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Rewarding Student Growth and Improvement in Learning

Mon Oct 25, 2021 at 07:30 AM

I recently had a conversation with a student who was taking a specifications-grading based English course with a colleague. I asked her how she was finding the course with it being a departure from traditional grading in that department and her exact words were “Oh it’s great, if you don’t get an A in that class it is because you didn’t care to take the time to keep revising your writing until you got it right.” It struck me that her focus was entirely on the development of her writing rather than the grade although she was obviously pleased to have earned the A with the work she had put in. I had always worried that the time I spent writing comments on written work were a waste of time and did not help further my students’ abilities in writing because when I hand back work the vast majority will take a quick look at the grade they scored and then tuck it in a folder and never look at it again. The same has been true of extensive written and recorded comments online as students continue to make the same mistakes with their writing time and time again. 

John Orlando recently wrote about this in Faculty Focus (Orlando, 2021), that we need to encourage students not to focus on their grades but on the development of their abilities. Faculty sometimes offer extra credit in response to lower student achievement or student requests as a way to continue to encourage their effort in the course. However, doing some new or different does not guide them in addressing the reason for the deficiency in their performance or help to correct the problem in the future. If a student did not put the effort in to learn the bones of the skeleton for a test, it makes sense to ask them to go back and learn those and try again at the same task than offer them course credit for doing something different focusing more on the effort than the effective work of learning. Offering extra credit puts the focus on the final course grade not the achievement of learning as much as it may motivate students to keep working. John uses a useful sports analogy in his piece; “if a football coach tells a running back that he is not starting because his receiving skills are poor, it will not help to offer the running back time after practice to work on his blocking skills. The coach will tell him that his blocking is not the problem; he needs to improve his receiving skills.”

The very purpose of grades is to measure learning rather than to reinforce the perception that grades reinforce a focus on grades for extra work and not for the learning that we expect in higher education. John adds another helpful analogy here; “If a business hires an accounting graduate who received all As in their classes, but learns that they did not understand accounting because the student relied on a lot of extra credit to boost their grade, the employee might feel cheated by the institution, and that would likely be the last graduate of that institution they hire.”

Specifications grading (Nilson & Stanny, 2014) is one way to ensure that students expect to keep working until they meet a clear standard. Allowing them to revise and resubmit work within this context allows for the focus to be on development of skills and achievement of the necessary standard. For many faculty this brings a concern of additional work but if a clear rubric is provided to them then it is ideal to guide students in identifying and correcting their own issues rather than doing the work in grading them essentially pointing out the errors for them which is less effective at helping them identify and avoid making the same mistakes again. For these reasons having students revise and resubmit work is a far more effective way to produce learning than extra credit. An assessment is intended to be a measure of learning, and if so, then a student needs to improve on that assessment to demonstrate their understanding, not something else. If instead we provide feedback to allow students to revise and resubmit their work until they achieve an A then everyone gets A’s which helps us get away from the grading bell-curve some will not pass this class mentality that can be detrimental to a student’s belief that they will ever succeed and add unnecessary competition between students. 

Students are not demotivated by failure itself but failure where it feels hopeless to move forward because they cannot see what they need to do differently to succeed. A lot of students enjoying video gaming in which they constantly experience failure to move to the next stage but they keep playing so that they can learn from mistakes and get beyond that point of failure thereby feeling motivated by successfully increasing their ability. Similarly, students who know that they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and fix their problems will not be demotivated by their failures.

References and Resources 

Nilson, L. B., & Stanny, C. J. (2014). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time.

Orlando, John. (2021) Use Revise and Resubmit instead of Extra Credit. Faculty Focus.

For more creative ways to innovate in your classroom from award-winning faculty across the University System of Georgia, please visit Engaged Student Learning: Essays on Best Practices in the University System of Georgia.

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About the Author

Marina G. Smitherman, D.Phil., MPH, is a professor and chair of the Department of Life Science and coordinator of the Committee on Academic Excellence at Dalton State College. She contributed this tip to a teaching tips collection gathered among the POD Network of educational developers. She can be contacted at [email protected] for questions. 

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