What Traditional Classroom Grading Gets Wrong – and how to fix it.

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Source: What Traditional Classroom Grading Gets Wrong

(G)rading policies—which appear to be an objective, fair, and accurate method to describe a student’s academic performance—often increase achievement gaps by infusing grades with teachers’ implicit biases or by rewarding or punishing students based on their families’ resources.

Yup. They are also quite RANDOM.

Because grading is often not addressed in teacher preparation or in ongoing professional development, most teachers choose their own way to grade, guided by their best sense but uninformed by either research or best practices.

Grading practices are ALSO not addressed in Higher Ed professional development. OK. Let’s be honest, while most post-secondary institutions have campus units that offer many seminars, workshops and courses, the amount of teaching-related professional development completed by MOST higher ed faculty is ZERO.

(T)raditional grading practices result in grades that provide unclear and often misleading information to parents, students, and postsecondary institutions.

A bucket of information compressed into a thimble-sized container.

Traditional grading is subjective.

But then again, almost ALL grading is subjective. We might as well acknowledge that and make our grading practices as transparent as possible. Subjective grading is not necessarily a bad thing.

Current practices conflict with contemporary understandings of growth mindset and how to encourage students to learn through practice and experimentation. An F early in a student’s learning and an A at the end average out to a C, regardless of progress over time and final achievement. This mathematically unsound approach punishes students with early struggles, often those who enter the class with fewer resources and less prior academic success and have the most potential growth ahead of them.

That’s why my approach to Practical Gamification almost always allows for re-submission, and why the sum (total) of possible marks they can earn always adds up to MORE than 100%.
That way, they will always have an opportunity to recover from a ‘bad’ mark or a missed assignment.

Many teachers entered the profession to provide every student an opportunity to succeed, to minimize the achievement and opportunity gaps. Yet when we continue to use traditional grading practices, we inadvertently reproduce those gaps.

In partnering with urban, rural, and suburban public schools and districts, as well as elite private academies, we at the Equitable Grading Project—a research initiative of the equity-focused education consulting group I lead—have found that once teachers learn about the harms caused by our century-old grading practices, they are motivated to try alternative, more equitable grading practices.

What ultimately changed my thinking about traditional grading was asking myself the question:

What is the purpose of grading?

If I answer with the usual: “To provide evidence of mastery”,
AND, if I then look at what we usually do (high stakes tests, hard deadlines, single attempt assignments, compartmentalized grading, etc.)
it turns out that many of our time-honored traditions in grading actually have NOTHING to do with mastery of the course content.

In our review of academic research and observations of teachers’ implementation, we have identified key aspects of what we call equitable grading, which is accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational:

• Reflect growth and learning.
Teachers should use a more proportionately structured 0-4 scale instead of a 0-100 point scale that is mathematically oriented toward failure, stop assigning a zero for missing work, and weight recent performance and growth instead of averaging performance over time. By allowing students to retake tests and projects (with the chance to replace previous scores), teachers can reward learning, support a growth mindset, and not disadvantage students who enter classrooms with weaker academic backgrounds.

My Practical Gamification uses a 0-5 point scale for most items, and my students all know ahead of time what they can earn marks for.

I do not weight recent work more heavily (that seems like it could promote leaving things to the last minute, and send the wrong message about the value of early foundational work. I DO let my students re-submit work (till they get it right, if they want to), but with my strictly cumulative marking, there is no such thing as “replacing” a mark; there is only additional growth.

• Value knowledge, not environment or behavior.
Instead of grading subjectively interpreted behaviors such as a student’s “effort” or “participation,” teachers should focus grades on required content or standards. Grades should not be used to reward compliance or homework completion, both of which invite implicit and institutional biases.

• Lift the veil on how to succeed.
Standards-aligned rubrics, simplified grade calculations, and standards-based scales and gradebooks make teacher’s expectations explicit and facilitate students’ understanding, ownership, and power over their grades.

I don’t like rubrics. They work fine if you have large numbers. I can create a rubric for a 1st year programming problem because I’ve literally seen THOUSANDS of them. If you don’t have 1,000’s of example solutions made by all kinds of students, then you really have no idea what ‘exemplary’, ‘adequate’, or ‘needs improvement’ actually looks like. You are making it up.

• Build soft skills—without including them in the grade.
Teachers should employ a more expansive range of feedback strategies to incorporate peer and self-evaluation and build self-regulation instead of relying solely on grades as feedback.

Our analysis also found that equitable grading practices don’t just reduce D and F rates, they are also more accurate. When teachers use equitable grading practices, they assign final grades that are more strongly correlated with students’ standardized assessment scores on that content, and the effect is stronger for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Finally, we found that equitable grading improves the learning environment for teachers. In surveys and independent case studies, teachers and students reported that classrooms are less stressful, teacher-student relationships are stronger and more trusting, and students are more motivated to learn after these interventions.

When we talk about equity, grading is rarely mentioned. By overlooking it, we unwittingly perpetuate the very disparities we dedicate ourselves as educators to correct. It is incumbent upon educators at every level—teachers, principals, district administrators, school boards, and state policymakers—to improve grading policies to ensure that they reinforce, not work against, our commitment to equity.

Find out more about my Practical Gamification here.

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Worth Sharing: The Hottest Chat App for Teens Is … Google Docs

Approximate Reading Time: < 1 minute

How a writing tool became the new default way to pass notes in class

So much for the benefits of banning cellphones.
I don’t think banning things ever solves anything.
Let’s foster respect, courtesy, tolerance, and help them learn the ways in which tech can be useful AS WELL as helping learn the ways in which “traditional” approaches (i.e. non-tech) can be useful.

Teens told me they use Google Docs to chat just about any time they need to put their phone away but know their friends will be on computers. Sometimes they’ll use the service’s live-chat function, which doesn’t open by default, and which many teachers don’t even know exists. Or they’ll take advantage of the fact that Google allows users to highlight certain phrases or words, then comment on them via a pop-up box on the right side: They’ll clone a teacher’s shared Google document, then chat in the comments, so it appears to the casual viewer that they’re just making notes on the lesson plan. If a teacher approaches to take a closer look, they can click the Resolve button, and the entire thread will disappear.

Source: The Hottest Chat App for Teens Is … Google Docs

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Worth Sharing: Making Sure Yours is not a ‘Pointless Exercise’

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Not a ‘Pointless Exercise’

Briefly, Martini noticed that her students didn’t seem to get the connections she had hoped they would on the assignments she gave, and wondered if it would make a difference if she made those connections explicit.

I can answer that, as I’ve been experimenting with this for several decades now.

It does.

We often make the mistake of assuming our students will see the same connections we do. They mostly don’t. We owe it to them to make those connections explicit. That’s kind of the big idea behind Ausubel’s “Advance Organizers”

You can read more here:

From Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tanya Martini worked hard to make assignments in her psychology courses relevant to students’ lives. Even so, her students sometimes wrote in their course evaluations that they found those assignments pointless.

It was a frustrating situation, but not an uncommon one. Plenty of professors get similar feedback, especially when they, like Martini, a professor of psychology at Brock University, in Ontario, teach courses that attract non majors looking to fulfill a graduation requirement.

Martini decided to do something about it. When students indicated that an assignment was pointless, she figured, they were thinking only about the content it covered, not the skills it would help them build.

So Martini began including a breakdown of those skills in her assignments’ instructions. Surely that would help.

She ran an experiment to find out, asking students to rate the relevance of assignments with and without a description of the associated skills. To Martini’s surprise and dismay, her addition didn’t make much of a difference. Telling students that an assignment would help them build a particular skill was apparently insufficient.

Why? Many students, Martini realized, thought of skills in a narrow, context-specific way. It wasn’t clear to them that the same skill that a psychology essay would build written communication would also help them tackle a history paper, or a business proposal. Higher education often assumes that students can figure out how the skills they learn in one context transfer to a different one. “I think now,” Martini said, “that it’s asking a lot of them.”

So Martini added more-specific language to her assignment instructions to help students think about how the skills they develop can transfer to other areas. “It’s partly about making it very explicit,” she said. “But it’s also partly about giving them concrete examples.”

She began by acknowledging that these connections might not be obvious to students and that they might therefore question an assignment’s relationship to their goals.

Take, for example, an assignment for students in a second-year course in human learning, in which they create study materials for students in the introductory course. “You may think that this is a pointless exercise if you have no interest in being a teacher (and, more specifically, teaching PSYC 1F90),” she wrote in the instructions. But the assignment, she went on to explain, was about using design thinking, which “happens in any field where people have to ask themselves, on a regular basis, questions like, ‘How can we do this? How can we make this experience/process work? Could we be making this experience/process better for people? And if we could, what would ‘better’ look like?’”

The instructions for another assignment in the course describe how a skill it builds, knowledge translation, can be used in a variety of settings. “Whether you become a marketing manager or a cop or a counsellor or a physiotherapist,” she wrote, “you will often find yourself in a position of having to explain things to others (e.g., clients, parents and other family members) who haven’t had your level of training.”

Are these additions enough to move the needle on the way students view assignments? Martini hopes to know soon. One of her students plans to compare the relevance ratings students give to three versions of the assignment one with no mention of skills, one describing skills, and one further communicating their application as a senior thesis project. She hopes to have results next month. 

Martini’s approach shares elements with a broad effort, called transparency in learning and teaching, that encourages professors to make the purpose of their assignments explicit to students.

Another way of helping students understand the skills a particular course helps develop is explaining it in the syllabus. You can read more about that in this newsletter by our colleague Goldie Blumenstyk. (The newsletter has since been renamed The Edge, and you can sign up to receive it here.)

Have your students ever questioned the utility of your assignments? What do you do to help them apply what they learn in your classroom to their lives beyond it? Tell me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

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Protecting Our Natural Spaces to Save Ourselves

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

So, here’s an idea for dealing with ways to protect our natural resources. And, just to be clear, I am talking about wild spaces, as opposed to taking trees, or the extraction of oil and gas, or any other minerals we might like to mine.

Our natural spaces are among the MOST valuable things in the entire world.


Without sufficient natural spaces, our planet (and, by extension, WE) will die.
Canada has a very large portion of the entire world’s remaining natural spaces.
We should be PROUD of that.
We should cherish it.
We should want to protect that.

So, what?

First, we need to begin to educate people to accept that the health of the planet relies on having healthy wild spaces. If the planet is not healthy, WE WILL NOT SURVIVE.

That’s not even opinion.

It’s just a fact.

Yeah, it’s all well and good to talk about our natural resources (in our country, that usually means oil & gas, trees, and other minerals (nickel, gold, silver, etc.).

There is a MUCH larger natural resource that we typically don’t see as such:

namely our wilderness.

Natural spaces on the planet (including, BUT NOT LIMITED TO ones on land AND those on various coasts) are ABSOLUTELY essential to the continued survival of life on this planet – INCLUDING OUR LIVES.

The planet is like an organism, and the natural spaces are its vital organs and systems.
WE are (currently) like a virus infecting the planet.

Keep that in mind.

If we preserve sufficient natural spaces on our planet, it will adapt to anything we do to it.
The natural spaces on our planet are its filters…
they are the planet’s way of moderating any assault it may have to endure.
If there are sufficient natural spaces, nothing we do will have a lasting impact.
If we protect the natural spaces, we will be free to do (almost) anything we like.

OTOH, If there are NOT sufficient natural spaces, then NOTHING we do will save life on earth.

I’ll say it again:
If we don’t preserve sufficient natural spaces on our planet, WE will not survive.
I have absolutely no doubt that some kind of life on our planet will survive us, but it almost certainly will NOT include us.

I equally have NO doubt that we have the means RIGHT NOW to make the planet incapable of sustaining human life.
of fixing things to sustain human life indefinitely.

It’s our choice.

OK, the point:
We need to preserve our natural spaces.
The world (at least right now) is driven by profit and $$$.

The (A) solution:

Step ONE:

We need to educate and convince people that natural spaces are worth $$$$$.
In Canada we have this goofy, self-defeating idea that we are only valuable for our raw materials, and then only if we sell those raw materials to others.
Our natural spaces are – potentially – the salvation of the planet and all of humanity.

This is true in other countries too, but as the 4th largest country in the world with one of the lowest population densities, we actually have SO MUCH MORE than most other countries.


We need to create groups/ people/ organizations/ communities that are capable of protecting and preserving our natural spaces.


OK, so here’s step three (and please forgive me for suggesting this, as I am NOT First Nations):
We need to establish resident, natural communities of people who are willing and able to preserve and protect our natural spaces.
AND, who better to do this than willing First Nation volunteers?
LOTS of details to work out so that it is respectful and acceptable to BOTH the FN volunteers AND the gov’t, but I see this as WAY possible…. AND it would cost WAY LESS than the pipeline we recently bought.

The start of the idea:

We find FN volunteers to establish traditional, native communities on current ‘Crown Lands’.
They will be paid a salary. That salary should be enough to compensate for whatever they need that they can’t get off the land.
They will have the right / freedom to live and hunt on the lands where they will live. They will be given a specific territory to protect / control / manage.
They can settle, build, move, trade, and migrate within that territory as they see fit.
They can NOT gather resources for resale (they will get a salary to make up for what they might have earned through what was once accomplished through trading).

Their job will be to manage, maintain, and protect the natural spaces on the territories defined.

Yes, I know that this is an entirely NEW way of looking at traditional land rights and stewardship. It would not be something imposed on anyone – it would be entirely optional, but ONLY open to FN folks.
IF you want to create a traditional community – here is ONE way to try doing this. Move on the land as you see fit.
Build structures (or not) as you see fit.
Live as you are moved to live.
Canada will pay you enough to buy the things you cannot hunt, trap, or make.
BUT, you can NOT take from the land to sell for cash.
Your job is to protect the land, to keep it safe, to honor and live WITH the native plants and animals.
We are at the point in human and technological development that creating effectively mobile communities that are “off the grid” is not only feasible, but practical, so, let’s do it.

Know anyone who’d want to turn this into reality?

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Has Gamification Jumped the Shark?

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Badges, Points, and Leader-boards, oh my!

I’m working on a book – a series, actually – about gamifying learning, only lately, I’ve really been struggling with the term itself.


Hmmmm. It just doesn’t seem to fit anymore.

Is that because it is bullshit, as Ian Bogost said back in 2011?
Perhaps. At least, SOME parts of what most people identify as gamification are indeed B.S. And the suggestion that much of this is ‘exploitationware” is right on the mark.
The notion that we can “motivate” (read: DRIVE / FORCE) people to do things thanks to reward systems like PBL (points, badges, and leader-boards) is a very attractive one both in the corporate world and in formal education.

The more I think about it, the more I think that what I am doing in my classes deserves a label that is better than “gamification”.
What I am doing is so much MORE than “gamification”.
Like “Edutainment“, “Gamification” implies a superficiality that can’t be sustained.

In addition, I also want to distance what *I* am doing from what lots of others are doing in formal education.
I am indeed using elements and concepts that are common on games:

  • Choice: Multiple paths to the end.
    • There are very few hard deadlines.
    • There is more work that students *CAN* do than they *need* to do. In my current class, if someone did all of the assigned work and got a perfect score on everything, their score would be 1,276 (where 1,000 = 100%).
  • Cumulative: All scoring is cumulative. Students begin with a score of 0 and everything they do adds to their score. There is no compartmentalized scoring. All scores for all required work are simply summed.
  • Criterion: Nothing is scored relative to others in the class (i.e. none of that awful “grading on a curve”.) The standards for each task are described, and students are assessed on how close they come to the stated standard.
  • Competence: Almost all work can be resubmitted for re-assessment.
    • Students can keep trying until they get it right – or at least good enough.
    • They can also decide to give up on something, and do something else instead.

All of these things are common approaches in games, but they are ALSO common in apprenticeship learning, in the military (their promotion system also uses many of these approaches), in medicine (called credentialing there).

What I am doing is not completely novel, BUT, in formal education, what I am doing appears to be extremely rare.

With my approach, there are two basic strategies to earn an “A”. That part may in fact be novel, at least in higher ed. The first strategy is the traditional one: complete a few tasks, and earn a very high score on all of them. This is much like the usual 5 or 6 assignments, a midterm and a final exam. This is still extremely common in the sciences. The other approach is to complete many more tasks well enough. These kinds of students (the sloggers) almost never get A’s in our traditional model, but BOTH kinds of students are valuable. If I were looking to “staff up” for a major development project, I’d likely want a few of the first kind of student, but the bulk of my hires would be sloggers.

The more often I use this approach in my classes, the more convinced I have become that this should be the preferred approach in higher ed.

After running a variety of classes using this basic model I have realized that the implications of this approach are profound. Much of it has to do with risk – both real and perceived. When risk is reduced, engagement, creativity, satisfaction, retention, and many other elements are positively affected. Students try things they might otherwise not, because if their efforts miss the mark, they always have a way to recover. Students are mostly not willing to take risks doing things that are on the edges of their ability if the stakes for getting it wrong are too high.

So what should I call it?

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Worth Sharing: Why Playfulness Is the Key to Success in the 21st-Century

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

THIS is why my version of “gamification” is so important.

The Most Important Skill of Today?

Source: Why Playfulness Is the Key to Success in the 21st-Century


Not making room for play in modern adult life is a strategic disadvantage. Exploration and exploitation are no longer distinct. They are continually co-evolving as the world quickly unfolds around us.

Dealing With a Larger Terrain

Today, culture is more complex, information is more abundant, and our collective environment covers a greater terrain of reality.

Play is how we map out this terrain. Traditionally, it was enough to simply spend our childhood and some early parts of our youth having our fun, without following the usual rules, without being too constrained by duty and routine, to make sense of everything.

This is no longer the case. Our environments are no longer static. They’re dynamic in a way that means that if you don’t keep up, you’re essentially not living in the same social and cognitive reality as those around you.

While in the past exploration was a distinct phase from exploitation, today, they have merged. You can no longer get away with spending the first few decades of your life playing and then dedicating the last few to work. Play and work have to occupy the same range.

To many of us, the idea of play in this way is so foreign that even if all of this makes sense, the question remains: What does play look like when you are, say, 30 or 40 or 50? And the answer is that it looks like a space of time, simply left to be dictated by curiosity beyond what you do out of habit?—?that could mean anything from taking an improv class to simply reading more.

The pebbles and the shells Newton picked up gave us the elementary laws of nature that we have since built our understanding of reality on. They led us to uncover the knowledge in front of us so that we could better master our surrounding environment.

In the 21st-century, playfulness won’t just remain a memory of childhood. It will be the foundation that we use to construct and validate the truths of our ever-changing reality.

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Worth Sharing: Students aren’t learning enough – a brewing crisis in higher education

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

Too many graduates are not prepared to think critically and creatively, speak and write cogently, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet employer expectations.

What are YOU doing in your classes to address that?

Indeed, higher education globally continues to follow a relatively passive learning tradition with full responsibility for learning placed on students. 

It ‘s easier that way, amiright? That way we can blame the students when they don’t do as well as we hope/expect/we did.

Teaching duties are increasingly left to adjunct faculty with few incentives for tenure-track faculty to spend time with undergraduates or improve teaching. 

I have asked for compensation for course development. Full-time faculty often get course relief (a reduced teaching load) when they are developing new courses or re-design existing ones. “Adjunct” (called sessionals or part-timers in Canada) get nothing.

It is not surprising, then, to hear faculty lament, “They were supposed to learn how to ___ before they got to my course,” filling the blank in with any number of skills.

See comment about blaming students above.

Autonomy of disciplines, lack of true investment in general education, absence of faculty consensus about what students should learn across the curriculum, and weakness of academic advising undermine any sense of coherence in students’ learning. The consequence – and working assumption – is that constructing coherence among individual courses and learning experiences is the student’s responsibility alone.

Many universities spend time and money developing “mission statements” and university-wide goals. I suppose that’s a fine start, but we need to turn these things into something we can assess. Often these statements are so vague as to be useless. 

Success in achieving core higher-learning outcomes requires an approach best accomplished cumulatively – requiring more instruction, practice, assessment and feedback than is now provided, or expected, within single courses or other isolated learning experiences.

Among other things, we really, REALLY need to stop nickel-and-dime-ing our students. We need to coach them, NOT spoon-feed them. We need to engage them, not threaten them. We need to recognize that education is not efficient, OR easy. 

WE, as faculty need to step up to the plate.

Source: Commentary: Students aren’t learning enough – a brewing crisis in higher education

For me my most jarring wake-up call was taking on a course (to teach) in 2013 that I hadn’t taught in years, only to see that the syllabus was virtually identical to the one I had used back in 1982!
That’s 30 YEARS of teaching the same course in the SAME way.
THINK about that.
When I looked at the assignments that had been used, they too were effectively the same. We’ve learned some things about teaching and learning in the last 30 years.
SURELY, this should have an impact on how we assess students and the kinds of assignments we give.

Since then, I’ve been asking myself many hard questions about what I am doing, WHY I am doing it, and exactly what the students are supposed to get out of it. (Check out some of my posts on gamification for more on that.)
The answers have caused a paradigm shift in my own thoughts and approaches to course design and to how I assess my students.
I get a real mixture of excitement, dismissal, and defensiveness from other faculty when I try to share what I am learning. A few have adopted some of my approaches. Most have not.

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IS it What Straight-A Students Get Wrong, or is it what WE get wrong?

Approximate Reading Time: < 1 minute

It’s not the students’ fault.
Not making marks random, and reducing the risks of failure are what gives students more room to really think.
We owe them that.
We need to get rid of compartmentalized grading entirely, and quit blaming the students for responding appropriately to an unreasonable assessment system.

If you always succeed in school, you’re not setting yourself up for success in life.

Source: Opinion | What Straight-A Students Get Wrong

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