Focus on skills, not grades.

Academic expert, Daniel Wong, says that one of the most common mistakes he sees students make is to focus on grades more than skills and learning. It’s easy to get caught up in a chasing a grade, but at the end of the day the purpose of education is about equipping students with the skills and knowledge to contribute more effectively in the real world. Remembering to focus on the learning rather than a grade can help reduce some of the distracting stress and pressure surrounding studying.

How to Help Students Focus on What They’re Learning, Not the Grade

Remote and blended instruction have forced an unprecedented review of teaching and learning practices. The result: an increased awareness of what works and what doesn’t and a renewed interest in what learning looks like and how we assess it.

The Assessment Trap

Questions that learners ask about an assignment are telling. How long should it be? How do I get an A? What do you want us to turn in? When is it due? These questions focus on the grade, not the learning outcomes. They highlight the assessment trap, or a focus on “What do I have to produce?” versus “What am I learning from this assignment?”

Historically, problematic assessment practices have taught learners that the grade is the goal by doing the following:

Assessing for a score or grade
Assessing for compliance (due dates, formatting, following instructions, etc.)
Assessing to demonstrate “effort”
Assessing for “rigor” (more work turned in = more rigor)

Digging our way out of the assessment trap means shifting to learning experiences focused on skills that we want or need to measure. Education experts Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe called this “backward design.” Instead of the above problematic practices, we shift learning experiences to focus on demonstrating skill and expert learning. In this way, we take the focus off what students are expected to produce and place it on the act of learning, or the process.

3 Reasons to Focus on Process Over Product

1. Reduce stress and anxiety: This year, I’ve learned about assessment anxiety from my seventh-grade son. He was a straight-A student, and grades meant everything. Every late assignment, every B, every red mark, in his mind, equaled failure. As with many students during remote learning, seeing “failure” day in and day out on a digital dashboard or grade book shut down his ability to learn.

2. Develop expert learners: Author John Spencer distinguishes between product goals and process goals. Process goals, he says, develop habits and routines in learners versus a focus on deadlines and completion. CAST defines expert learners as “purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed.”To support expert learning, we need to increase opportunities for step-by-step goal setting and reflection. According to Allison Posey from CAST, “Students get continuous feedback on how they’re doing. They’re encouraged to reflect on their learning and whether they met lesson goals. Grades feed into that discussion.” Grades are part of the discussion, not the discussion.

3. Measure what matters: Identifying where we want learners to end up helps us know where to start. Aligning assessments, activities, and materials with overall, measurable learning objectives or goals is step one. Backward design reduces grading and improves outcomes by eliminating meaningless assignments and helps learners and teachers focus on what is most important.We should measure what is “construct relevant.” This means avoiding measuring what is irrelevant or can’t be measured. Construct-irrelevant factors might include creativity, effort, or tool use. For example, if writing is not part of your overall course or assignment learning outcomes, consider whether learners can successfully demonstrate learning in a variety of other ways, such as a podcast, video, or graphic representation of learning. Adjusting the grading practices below can shift focus to what matters.

Grading practice: If you wouldn’t grade it in face-to-face learning, it doesn’t need to be graded online. Marking completion supports goal setting. But grades feel final, and practice is not a final stage of the learning process.
Grading intangibles: If you can’t observe it, it shouldn’t be measured. Provide feedback on skills like creativity, effort, and collaboration to emphasize importance.
Grading compliance: Due dates, formatting, and word counts don’t show a learner’s ability to apply information or demonstrate a skill. Find a way to hold students accountable without penalty.
Assessment bias: Learners are variable. Avoid measuring what supports your own bias (such as what creativity looks like). Use rubrics with simple, observable skills.

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