More Visible Learning, NOT More Visible Grades

laurakgibbs
Community Champion
13
2601

Last week I went to check to see if a student had completed some assignments from earlier in the semester, and when I clicked, I saw a new panel pop up; here's what it looks like for the Test Student:

From  @Chris_Hofer  I learned that this is a new "Student Context Card," and my school chose to turn it on (without telling us, which is odd) when it was released last week. Canvas has invested what is clearly a lot of effort and resources in order to give us this new gradebook view with information that shows me each student's latest graded items, ranking them compared to the rest of the class.

And I find this to be very depressing.

By emphasizing this "view" of students, Canvas shows us (the instructors, the students) that it really is all about the grades, ranking student against student. Not about the learning. Not about growth.

As I've documented elsewhere, I find the Canvas Gradebook to be mostly useless because I cannot include my own data fields ("Feature Request: Text Fields in the Gradebook"). In D2L, I could create little text fields to record important information about a student that I needed to remember (out with flu Weeks 3-4... needs Tuesday reminders... waiting on 2nd Portfolio story revisions... etc. etc.). Because the Canvas Gradebook refuses to let me enter information I consider important, I run my own spreadsheet outside the system. I definitely believe in analytics, but the data I need are not the grades: I need data about the whole student and about their learning process.

And that leads to my bigger concern here: by making it all about the grades, we are doing our students a huge disservice. We tell them to care about the grades as if the grades were a true representation of the learning. But we all know... if we are honest about it... that grades are a poor proxy for learning at best. And at worst, they are a huge hindrance to learning, a reward-and-punishment system that has negative consequences for many students. (Don't believe me? Read Carol Dweck.)

To learn more and to learn better, students need FEEDBACK. Lots of it. And grades are a terrible form of feedback.

I have written about this often; here are all the posts at my Teaching With Canvas blog labeled Grading, and I've also collected materials at Grading.MythFolklore.net, where you will find links and resources about the un-grading movement; see also the hashtag #TTOG (Teachers Throwing Out Grades) at Twitter.

Short version: I'm ALL-feedback and NO-grades. That has been my approach since I first started teaching online in 2002, and it works. How do I know it works? Because the students tell me it does: What Students Say About Un-Grading.

For information about what good feedback can and should be, check out my Feedback Resources at Diigo. Yep, that's an RSS feed inside a Canvas page... and RSS is just one technology we could be using to bring real evidence of student learning from their own webspaces into the Canvas space.

So, instead of a dynamic whiz-bang Gradebook view of students, we instead need a dynamic whiz-bang LEARNING view that helps students and instructors see what their learning looks like and that also allows them to connect with others based on what we are all learning together. To get a sense of the dynamics of connected, visible learning in my classes, take a look at the blog hubs for Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. Take a look at the student projects, past and present at eStorybook Central.

I've also proposed creating a Connected Learning Group here at Canvas; if you are interested, let me know!

To help students learn more and learn better, I need to see what they are learning. To help them in their work, I need to see their work. Not quizzes, not tests. Their work.

The work, not the grades, is what matters, and I show the students that their work matters by giving them detailed feedback about it, by creating opportunities for them to share their work with others, and by saving their work in the class archives to sustain my classes in the future.

Grades penalize mistakes... feedback helps you learn from them. That's what we need: feedback, not grades.

Because I feel safe, I can learn from my mistakes.

A meme inspired by this infographic:

Crossposted at Canvas Community.

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13 Comments
snugent
Community Champion

Thank you laurakgibbs‌ for such a great post. I've been working on a professional development workshop about online teaching and learning. That feedback infographic is the exact information I want to convey in my presentation. 

As for the context cards I like some aspects of the card such as the ability to create a quick inbox message and reducing the amount of clicks it would take to see a lot of the same information. I agree that data especially grades data shouldn't be the only data point to review. I let our faculty know well in advance when this feature was in the January release notes and I even polled them to see if they really wanted this feature enabled. The majority did so when it was released I did turn it on. I also posted information in our main communication channels at the college when it would be available. I really don't understand not informing the main population who use the software on a daily basis of the changes you make.  

laurakgibbs
Community Champion
Author

Hi snugent  , I am so glad it is helpful! This is something I am very passionate about, especially because I teach writing... quizzes and other machine-graded assessments don't apply, and even rubrics are not very good in terms of eliciting actual reader responses to the writing, which is what I am aiming for: real writing for real readers. Grades just get in the way of that IMO.

About that infographic: I like it too, and it has real sources cited at the bottom. I don't agree with everything on it (I am not an adherent of the Wiggins-Kohn rejection of praise; I do believe in praise-the-process, very much so), but I like the part about feeling safe to make mistakes very much. I transcribed the infographic here if you want the text:
http://growthmindsetmemes.blogspot.com/2017/02/because-i-feel-safe-i-can-learn-from-my.html

I've collected a lot of growth mindset resources for students, and now I'm focusing on feedback resources. Even items that are intended for teachers can be useful for my students since they are giving feedback to each other! I'm using Diigo to collect feedback-related materials to save and share:
https://goo.gl/tpQW1U

About communication: we're in the middle of a Canvas rollout at my school and I think the communications have all been pre-scripted by a marketing team, which is not great because the people doing the communication don't actually use Canvas, at least, they don't appear to use Canvas. If so, they would have noticed the Student Context Cards last Monday as I did ha ha. To me, that's a problem. I prefer interactions like here at the Community among real users. I personally have no interest in marketing hype; I want to know what people (students, instructors, all the people) are actually learning and doing with the software... and that's something that cannot be scripted in advance by a marketing team. 🙂

Stef_retired
Instructure Alumni
Instructure Alumni

laurakgibbs‌ and snugent‌, I'm posting the link here to the video recording of janiesolinski-ruddy's recent https://community.canvaslms.com/community/ideas/canvaslive?sr=search&searchId=193e3cb9-38f6-4b10-a30...‌ presentation, as I'm hopeful that people who are passionate about this topic will also like ‌.

laurakgibbs
Community Champion
Author

Thanks, stefaniesanders‌ ... yes! Janie advocates the Wiggins-Kohn position against praise in her video, and there are certainly a lot of people who take that approach, so that's a good addition here. There are remarks to that effect in the infographic above.

My take is that students are so grade-fixated (just ask them; they will tell you they are) that trying to mix feedback with anything that is a letter or numeric grade undermines the effectiveness of the feedback. So, I prefer to do ALL-feedback-but-NO-grades, as opposed to trying to do both.

For people who find this a strange idea or even impossible-sounding, I'd urge you to take a look at the comments my students have made in end-of-semester evaluations: 

Anatomy of an Online Course: GRADING: What Students Say 

In particular, getting rid of grades (and using feedback instead) can really open up a creative space that students will willingly explore... provided that they can set aside grade anxiety:

Anatomy of an Online Course: CREATIVITY: What Students Say 

For people who want to learn more about un-grading, I can highly recommend Starr Sackstein's book:

Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School

Starr offers a lot of practical advice in terms of working not just with students, but fellow teachers, school administrators, and parents in going gradeless. I had been using my own un-grading approach for years, and it was so cool to find Starr's book and realize how my experiences coincided so much with hers! She writes a regular column for EdWeek for people who read EdWeek. Here is her Twitter:

Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein) | Twitter 

laurakgibbs
Community Champion
Author

Thank you, Deactivated user ! It is exciting to meet people who have had a positive online learning experience of their own! That is the bootstrapping problem: slowly but surely I hope we will have more collective experience with online teaching and learning that can help move the whole enterprise forward... and of course the untapped potential of this new medium is huge! We are still only just beginning!

That app is new to me, and I'm actually quite happy with my spreadsheet solution for now. Like often happens: when I realized I could not use Canvas Gradebook the way I did with D2L (where I created all the text fields I needed and could sort, filter, message and share with students or not, all as I chose), at first I was just frustrated. But then I built a solution using a Google Sheet, and that has actually turned out better than the D2L Gradebook ever was. I love to color-code things, and in Google Sheets I can color code everything. So, now I have all my fields AND it's color-coded. If Canvas had let me keep doing my same-old same-old like I did in D2L, I would not have found this better solution. 

But I know most instructors are going to want a standard, build-in solution as part of the Canvas Gradebook, so I hope that the promised new Gradebook will have a lot more customization features like that. Fingers crossed! But I'll probably just keep on using my spreadsheet where I can make things all blue and gold and purple as I prefer. 🙂

jomontuori
Community Contributor

Hi laurakgibbs. Your comments arrived literally as I was pondering moving to a SBG gradebook (outside of Canvas) next year, and what that would entail (ugh). Now I'm wondering if I should go gradeless. Thanks for messing with my mind! Smiley Wink

Seriously, this does pull me back from making a decision about next steps, and the points you raise are so relevant that I can't ignore them. My students and parents (and many colleagues) are so obsessed with grades, they don't even consider learning. And that's the problem in a nutshell. Have to run just now, but wanted to say "Thanks!" right away. 

Maybe you'd consider sharing a no-names copy of your Google Sheet to illustrate your technique. Maybe that will be my solution too. Smiley Happy

laurakgibbs
Community Champion
Author

I hear you,  @jomontuori ! Check out Starr Sackstein's book: it is FULL of advice for navigating whatever context you might find yourself in! I discovered her book after I was many years into my own system, and it felt so good to discover that someone had reached the same conclusions that I had even though working in a totally different context:

Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School (Hack Learning Series) (V... 

And probably the best way to see how my system works is to experience it as the students do; all my course materials are totally open, so you can see how I start things off with the students in Orientation week:

Online Course Wiki / orientation 

The very first assignment explains the (un)grading system, and they do a Declaration at the end of it (a true-false quiz where they get points for completion). Then they create a blog, and do a Declaration; then they write a blog post with images, and do a Declaration... and by the end of the week, it all makes perfect sense to them. Here's that first assignment:

http://onlinecourselady.pbworks.com/w/page/12763838/coursedesign 

Even if you can't switch ALL the work in the class to self-reporting, even just offloading some of that so that the students take responsibility is a good thing IMO.

And one of the best activities in that first week is introducing them to Carol Dweck and growth mindset. That's something I started just a couple years ago, and I am kicking myself for not doing that earlier. I had assumed (wrongly!) that college seniors would have figured out on their own the gap between grades and learning... but not so. They are just trapped in this endless grade treadmill. But growth mindset is immediately clear to them as a way to talk about the difference between learning and being graded, and that then paves the way for many more conversations along those lines throughout the semester 

Online Course Wiki / growthmindset 

It's hard for students to formulate their learning goals separately from grades after so many years of that, and of course the final grade in my class does matter to them. But within those parameters (their other classes, my obligation to report a final grade), I feel completely free of the burden of grades and grading... and it feels good! 🙂

Growth Mindset Cat says: Follow your natural curiosity, and see what you learn.

follow your curiosity

siouxgeonz
Community Contributor

I'm thinking of trying to take this approach with Math 🙂   I'm thinking of asking questions that don't have a number for an answer... have different possible directions.. 

laurakgibbs
Community Champion
Author

Hi  @siouxgeonz ‌! A big inspiration for me in all of this has been the growth mindset movement and the idea of "productive mistakes" (as opposed to grades which penalize mistakes). There is so much good material online for how that can work in a math setting. Have you read anything by Jo Boaler? Her focus is on the intersection of growth mindset and math education, and she is so inspiring! Check out her YouCubed.org website for more.

It might strange that teaching math and teaching writing could have so much in common, but surprisingly, they do! It's true that with math there are objective tests you can administer, etc. etc., but with both math and writing, the bigger problem is how students see themselves ("I'm not good at math" and "I'm not good at writing"), so growth mindset is something that is really important for both disciplines I think, and some of the very best mindset work is happening in math! 🙂

I just set up a CanvasLIVE event about growth mindset for April 20... so that will make me get organized and see how I can take all my growth mindset materials to make them useful to people using Canvas! 

5 Ways to Weave Growth Mindset into Your Courses 

siouxgeonz
Community Contributor

I took Jo BOaler's MOOC first time out... I've only recently grown to understand how many community college students really do have many of the same kinds of "I'm no good at writing" issues as math students do.   Math has an advantage in that it can sometimes be easier to see progress, and the "click!" of understanding is for many easier to discern.    (The math has to make sense to *you* -- writing has to make sense to you and your audience...)   

laurakgibbs
Community Champion
Author

Oh, how cool,  @siouxgeonz ! I just know her from reading growth mindset blogs and following the #growthmindset hashtag at Twitter, plus some videos of hers that I have bookmarked to share with my students.

And YES, so true about students who think they are not good at writing. And also this: "I'm not a creative person." I hear that a lot in my classes, and it's heartbreaking: all children are creative (it's a human thing: imagination!), but school can really stamp out that sense of creativity and imagination. Luckily, in teaching writing, I can focus on imagination and creativity too. Yes, I work on spelling and punctuation and writing mechanics... but as prompted by th students' creative writing. 

It's hard to get that affirming "click" and "100% on the quiz" sense of achievement that math can offer, but I just keep on reassuring my students that we ALL have the power of imagination and we are all ready to tell stories... and it's easy to reassure them about that because ... it's true! 🙂

jomontuori
Community Contributor

Hi laurakgibbs, I finally found my way back here with time to check out these links. I will definitely read Hacking Assessment by Starr Sackstein. And your Orientation and Google Form survey have several elements that I'll adapt. Thanks so much for sharing! I'd be nervous about going gradeless after 25 years of nibbling around the edges of this question. Again, I was thinking SBG might be my answer, buuuut gradeless is a more radical approach (in the good sense that it gets at the root of the problem). 

Some reasons for hesitation include (or am I misunderstanding?) no assessment of whether a student knows or can do something. Completion alone seems to be the criterion. Probably not an issue for you, but I teach the same course as colleagues who want appreciate complaints that they are/aren't doing it the same way as Mr. Montuori.

In any case, I think this is an important discussion and sincerely thank you for raising these issues, Laura!

laurakgibbs
Community Champion
Author

I totally understand  @jomontuori  ! For me, it was easy: going gradeless was easy for me because I teach writing which is very holistic and for which grading is very subjective (and thus even more anxiety-producing for the students). Also, writing is inherently iterative: you learn to write by writing, as the saying goes, and so I can tell my students with all honesty that if they work on their writing week by week, using the feedback they get from me and from the other students, their writing will IMPROVE.

If I really needed to break down the writing process into different competencies to focus on, I guess I could do that, but I'm fine with it being a more free-form, holistic approach to writing, and since I am teaching Gen. Ed. without any specific curriculum benchmarks, that's the approach that has worked for me. Also, the students end up with really cool projects that they can show off proudly. So, yes, it's "just" completion... but completion plus feedback plus iteration leads to a real outcome: their semester project. I don't want to grade the projects: i just want them to be cool. 🙂

Starr's book has observations about other contexts and disciplines, so that will probably be helpful. Also, there is the whole specs grading movement, which might be worth looking into. I've followed Robert Talbert's work using specs grading and it felt very similar to what I do but with more measurements that you could use as the basis for a traditional grade, and there's a book about it by Linda Nilson which is what got him started, and here's an article by her in IHE:

New ways to grade more effectively (essay) 

Here's the book:

Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time: Linda Nilson,... 

And thanks for this discussion. I personally think grading is one of the most important things we should be talking about, but there's surprisingly little talk about it. More talk is good! 🙂