Collegiate Caligula & Summative-Obsession: A Sad Story
The summative-obsessed model is just that, a model that grades everything, and incorporates those grades into a gradebook. Done very well, this model might accidentally have the unintended side-effect of student learning. Are you willing to bet your student’s learning on luck?
I love college.
No, I don’t mean Asher Roth’s insipid song, which, by the way, is a byproduct of exactly the problem I’m going to discuss, although it might be difficult to see the connection at first. I try my hardest not to spout my moderately liberal, slightly progressive (and mostly redundant) views about anything other than education here. Rest assured, I attend farmer’s markets regularly, I am thoroughly worried about our culture’s treatment of women as disposable, I can play the guitar, I have never had dreadlocks, I grind my own spices, and I smoke my own meats. I will also not be supplying a link for that twit and his “I Love College,” garbage — he does not love college, he loves immorality and the joke that has become higher education for some students. It is a catchy song, though, if you can get past the fact that he abuses drugs and women because he was like so like totally drunk.
Why is this song funny? It totally is. The song is obviously a joke (on every level, and let’s not even talk production) so maybe I’m taking this too far, but it bears asking: why, when I hear a song lauding “college,” do I get an anthem about promiscuity and alcohol?
Am I being a little harsh? Perhaps Cornally-Hulk is wearing thin after his 200th hour coding the SBGradeBook? Either way, I believe that the summative-obsessed model of assessment is partially responsible for the student disconnect that we see in high school and higher ed. Don’t buy it?
<jules>Well, Allow Me To Retort.</jules>
The summative-obsessed model is just that, a model that grades everything, and incorporates those grades into a gradebook. Done very well, this model might accidentally have the unintended side-effect of student learning. Are you willing to bet your student’s learning on luck? This is the system most of us grew up with and tacitly assumed was appropriate to use for all eternity.
Here’s where it breaks down: A student fails to grasp the concept of natural selection. You then start talking about genetics and reproduction. This student cannot spend their educational dollars on the “old” stuff, natural selection, because they need to study the “new” stuff, genetics. The kick-in-the-teeth is that understanding natural selection enriches and perhaps underpins a complete understanding of genetics. The student doesn’t know this, and doesn’t really know to spend the time going back. They’re the kid that barely gets things in time for your quizzes and has trouble on the homework that you grade; consequently, their grade suffers at every turn. You, as the teacher, hope they’ll go back and review the stuff they missed… ahem…
HOW IS THAT WORKING OUT FOR YOU?
Badly? Yeah, it did for me too — I almost left teaching. You know what this does to your average- and lower-achieving students? It makes them hate assessment and view school as a game: Homework is worth points, and I don’t get it? I need the points, so let’s copy. Failed a quiz? Better study for the next one! What about the material you don’t know from the first quiz? Who cares, we’ve moved on! I just vomited in my mouth a little.
This creates an ugly culture. A culture where kids don’t know how to learn. A classroom where kids are trying to get out, a classroom that feels like a microbiology lab. The summative-obsessed model is as fake as it gets, and I’m sick of everyone telling me that everything a student does should be graded, ground into a mush, and expelled back out for the students glorification or ire. When’s the last time you got fired for having a bad day?
There is a better way, young Jedi, but this post is not about Standards-Based Grading and the pedagogical changes required to run a class that way. (Or is it?)
This post is about what happens when these kids go to college.
College gets hard, fast: People who have no business teaching, profess to a lot of people poorly. You’re left to tough it out and study on your own. So, how do kids that have no ownership of curriculum and/or bad study habits fare? Just like they did in high school: it’s all magic to them. This can lead to all sorts of insane behaviors.
I am not saying that high-achieving students don’t participate in their fair share of on-campus debauchery. In fact, the college years are for trying on the debauchery hat and eventually (hopefully) deciding it’s a little too small. What I am saying is that for students who have education done to them, a la the summative-obsessed model, college becomes nothing more than Asher Roth’s inebriated stupor. They get accidental grades, and can’t wait for Friday Tuesday night to get to the bar for 25-cent pitchers of Natty Lite. Think I’m kidding? I’m speaking from personal experience (seriously, a quarter)
Cornally Goes to College, Again:
I’m taking an undergraduate class right now. It’s a computer science class, because I never actually took one, and I need some more credits to finish a CS endorsement. What I’ve noticed is the assumption my professor has about grading. He put up the syllabus and spent an amazing amount of time talking about it. 60% of our grade is based on homework. I tweeted this out as he said it, and I got some really intelligent responses from @cannonsr and @wmcneary.
The tweeters essentially said, “It’s projects-based, you dolt, of course there’s ‘homework,’ how else are you going to learn to program?” They were totally right, and I had to take a walk down by the river to think this one through.
Eventually, though, a few holes started to let water out. Making HW worth 60% means that I couldn’t pass, if I didn’t do the homework correctly. I’m not too worried, because I want to be there, but what about the student who comes from a wholly summative past? What will they do? Cheat, if it comes to that. They will misrepresent their understanding in order to pass the course. Don’t believe me? Then take off your rose-colored glasses and read this paragraph again. If you’ve never thought about this, please stop here. Seriously, I aim to do very little with this blog, but this point is a part of that little: Garnering points cannot be allowed trump learning, ever.
What really happens if I don’t do the practice/HW? I don’t get the appropriate practice, and therefore don’t learn the material. How does this play out on a controlled assessment? Badly, if you hadn’t managed to attain understanding at some point. I don’t like how I’m sounding right now, it appears to me that I’m headed down a road where kids just do whatever they want whenever they want, and how they choose. How will they ever learn to program, if I don’t require them to hand in HelloWorld followed by some inane project about strings and assigning variables? Gorsh, I just don’t know, but I just taught 2 sections that way and they all passed.
How is it possible that millions of people learn to program without this having taken this class? How is it possible that kids come to your room with understandings about whatever it is you teach without having taken your class yet? People learn all the time from everything, that’s how. There is no prescribed Point A to Point B. Some kids start at point B.
For Those of You That Just Skip to the End:
What I’m really trying to say is that using homework as a part of a grade is ridiculous, because homework is an unreliable assessment.
What I’m saying about using everything as a summative assessment is that this is in direct contrast to how people learn. This gives school that awful, sterile, other-worldly feel that makes me feel dirty and impotent. I hate it so much, and fighting it is the other reason I have this blog. This does not mean you should stop giving feedback.
You can’t just stand in front of a room and hope to be entertaining. Effectiveness requires entertainment and a whole pile of other methods. These methods then need to intersect with reasonable assessment strategies, and then you’ve got yourself a well-oiled learning machine.
Hopefully this machine will force your kids to be metacognitive about their learning and their life in general, which will result in a more subdued imitation of Caligula when the reins are finally off (i.e. College).
What am I recommending? Standards-Based Grading, obviously, but that is not enough. It takes a fundamental switch in your teaching. Total disclaimer: If your standards are awful, then SBG will be awful; SBG’s just a methodology to assist learning. One thing is for sure: the summative-obsessed model is most certainly the opposite.