Saturday, February 18, 2012

Some Thoughts on Assessment: "Is this going to count for marks?"

We have all had our undecided moments in the classroom.  Mine have often been around a common student question, "Mr. Frehlich, does this assignment count for marks?"  When I hear this I pause, and reflect.  If I say, "No", will my students put less effort/enthusiasm into the assignment or project?  Why have we conditioned students to ask this question?  Shouldn't learning be lifelong and therefore marks are irrelevant?

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
Following Specifications
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.

If you are interested in learning more about how some incentives might weaken our performance on certain tasks, please consider reading Daniel Pink's book, Drive


  1. I love this! Marks drive me crazy! As you found out, I really don't think that it is the marks that motivate students - I think it is the exact opposite. I did a 100 Minutes of Genius project with my students (4 classes I teach prep to) where they could choose whatever they want to learn about or teach others. Whatever they wanted. They LOVED it! They hadn't worked that hard all year! AND they knew it wasn't FOR marks. Actually, I haven't given them assignments for marks all year. We collaborate on their letter grades at the end of each term - only because I have to give them a letter grade though.

    So, I think, if students have choice and we make the learning meaningful for them, then they will be motivated- marks or not. Actually, Marks stifle the learning and hurt children's self-esteem. That's a whole other conversation.

    Thanks for your post!

  2. Hi Tia;

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that marks complicate the learning. Yet, as students enter the older grades the demand from admin and parents on giving grades and percentages is driven by what universities are doing. I, like you, wish it was different.

    kind regards;

    Craig Frehlich

  3. Love this post. I am so happy I finally made it to your site. This topic is very fascinating for me. I have read in numerous studies that rewarding children for an activity, especially when they are expecting the reward before the activity, diminishes their interest overall in that activity. So for instance in one study, children that were naturally drawn towards drawing were separated into two groups: one was told that they would receive a reward after drawing, and the other was told nothing. The researchers did this for a week. After a while, the researchers came back and observed the children again: the group that was rewarded for drawing were less likely to engage in drawing from their own will, while the other children kept on being drawn to drawing. This study was repeated in many different ways, for different children, for different interests, etc. And the same result came about: rewarding children seems to impede intrinsic interest.

    So when we use marks as rewards for these awesome building challenges, the interest might go down, which is the exact opposite of what we wanted in the first place. Marks have a place, I agree with you, but the challenges are interesting enough, that marks shouldn't be necessary...

    I write this and I laugh to myself... the dreams we have as teachers... the utopia of teaching: NO MARKS.

    Bogusia |

  4. Brilliant blog, thank you very much. It seems very well written and I have taken my time to read it thoroughly.

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