Grades, indicators, and learning

Here’s an interesting (to me) reflective piece by author Dan Houck about grading, from Inside Higher Education. I think the writer has expressed the misgivings many educators feel about distilling the complex phenomenon of student learning down to a single letter or number.

I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with Peter Ewell, when I was working at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest and he was helping us think about related issues. We got onto the subject of indicators, of which grading is a good example–measures that stand in for more complex phenomena which are not easily measured. Dr. Ewell pointed out that indicators are reasonably useful until consequences are attached to them. When that happens, powerful motivations arise to distort the inputs to the measures, or to the measures themselves. We start to pay more attention to the indicator than to the underlying phenomenon it is meant to illuminate.

In the case of grading, we start to pay attention to the letter or number, rather than to the learning or performance it is supposed to indicate, with all kinds of unintended consequences. As an example, there have been numerous stories in the media about the Hope Scholarship’s requirement that students maintain a “B” average, and scholarship students’ choice of less challenging coursework to ensure that they maintain their eligibility. At least in some cases, rather than taking the hard, but possibly more rewarding, courses, paying attention to the indicator has the effect of increasing risk-aversion among some students.

In a way, though, the question of how–or whether–to grade students, should be accompanied by the more central question of how to engage students in meaningful and valuable learning, as I think Mr. Houck articulates in his reflections. What will help the students find their own reasons to want to squeeze every drop of value out of their school experiences? How best can their teachers help them do that? How can professors, schools and colleges design learning environments where that is at the top of the agenda?

How to make sure that PBL is applied well in schools

Helpful perspective from Mind/Shift at KQED by Thom Markham, PBL Global. This article responds to some current critiques of PBL, but focuses mostly on the way that educators’ perspectives need to change in order to implement PBL successfully. As he says, the point of PBL is not to sneakily manipulate students into learning that is focused on the standards, but to go far deeper into real learning that results in high levels of self-directed learning. This is not a long piece, but has a lot of good ideas.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) resources

Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach to teaching and learning that engages students in ways that traditional classrooms often don’t. One group that provides resources to help teachers create and implement PBL is the Buck Institute for Education. They have created a framework called “Gold-Standard” PBL, and many of the resources they offer are free on their website.

Also, Thom Markham is a PBL advocate, leadership coach, and prolific tweeter. His organization is PBL Global.

The CSTP Teacher Leadership Framework

I’ve been working with some mathematics educators recently on a grant proposal to develop teacher leadership in mathematics and found an organization that’s doing great work in teacher leadership, the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP). They’ve developed a set of tools to help implement and evaluate their Teacher Leadership Framework. If this project is funded, I hope we’ll be able to use this framework to help understand the teacher leadership development process.

I’d be interested to hear from others who are using this or other frameworks to develop or study teacher leadership.

Undergraduate engineering students research smart structures

This summer, undergraduate engineering students participated in a collaborative research experience, in an innovative collaboration between engineering companies, the University of South Carolina, and San Francisco State University. They were learning about smart structures technology (SST) that helps buildings withstand earthquakes and other natural events.

AWAKE Career Development PBL Workshop

Just spent a couple really good days with 45+ Career Development Facilitators and Career Development Specialists from public schools around South Carolina who were exploring ways to use project-based learning (PBL) in collaboration with teachers, to help kids learn about career possibilities! A really great group of folks making a difference in the lives of kids.

A PD workshop sponsored by the AWAKE Center of Excellence at the University of South Carolina.

Education is changing

New technologies and better understanding of the processes by which people learn are making it increasingly feasible to measure and assess a much wider range of learning outcomes, including higher order learning, critical thinking development, and so forth.  This in turn will enable much more effective evaluation of the quality of education, and will enable increasingly transparent communication of learning objectives and outcomes to educational stakeholders.

These trends will have a transformational effect on education over the next decade, necessitating responsive change at all levels, from national policy to institutional organization to individual teaching and learning interactions.

My goal is to positively influence these change processes through research and evaluation that focuses on improvement of student and organizational learning.