From Luke's Inbox: A for Effort

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I adjunct for a junior college. Many of my students are single moms. They may not do as well as the other students on tests, but they are often working 20 to 40 hours a week, taking care of kids by themselves, and still taking colleges courses. They may work much harder than the other students, but that isn't reflected in test scores. I wish there was some way to assign a grade for effort. Suggestions?

First, I recommend you check out my post that spells out what I see as the big picture in grading. Short, short version: Help your students love learning, give them ample opportunity, and grading becomes rather meaningless. Stick to pass/fail if you must do something (and let them constantly work toward passing). In this system, as long as a student wants to learn, they are rewarded. Students who don't need the course move onward. And students who are not interested in learning don't skate by on a technicality.

Second, I think we muddy the waters when we try to make grades about effort. The saying "A for effort" is ironic for more than just the single-syllable pseudo-homophone. This problem arises when we try to make grades about both measuring performance and motivating involvement (the first two of the three reasons most people grade stuff). These are two separate goals, and sometimes at odds with one another. Sure, we like to believe that trying equates to positive outcome. But that is simply not how the world works. In fact, in our "try, try again" mindset, we sometimes forget that our endless attempts will not necessarily produce our desired results (as in failed business). Often times it "merely" takes thousands of attempts to figure something out (as with the light bulb). How do we reconcile our goals? Let's start by stating them clearly:

  1. We want to adequately track how a student is progressing. In a perfect world, a student with an A is rocking, a student right in line with the average has a C, and the students who are simply not getting it are stamped with an F. But we all know this is not how the school system usually works. The goal is that every student has an A -- meaning, they are complying with the work and testing -- and only poor students earn Cs by refusing to turn in homework. Grades are not the best method for this. Attention to each individual student gives a much clearer picture of where they are with the content. And for those who don't test well, they are not given a false stigma of stupidity.
  2. We want to encourage a strong work ethic. In this approach, every student who puts forth effort has an A, those who don't stay on task get a B, the student who lollygags gets a C, and those who don't show up or turn anything in earn an F. This falls apart if a student is spread too thin or, far more frequently, finds the notion of a mark on a paper little incentive to go too all the effort of staying awake in the desk. History has clearly shown that this system fails to equip genius, pushes kids who need more time to abandon education, and rewards compliance over learning.

Bringing it all together now, the only grading mechanism I know that fits both of these goals is the binary Pass/Fail with the chance to try again and again and again. This is really what we want people to learn. We want them to keep trying until they get it right. Anything less is rather useless in the real world. The fact that semesters and grade levels don't accommodate that is a fault and flaw of the school system.

Third, I wonder if we need to create specific awards that reflect our actual goals. I have sports awards for MVP, Personal Bests, Leadership, Most Improved, and more. With these we can speak directly to a student's specific situation, reward the things we actually care about, and promote the practices we want to encourage.

Sonlight revolutionized home education. Our literature-based approach to learning continues to dominate homeschool curriculum. Why? In part because we focus on learning and not testing, grades, or other arbitrary measurements. Our goal is to instill a love of learning. With that foundation, students will succeed.

If you're looking for a homeschool curriculum that you and your students are guaranteed to love, it's time to discover Sonlight.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Guardian

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