Saturday, November 08, 2008

A for Effort?

Some of my kids recently complained bitterly about the grades they've been receiving on their journal responses. After showing them a sample "10" response (out of 10), I had them brainstorm and discuss the "above and beyond" aspects of the sample - essentially, I asked them to tell me why it's a 10. While they did start by doing what I'd asked, they eventually devolved into excuses, and that bothered me.

One girl explained that she "just doesn't think that fast," so in the time we have to work on journals in class, she can't write as much as others because it takes her a while to get her thoughts in order. I think this girl is quite smart, but to my ears, it sounded like she was trying to say she deserves a better score because she's not as smart as some other people - like she was saying, "I'm dumb, so I deserve special treatment." First, that argument is ridiculous, and second, she's not dumb at all.

Another girl argued that the only difference she saw between her journals and the sample was in the vocabulary. The sample, she complained, "used bigger words," but that's all. "So what," she said, "am I supposed to go memorize the dictionary to get a better grade?"

But the argument that got me the most was this one: "I am doing the best that I can and I'm still getting 8's. It's like putting in all my effort isn't good enough."

Uh... I'm sorry - WTF?

Oh, let me guess: Were you all on sports teams as children where they didn't keep score and gave everyone a trophy so that no one would have to feel that they "lost" the game? Were you all given blue ribbons at every science fair just for participating? Were you all told your whole lives long how amazing and special you are, and how you're perfect just the way you are?

I'm all for self-esteem and all. I mean, it's important to let kids explore the world without fearing failure. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't ever experience failure. It just means they need to be taught how to deal with it properly. Part of that means learning that sometimes, putting in 100% of their effort WON'T BE ENOUGH - it won't be enough to win the game, it won't be enough to woo the girl, it won't be enough to get the A. Maybe putting in 100% of their effort means they produce B-level work and get B's.

I'm not sure where these kids got the idea that they should be graded on the effort they put into their work, but the fact is that I can't grade their effort. I don't know how to assess effort. How do I know how hard someone is or is not trying on this essay? How do I know how much attention they're paying to their reading? How do I know how much thought they're putting into their projects? All I can reasonably grade is the product each student gives me. If they tried their hardest and they earn B's, they should feel proud that they worked as hard as they could and earned an above-average grade for that.

Am I wrong?


unmitigated me said...

You are not at all wrong. And since when is 80% worth complaining about? I had a prof in college who taught me a great lesson. When people would ask him, "Why did I get a B on this?" he would reply, "Because you did a really good job."

Profesora de espaƱol said...

I completely agree with you. These kids have such a feeling of entitlement, and they can't deal with being told they're not "excellent."

And in our department, we DO grade effort. (It's part of our writing rubric. On a scale of 1-4, they earn a 3 if they merely meet the requirements, but a 4 is earned when they go beyond the requirements, as long as everything is cohesive.) Rarely do students earn a 4, but the ones who do really do go above and beyond. Why shouldn't they be rewarded for their extra effort and refusal to just be average? The ones who just give you the basics are not taking any steps to take their work another step.

Tandava said...

That sounds right to me. Also, they're in English class, not Effort class. You have to grade them on what you're teaching. For the speed excuse, it seems reasonable to say that one of the skills you're grading on is the ability to think in time-pressure situations (useful for tests, no?). If that's something that's holding someone up, then maybe you can work on that aspect of it specifically, either with the class or the individual. And vocabulary... in an English class... um, yeah, that seems like a good thing to grade on. :-)

On the self-esteem issue, the realistic thing for kids (adults, anyone) to learn is to feel good about your honest effort even if it doesn't get the results you want. Because in real life, to quote Dr. Seuss, "sometimes it won't." So I think you're right about how the "everyone wins" approach doesn't really do the job people intend it to.

Lara said...

profesora de espanol - they earn a 4 "when they go beyond the requirements"? how do you know that they've gone beyond the requirements? don't you know that based on what they turn in as a product? because in a number of my rubrics A's are based on going beyond the requirements as well, but i can only know that they've gone beyond the requirements based on what they show me. so i think we're on the same page, but thinking of it differently?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. Carelessly handing out easy A's makes grades meaningless, which in turn hinders meaningful feedback. I think it also reinforces a kid's belief that he should always get good grades for the level of effort he is currently exerting, thus implicitly discouraging him from trying harder.

Anonymous said...

By the way, your AllMediocre widget to the left of your blog entries is hilariously appropriate to this entry (though I don't know what it actually means).

Anonymous said...

Urgh. For: appropriate for this entry. I will take my 7 now and be happy with it.

tpiglette said...

You know what I think. *hug* Hang in there. You're doing the right thing!

BetteJo said...

Definitely not wrong. I am so not for wrapping kids in cotton and not letting them experience things, whether it's a skinned knee or a bad grade. Kids need to learn personal responsibility because boy it will be a rude awakening if they haven't learned when they go out into the real adult world. Sounds like you're doing great!

Juka said...

If trying hard were all it took to succeed in life, we wouldn't need to worry about affirmative action, a glass ceiling for women, or issues of social justice. And if your vocabulary is smaller than other people (i.e., you may not be able to communicate as well), or you just don't think as fast? Um...good luck in life. All else being equal, I'll hire the faster thinker.

The two ways that I can think of to grade written work fairly are relative (top performer gets 100, then the rest of the class is scaled relative to that - often referred to as a forced curve, if the grades are put on a bell curve) and absolute (100 is what you consider a "perfect" paper, and if that means the top paper you got gets a 45, then so be it). Neither system rewards effort per se.

Including class participation as an aspect of a class grade is often used to reward "effort," but even that is not always a good proxy because not all students feel comfortable talking in class. I think you're doing things exactly right.

William said...

I'm torn.

Yes, I think the idea that everyone deserves an A is silly: I'm strongly in favor of elitism in things like, say, surgeons. Just because you really want to, doesn't mean we put human lives in your hands, you have to be good enough, and if your best isn't good enough... Well, sorry.

That being said, I had a series of high school classes that used the grading rubric of "You get a B for completing the assignment as given, and an A for going above and beyond the call". I hated this, because I would press my teachers for details. Okay, we need to write some kind of a personal reflection essay, I understand the assignment. How much is going above and beyond? I know writing a one act opera about the fall of the Persian Empire is going "above and beyond" (yes, a friend of mine did that), but what about my effort to just write a really long essay? Is writing a lot going "above and beyond"? What about having an above average vocabulary?

I suppose I don't have an objection to the general idea, so much as how it was put into practice at my school. I generally would prefer an assignment where I know precisely what it is that's required of me to recieve the highest grade possible, which I didn't get in my high school career. I don't know if you (but I hope you do) do things differently, though.

Lara said...

will - i've had mixed success at making my expectations clear, which i acknowledge as a major area of improvement, but i try to make it clear with a rubric or assignment explanation of some kind. i can understand how mystery grading could be very annoying, though.

Natalie said...

Definitely not wrong. I think the most defensible feeling of injustice stems from the fact that not everybody grades that way, and it sucks to have a lower grade than you would have gotten from another teacher for a class you actually improved from more on your transcript. My law school grades were like that - teacher grading behavior was so wildly inconsistent from one to another that anybody who was familiar with the workings of the school knew that the predictive power of our transcripts was pretty darn low. All we could do was hope that the hiring committees knew that too.

That said, all you can do is grade the way things should be graded (which you are) and stick to your guns. Not your fault if the rest of the world doesn't follow along. Your job is to educate people, not build transcripts.

It sounds to me like some of your students have this unspoken assumption that their mental capabilities are immutable. I don't think I agree with that. If somebody is a slow thinker, I do not agree that they are doomed to be a slow thinker for the rest of their lives. People can learn to be faster thinkers. They can learn strategies to compensate for their processing speed.

If you live in a world where people's capabilities are fixed, then I suppose rewarding effort is the natural corollary to the American work ethic ideal. But I think that American dream is not, "Do your best and you will succeed." It's more properly stated as, "Do your best and you can become better than you are, and the merits of your work will bring success."

Anonymous said...

We had a similar discussion in my classes the other day (end-of-quarter usually brings out these types of talks). At the end of the chat, my lingering question for them was, "Since when did a C become a bad grade?"

No one could answer me.

Also, a good way to grade on "effort" in rubrics is to weight the different categories of your rubric. i was getting very frustrated when those kids who did go above and beyond would get the same grade as a kid whose essay was so-so. Weighting the components made the biggest difference!!!