Dot Physics

Think Thank Thunk is a relatively new blog from Shawn Cornally, a high school math and science teacher. I have found his posts to be quite entertaining. In Shawn’s latest post, he talks about grades. You know I like to talk about grades. Shawn puts teacher into two groups in regards to their ideas about grades:

  1. Grades should reflect a student’s progress with course material. Where an A+ indicates mastery.
  2. Grades should be an amalgam of student’s knowledge, behavior, and anything else the teacher wants to control.

I was in the middle of posting a comment to this post, but it was getting a little long. Here is what I was going to say.

Should students be intrinsically motivated – you know learning because learning is a good thing, or should they be extrinsically motivated – learning because their grade depends on it. Oh – and not just grades, but behaviors.

Let me start by examining some extreme cases. Take graduate student in physics. Why does this student study to learn physics? I would hope it is not just because of the grade. So, in this case the student should be intrinsically motivated, right?

What about a 2nd grader? Why should this student learn to spell and add and read? Maybe reading was a bad example, but spelling and add could possibly be motivated extrinsically – by grades. Oh sure, there are some 2nd grades that just want to learn to spell (I know who you are). Also, the reading was a bad idea because there are tons of 2nd graders that want to learn to read so they can finally get to How to Train your Dragon or Diary of a Wimpy Kid (you can tell I have kids). The point is: maybe second graders need some extrinsic motivation.

What about kids? Should you just let them eat whatever they want (Fat Cakes) and stay up as late as they want? Probably not. Make them eat their veggies. It is good for them. So, I make my kids do things that they don’t want to do. What if they don’t eat their vegetables? Then the won’t get a bad grade, but they will not get desert – that is for sure.

So, maybe grad students are intrinsically motivated and maybe 2nd graders are a mix of intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. What does this have to do with me? Well, I am going to assume that at some point students need to switch to being intrinsically motivated. I don’t know when this should happen, but I am going to assume it happens before college. This means that I don’t have to use grades to motivate them.

I know the arguments – if you don’t assign a grade, they aren’t going to do it. That may be true, but I am ok with that. I am going to use the grade to assess their understanding of the material.

PS – check out Think Thank Thunk. Shawn has some really interesting calculus posts.

Comments

  1. #1 Sue VanHattum
    March 25, 2010

    Human beings come with a built-in hunger to learn. I think kids would learn lots more, and more deeply, if they were allowed to choose. Just offer them a rich environment, a respectful community, and some traditions, and watch ‘em grow.

    I don’t require my child to eat any particular things. I do try to limit sugar, since I think we’re hard-wired to be somewhat addicted to it. (It was hard to get way back when.)

    Homeschoolers have found that kids learn to read at vastly different ages, and when they learn has nothing to do with how well they read once they’re doing it. They typically find that a kid who learns to read as late as 10 years old catches up to grade level (and more) within months.

  2. #2 Colin
    March 25, 2010

    The problem is that a grade is but one of twelve values (13 if you include A+) to summarize a student in a class, which is often then distilled into a number on [0.0, 4.0] as “GPA”.

    [In terms of information theory: there is a lot of information loss in mapping many years into a single number.]

    I think you have to answer, first, what that number is supposed to mean and convey before you ask what a grade means and before you ask how you grade students.

    Frankly, I think grades yield too much information loss to be of any value. A 3.5 GPA at one school means something entirely different from a 3.5 at another school; a B+ in differential equations at one school means something entirely different from a B+ at another school. Heck, a B+ under one teacher means something different from another teacher in the same department of the same school (unless measures are specifically taken to equate them).

    For a grade to mean anything outside one specific teacher’s class there has to a common methodology in deriving that grade. In the absence of a common methodology the grade is meaningless outside of that class.

    Sadly, my argument gives significant credence to standardized tests, of which I loathe. :)

  3. #3 Matt Townsley
    March 25, 2010

    “I know the arguments – if you don’t assign a grade, they aren’t going to do it. That may be true, but I am ok with that. I am going to use the grade to assess their understanding of the material.” I’m in the same boat as you are, Rhett.

    @Colin, you said, “For a grade to mean anything outside one specific teacher’s class there has to a common methodology in deriving that grade. In the absence of a common methodology the grade is meaningless outside of that class.” I don’t disagree at all. Maybe I’m too much of a realist, but eliminating grades in my class, building or district is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow or even next school year. Reporting grades that are more meaningful to parents and students (a la standards-based grading) is a big step given the constraints of public schools. I appreciate Shawn’s willingness to push the envelope a bit and share a bit of his classroom with his readership.

  4. #4 becca
    March 25, 2010

    I was going to say something along the lines of Sue- we start out with enormous reserves of intrinsic desire to learn. Normal infant development is amazing to watch, if you stop to think about it.
    That said, it is fair that not all 2nd graders want to learn how to spell (I certainly loathed spelling). *IF* you can let students (be they 2nd graders or grad students) choose, you have a lot more luxury to rely on intrinsic motivation. *IF*, on the other hand, you are stuck with students who are stuck with you, education is much more complicated.

  5. #5 Chem undergrad
    March 25, 2010

    @ # 2,

    Good points. One other problem with grades and GPAs is that they don’t reflect the difficulty of the course itself. Thus a student with an A- in an honors class is penalized relative to a student with an A in the regular equivalent, although the honors student has probably learnt more about the topic.

  6. #6 Colin
    March 25, 2010

    @5: Ah, yes, thank you Chem ugrad. Can’t believe I forgot that! Not just honors vs. non-honors(/”normal”?) but outright different levels. An algebraic average of all your grades necessitates that the values mean the same thing. What’s the average between an apple, an orange, and a banana? Nothing, it’s nonsensical, so why do we presume classes can be averaged at all? Remember: everyone is 50% female because the population is 50% female.

    @3: I’m not necessarily saying that grades should be eliminated, but the falsities of their meaning and aggregation should be eliminated (or at least realized). Really: a GPA is as meaningful as reducing a color photograph to its average intensity on [0,255]. Even then, knowing a photograph is near black doesn’t tell you if it was taken in a dark room or if someone just didn’t take the lens cap off.

    I think it would be valid to ban the asking of GPA by employers and their only alternatives would be to ask for a transcript or not ask at all. If you truly care about grades then you should look at them in all their glory (where you can’t hide that D+ in organic chemistry), or if a transcript is too much to ask for then it doesn’t really matter (you can ascertain what you’re looking for another way).