What do you think parents should/want to know regarding their child’s learning behaviors?

The question is, do parents care about a child’s learning behaviors or are they more concerned with “the grade”? After all, it’s not like colleges ask for an assessment on work ethic, honesty, and collaborative skills, etc.  Grades and test scores are primarily what get kids into universities.  So are grades more important than behavior? Or are learning behaviors just as important as grades?  This is a follow up to blogs posted March 28-30.

Speaking out in in a faculty meeting, a colleague challenged the group, “If we don’t emphasize learning behaviors then why are we here?  Otherwise the students can just sign up for Kahn Academy.  They don’t need school then”.  She has a point, right?  Part of our role as teachers is, indeed, to teach and foster good learning behaviors such as academic honesty, meeting deadlines, submitting work that not only demonstrates understanding but is neat and without technical errors, collaboration, working independently, and staying on task.  Simultaneous to fulfilling this role, we definitely need to teach skills and content, for example, in my case, the ability to carry out an investigation properly employing the scientific method and a knowledge of botany, genetics, human physiology, and ecology, to name a few. 

Ultimately, I personally believe that learning behaviors do count.  They are important. They might be indicative of the kind of university student the child will become and, if the behaviors remain consistent, they might hint at what type of employee this student might evolve into someday.  If learning behaviors are important, shouldn’t we be reporting on them to parents? Or should we only report on the achievement attained? 

If you think that behaviors should be reported on, then how do we report on it? 

I recall that when I took my babies to the doctor for growth check-ups and vaccinations, the doctor measured the head circumference, height, and weight of the child.  Additionally, assessments on reflexes and motor development were performed.  Questions were posed about cognitive advances.  We discussed all of these developmental elements separately.  It’s not like the doctor gave me one number to indicate my child’s physical maturation and mental progress.

Similarly, it makes sense to me that teachers should assess and report on learning behaviors and accomplishments of students separately.  When we include behavior in the grade (such as turning in assignments on time, neatness, collaborating, staying focused in class), we end up knowing nothing about either the learning behaviors or the actual achievements of the student.  For example, in the accompanying picture, the student submitted a beautiful piece of work.  The student additionally demonstrated focus and working well independently.  However, the proper content was completely missing from the poster, indicating that the standards of achievement had not been met.  Shouldn't there be a grade for the appearance of the poster and a separate grade for mastery of the expected content?  If the grade was an average of the student's behavior (neatness, working independently, being focused) AND the content, then the parents would not know that their child was not understanding the content.  Either including behavior in a grade artificially inflates or deflates the reporting of what the students actually knows.  I’m quite confident that in classrooms where behavior is averaged into the grade, the goodie-two-shoes have inflated grades while the rambunctious, energetic students have deflated grades.  Is that a fair indication of what these students have actually achieved? Does anyone care?

I had a discussion with a parent about this the other day and she replied,  “You see my kids benefit from grade inflation due to their good behavior so I don’t mind it.”  In the end, is it really “the grade” that solely matters to parents?  Do they have any interest in what their child understands and can do? 

Just this week I received emails from a set of parents in which they expressed concern about their child’s performance in classes.  However, the communications centered on the student’s learning behaviors.  One of the parents actually wrote the following, “One of my concerns is that John spends time doing his homework, but I’m not sure of the quality of the time spent.  To me this is all part of maturing as a student, and I’m not sure where John is on that journey yet…Please trust us when we say, that we do and will continue to hold John accountable for doing his work and developing the skills required for him to be successful as a student”.  PEFECT PARENT EMAIL.  I know these parents aren’t solely focused on the “grade”.  They really care about their child’s progress both in terms of mastering content and in terms of learning behavior.  Are there more of you out there?

How do you feel about assessing and reporting on learning behaviors separately from mastery of skills and content?




No grades, Comments only, please.

All of them bent their heads intently over their papers.  They were furiously writing and responding to the colored marks on the pages – and I hadn’t even asked them to!  I almost didn’t know how to proceed, as I hadn’t expected this reception.  So I just waited and observed their productivity.  One student asks, “What do you mean by this comment?”  I explain and then he replies, “Oh! I get it!” and proceeds to write.  Another girl seeks clarification in understanding.  Another ponders a deeper response to one of the questions she had already written on.

What is going on?  Students are responding to comments-only feedback I had written on their lab write-ups.

In the Dylan Wiliam conference I attended a month ago, we were advised that feedback should “move learning on” and should “put learning in the hands of the learner”.  We were told that this type of feedback is best in the form of comment-only marking.  Dylan further shared with us a somewhat controlled study in which the same teachers working in several different classrooms in several different schools administered assessments with three different kinds of feedback: 1) Comments only, 2) Grades only, 3) Comments + grades.  Only the students receiving comments-only feedback demonstrated improvement in achievement.

So, I decided to try it.

Last week my students had completed a series of reflective questions on a global warming lab activity we had carried out in class.  I wrote only comments on the reports with no grade indicated anywhere.  I must admit, it took some restraint to not tally the incorrect answers and put some kind of total on their papers.  Today I handed the students their lab papers and asked them to look through the comments to make sure they understood what I had written.  I was so surprised by the immediate reaction that ensued as they began pouring over their papers and my comments.  I was even more amazed when they picked up their pencils and began replying to the comments, without even being told to do so!  I think I stood there rather stunned for a few seconds as I processed what was happening. Then I thought, “Dylan Wiliam was right” and here is the evidence, the comments-only feedback put the learning in the hands of the learner and it moved learning on.  Oh, and not one student asked what the grade was.  

So, does this mean I’m on a track of developing a “no grades” policy?  Umm, No.  However, I do see myself using comments-only feedback in the beginning of a unit when students are developing understanding and then giving grades on assessments that are given later in the unit when mastery of the content and skills is expected.



What about those zeros in the grade book?

As we know, it is quite common for a teacher to issue a zero for missing, neglected, or late work.  However, does the zero actually reflect what the student has learned or can do? 

Furthermore, when we consider the practice of averaging scores, is it mathematically accurate to include the zero?  The weight of a zero is so much more powerful than anything above 60 resulting in the near impossibility for a student to compensate for that zero by receiving high marks on subsequent assignments.  A zero unfairly skews the average.  Imagine a weatherman is recording daily high temperatures in order to calculate the average high temperature for the week but he misses the reading for Wednesday.  Would he just put in a zero for that day?  So why do teachers think it is OK to include zeros for missing assignments when averaging scores?

It seems zeros are then assigned in order to punish students for missing, neglected or late work.  If grades are used as a punishment then how can they be an accurate communication of achievement?  Is the punishment supposed to motivate students to reform?  I don’t think anyone anywhere can find evidence that demonstrates that zeros and low grades encourage students to complete work.  Grading gurus such as Ken O’Conner and Thomas Guskey would argue that assigning zeros actually lowers motivation and inhibits student learning (O'Conner) (Guskey).  So why do we do it?

I am a firm believer that if a student has not completed the work, then an “Incomplete” should be awarded until the work is complete.  If I don’t have enough evidence to properly assess a student’s achievement levels, then I will record an “I”.

For late work we need to find other consequences.  I’m still trying to find the perfect solution for this.  We have been trying to find a satisfying, fair, manageable, and consistent manner to distribute consequences for late work.  We tried a lunch homework detention but that was ineffective due to time constraints.  In one of my classes the fear of being assigned to scrub the lab floors and lab benches has kept late work at a near zero.   This segues into a discussion on motivation, doesn’t it?

For now, however, I’d like us to reconsider the practice of incorporating zeros into averages.  Do we really think it is a fair and accurate practice for reporting on student learning and achievement?  I, personally, do not.


Connor, Ken. How to grade for learning, K-12. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin, 2009. Print.

Guskey, Thomas R.. Practical solutions for serious problems in standards-based grading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2009. Print.



A "B" or a "C" for a student with missing work?

What do you think?  Give a “B” or a “C” to a student with missing work?

A student has scored “B” average on all assessments; however, the student has several missing homework assignments.  The student was given all sorts of warnings and opportunities to make up the missing work.   If the teacher places a “0” for each missing assignment the student’s average becomes a “C” even though the student has demonstrated a “B” achievement level.  Should the student receive a “B” or a “C”?

My colleague came to me with her conundrum.  We looked at PowerSchool together.  There was clearly enough evidence, even with the missing assignments to determine that the student had, indeed, achieved the “B”.   However, what to do with those missing assignments?  The teacher really wanted to communicate to the student the importance of the work and the need to put forth effort but she didn’t want it to be in the form of a punishment of lowering the overall grade.  She also had the official effort assessment to record.  This information accompanies the grade in all subject areas where a “1” reflects high effort and a “5” achieves little or no effort (see descriptors below).  Personally, I think the effort category should be the reflector of the effort in the classroom while the grade ought to be an indicator of achievement and I supported this teacher’s desire to ensure her grades were an accurate communication of performance.

In the end she decided to remove the “0”s from the averaging and award a “4” for an effort grade.  This morning she entered my classroom gleaming and absolutely elated about some outcome.  She proceeded to describe how the student had approached her about the “4” in her effort grade.  They read the descriptors together and then had a real conversation about the missing work and learning behaviors.  My colleague said it was the first time that she really connected with this student and the student completely agreed with the “4” level awarded for effort.  Furthermore, at the end of the conversation the student expressed that her goal for this quarter was to work at a “2” all the time.   “I feel so good” my colleague shared.  Truly, she was glowing. 

I asked her if I could blog about this experience and she replied, “Yes, you can blog about it! I love being a teacher!”

In my opinion, my colleague is completely fair and accurate in her grading.  The grades are not a punishment nor are they a reward – they simply reflect accomplishment.   Thus, they are not a point of discussion or contention.  The needed conversation ended up being about how the student can improve her learning behaviors and thereby become a better learner.  Really, given the situation, can it get any better than that?  No wonder my colleague felt “so good” and her love for teaching was affirmed.

In my opinion, standards based grading is the way to go.  Period.


Current Effort Grade Descriptors (though I think these need a work over themselves----I’ll save that for another blog post)

1 -- Sets challenging goals and sustains a strong commitment to them.  Consistently attempts the highest possible personal standard of work. Consistently meets or exceeds classroom expectations. (On time, prepared, and focused).

2 -- Often demonstrates attempts to do his/her best work.  Often meets classroom expectations (On time, prepared, and focused).

3 -- Works to ability, but is satisfied with meeting minimal work requirements.  Usually meets classroom expectations (On time, prepared, and focused).

4 -- Consistently does not work to ability.  Often fails to meet classroom expectations (Student fails to be on time, prepared, and/focused).

5 -- Fails to work to ability level.  Makes excuses for lack of effort.  Little or no effort to meet classroom expectations (Student fails to be on time, prepared, and/or focused).

Second Update on our journey towards SBG

Our goal was to let the staff see for themselves that a change in our reporting system was necessary.  We were hoping that they would approve a move by our focus group to rewrite the report cards.  We handed out copies of several report cards from the school.  Teachers eagerly poured over the documents in groups of two or three.  I heard exclamations such as, “I had no idea they were all so different”, “I’ve never seen these before”, “There is no consistency”, “Even the descriptors are different!”  And on it went.  Every group could be heard reaching a consensus that a change needed to be made.

So, we took a vote.  Fortunately the staff voted unanimously in favor of reworking the report cards.  It felt like a small victory. 

Now, we will create a uniform reporting system that appears visually similar in both elementary and secondary school.  The most exciting thing for me, however, is that it gives us an opportunity to separate the learning behaviors from academic achievement.  I cannot wait to see a draft of that in print!  It finally feels like we are on our way to standards based grading, even though I know the journey is a long one.