes. My 8th grade algebra teacher said as much at the beginning of the year. We could retake the test as many times as we so desired within a period of 5 days, and we could get maximum points on the test.

He said that his policy was so that students WOULDN'T whine about extra credit, because they could take the test—theoretically—6 times. So if they got a 89.9% in the class, it was their own damn fault for not preparing for the retake(s).

I think that relates back to the main point of the blog.

"Youth is wasted on The Young!"

What does that mean, anyway?

Darren said...

Nigel, for you right now, school *is* the real world. As they say in football, you play like you practice.

I agree that people learn on different timetables. Extrapolating from your point on that topic, though, your semester grade would be the grade on your final exam. I doubt that you, or very many other people, would go for that "bargain".

Taking tests over doesn't cause you to learn the material any better. It serves only to focus what you study--and I tell you exactly what to study the day before I give tests when I tell you, problem by problem, what's going to be on the test. Am I not giving you enough opportunity to do well?

Test retakes are opportunities for the "driven" students to improve their grades. I don't intend grades to reflect how much effort you put into your work, I intend them to reflect your performance across a semester. If you're "slow", that's reflected in your grade. If it takes the slow learner twice as long as everyone else to learn the material, they'll still score lower on the final--because they won't yet have learned the most recent material.

Tests and quizzes are assessments, opportunities to show me what you've learned. If you can't figure out from my quizzes what I'm going to test you on, then you're not taking advantage of the "test retake" opportunity that I'm already providing. And since I tell you in advance what I'm going to test you on--retakes would be redundant.

Anonymous said...

Nigel -

While it might seem that not giving retakes on the test is completely unfair, one of the things you're going to learn out in the cold hard world is that your employers, heck, even your college professors, want things done correctly the first time.

It seems that Darren is providing you that opportunity by telling you exactly what to do to prepare in enough time for you to do so. You might be surprised to know this, but this is far more generous than in the real world where you might be asked to both devise and execute a solution to a problem with no room for error in the same amount of time.

Let me add another phrase for you to ponder as well: Easy training, hard combat. Hard training, easy combat.

Anonymous said...


"You can't expect students to study chapters that they failed if they don't have a chance to retake the test, can you?"

You're kidding, right? Ever heard of a final exam?

Darren is evidently being crystal-clear in his expectations and the content you should know, and giving you all the chances in the world to get it in a reasonable time frame. Giving a retake of a test because you did poorly -- and for no other reason -- only incentivizes not learning the material in the first place, and adopting one's own time frame in place of what the instructor believes is proper. College classes work in exactly the same way.

Anonymous said...

I hope you all have read the Sunday Times Magazine article called "What it Takes to Make a Student." It talks about what is most important to a child's success in school and life. In addressing the achievement gap, the focus of the article is on early parental behavior and attitudes, and on the new teaching methods of charter schools which are free to experiment and innovate. A lot has been accomplished in recent years and this article illustrates the benefits of school choice, vouchers and more private schools.

If you don't want to read 10 pages, I summarized the key points at:


Anonymous said...

"It's because too much emphasis is placed on grades these days."

Nonsense. There is no greater emphasis on grades than there ever was. Nothing less than an A was acceptable to my parents, and if we brought home as much as an A-, we got our butts beat for a weak and were grounded until the next report card came out.

It was a very successful motivator.

Anonymous said...

We allow exam retakes only in situations where the student cannot finish the exam and the reason is beyond his control. During one administration of a practical exam when some 800 students were taking the exam, the entire university computer system went down. We allowed them to retake the exam, but we create several different exams, for situations like these. One of our MBA teachers was assaulted in the school of business a few years ago when he was carrying exams to give to students, and the exams were stolen -- and sold for a thousand bucks apiece.

Of course, surprise, surprise, the exams the students took were not the exams stolen, so whoever had bought those exams wasted their money.

silvermine said...

The five days to retake sounds to me like many students try to slip by doing little work, and realize they have to actually study when they get too low a grade on the test. They should have put the time in before the test, not after they discover they didn't do well.

On the other hand, I'm not grade obsessed. I didn't do much work until college when I decided I wanted a good enough grade to get into grad school. I learned most stuff pretty easily, and wasn't challenged enough to care to try very hard.

George said...

I don't understand how this became a post about extra credit and test retakes when the real issue is that students just don't get it.

My students are also struggling to translate that learning the material equals a higher grade. I've even said that if they all started achieving B's or better on my exams, I'd forego homework altogether. But that is too difficult, because it requires brainpower.

Instead they want to hand in all their lecture notes or in class work. Their mentality is that of the punch card, the hourly wage, or piecework. I've tried to get them to believe that performance means something, but they still fall back on wanting big points for a little vocab assignment or five point quiz.

On a larger scale this tells me that many of my colleagues are more interested in "grading" homework than forcing their students to demonstrate that they know something.

On a different note . . . Nigel put on your thinking cap. Brilliance is not demonstrated by simply asking the meaning of an idea. "Youth is wasted on the young" means that all the energy, vibrance, and strength is wasted on those with very little wisdom or knowledge. As I grow older I feel the lack of energy that I used to have, but my ambitions are greater than ever. My ambitions are greater than my stamina. You must be young? No?

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything to say for those seniors in Algebra one, but anything level higher than that is completely optional as far as passing high school. So I don't see why someone would take a class that they WANTED to take and then fail it. If you're taking higher level math to get into a good college, it should be easy because you're going for a high level college.

Anonymous said...

When this question comes up, I'm always tempted to ask the student "why would more C work raise your grade?"

fillyjonk said...

it is two weeks until the end of the semester here so I am bracing myself for the "do you offer extra credit?" question.

(The answer: no, except in isolated cases on exams where I come up with a question that is more detailed/theoretical that I don't think would be fair to the students offered as a regular question. Then I'll pop it on and offer an extra point or two).

I've even had people call me AFTER grades were submitted and ask for extra credit. Luckily in that case I can simply cut off any protest with "University policy prevents me from doing that."

What gets me? Students with a D in my class who come to me in late November and ask for "extra credit." I want to look at them and say, "You should have worried about your grade back in September when there was still time to do something about it." but I'm even a little too nice for that. I'm frankly amazed at the number of students I have who seem to have NO CLUE what their grades are until it's nearly the end of the semester, then they come crying to me to "do something to fix it!" Not my job, not my problem, there's not time now...

Anonymous said...

"Giving a retake of a test because you did poorly -- and for no other reason -- only incentivizes not learning the material in the first place"

It also subverts the purpose of giving a test -- assessment. The purpose of a test is not learning.

You do the learning BEFORE you take the test. Hint, hint.

La Maestra said...

I give a lot of extra credit in my honors class, where the work and the tests are hideously difficult, but the kids will usually bend over backwards trying to get a hard score. The extra credit I offer generally involves some sort of critical-thinking-based research project, and it's definitely not easy, but it's my way of tricking the kids into going above and beyond the material and doing extra learning (since they already get piled on with the work in class.)

I don't do test retakes because I've seen teachers who do, and I know many students have the mindset that if they blow it the first time, there's always the retake. Forget that!!

NQ, if the only thing you got out of AVID was that its purpose is to raise grades, you are SORELY MISTAKEN. The purpose of AVID is to put students outside of their comfort zones and make them work harder, but then give them the support (through things like tutorials) to help them achieve.

I have taught AVID for four years and worked with the program for eight--I began as a college tutor and I am now our site coordinator. I feel that I generally get to know kids well enough to know what they are capable of. I read their Cornell notes, I look in their binders, I talk to their teachers, I ask about their homework and test grades. If a kid is comfortable getting a C, I push them for a B, then celebrate with them when they get it. Then I push them for the A.

Many AVID kids don't ever have someone who tells them that hey, grades are important and school is important and it's important for them to challenge themselves. I currently have two college-bound seniors (both in AP classes) who have already received acceptance letters from state universities. They have a wall chart tracking where they've applied and where they are in the admissions process (sent transcripts, etc.) that they have to fill out. Yesterday, those two seniors, to be funny, added our local community college to the list, and then made a big deal to my freshman students about how they got in, while denying that they'd gotten into the schools to which they'd already been admitted. I ripped into both of them about how while going to the JC was fine, they need to be proud of the fact that they have the intelligence and work ethic to make it into any university (our HS has a 20% university attendence rate) and to not downplay that. I don't want them putting down what they've accomplished or how hard they've worked to get there, regardless of if they're joking or not. It's a joke they like to make far too often, and I'm tired of it.

Yes, not everyone is college material. Not everyone needs to go to a university. I will be one of the first people to stand up and admit that. However, virtually everyone needs some form of post-high-school education, and the things AVID promotes--hard work, reaching for higher goals, learning how to learn, learning how to take on challenges and succeed--are all skills kids will need in the work world as well as in school. They are basic life strategies that they can apply anywhere. I tell my students that I will still love them if they don't go to a university--I just want them to have a plan of some sort about how they are going to get some sort of education for a future career.

I have one senior this year who, through last year, was an AP student. Last year he started having major gang issues, and ended up leaving school and going on independent study for a while as a safety issue. He came back this year and said, "Maestra, I don't think I'm going to make it to college next year." So we sat down and had a very long meeting talking about where he was, not only academically but also mentally, emotionally, and socially. Then we looked into alternative options for him to get out of the tiny (pop 500) rural town in which he lives and get some sort of technical education. He's now looking at one of the DeVrys down in southern CA at an engineering technology program, and has already applied and interviewed. He doesn't want a traditional general education--he just wants something that will focus on his interests, of math and technology. He's not sure if he wants a two-year or four-year program, but at this point in time, I'm just glad he's looking at something with enthusiasm, and also that he's planning on getting out of the town where he lives, the town that's weighed down so many kids from his family and from others.

For many of my students, AVID is the only positive influence they have regarding school, where someone encourages them to be smart and do well and denigrating others for their academic ability will absolutely not be tolerated (I tell the kids at the beginning of the year that "schoolboy" is up there with the "n word" on my list of words I don't ever want to hear in my classroom.)

Finally, I have a senior this year who came to the US (by himself! no parents!) at the beginning of his freshman year from Mexico, not speaking a single word of English. In the past 3 years, he's managed to become ranked number 10 in his class, and work his way from prealgebra and ESL to two years of very challenging college-prep English classes, as well as physics and precalculus. He's also taken four university-transferrable classes at the local JC and passed all 4 with Bs and As.

It wasn't just that he got a great education in Mexico. His parents down there were subsistance farmers, and after 8 years in Mexican schools, wasn't even literate enough in Spanish to pass the AP exam (he received a 2 the first time he took it) When I asked him what happened, he said, "Maestra, I can't write." He spent the next year working on his writing skills in both English and Spanish, and took it again, this time passing with a 4.

He passed the CA HS Exit Exam on his first try his sophomore year, and this year scored higher on the SATs and ACT than many other of my AVID seniors, including one who is in AP English. He has done nothing in high school but work his tail off to get where he is now, and I'm proud that I have been able (through the AVID program) to be a part of that process.

Anonymous said...

To sum up my favorite response, borrowed from another blogger last year:
"You want extra credit? Great! Build yourself a time machine, go back to September, and LEARN ALL THE MATERIAL THIS TIME AROUND!"

Anonymous said...

"I've even had people call me AFTER grades were submitted and ask for extra credit. Luckily in that case I can simply cut off any protest with "University policy prevents me from doing that.""

Yes. When parents have called me about Johnny's grade, I have told them that federal law prohibits me from discussing it with them (which it does). While I would like to see the Privacy Act of 1974 repealed, I must admit that it usually gets me out of an uncomfortable phone call.