The reality of many middle school classrooms is that marks are relevant and they do act as a barometer for students to decide how much care, effort and detail they contribute to a project or assignment. Yet, the philosophy of many schools is to create "life long learners", which has little to do with marks and other such rewards and incentives. I recently watched this TED Talk, about a Marshmallow Challenge,which teaches us that incentives don't always translate into higher performance.
As a teacher for 19 years, I have often wished the students I taught were not so motivated by marks. In many cases, it brings out the worst in their performance, as it creates extra stress. As a science teacher, I often have design challenges in my own classroom similar to the one highlighted in the TED video. In the past, each design challenge had a rubric or marking scheme that was discussed before students embarked on the challenge. Here is an example of a rubric we used for a design challenge to build a structure that cushioned the fall of a water balloon.
Evaluation (9 marks)
The balloon breaks each time and the landing pad is unstable
Balloon breaks once and the landing pad is mostly stable
Balloon does not break on both drops and the landing pad remains stable
The student follows little to no design rules and procedures
The Student follows most design rules and procedures
The student follows all design rules and procedures
Evaluation and reflection
Little thought, care and effort has been put into the write up and more detail is needed
Some thought, care and effort has been put into the write up with some detail
Significant thought, care and effort has been put into the write up with great detail
In most cases I discuss, collaborate and build the rubric with the students so that the marking criterion is a democratic process. However this year, it was different. One student asked, "Mr. Frehlich, do we have to make this challenge worth marks?" My heart skipped a beat, and I asked the student to repeat the question because I was sure I didn't hear her correctly. She repeated, "Do we have to make it for marks? I find it stressful when a mark is associated with these building challenges." I took a deep breath and said, "No, every challenge doesn't always have to be for marks." I then asked the rest of the class how they felt. Most agreed, marks often make the challenge more stressful. So, we revamped the rubric above and changed the numbers into qualifiers like, "expert", "intermediate", and "beginner". As the TED video suggests, when students are learning a new skill it is important to keep the stakes low. In the end, the quality of the student structures were even better than when I had used a marking scheme. Here is a sample of one of the finished structures;
It is time for a change. There may be other reasons why students are asking this question, "Is this for marks?". I should not always assume it is because they are looking for an opportunity to contribute less effort.