The more I listen to teachers, the more I hear about this same problem over and over again: the obsession with grades. Both students and parents, it seems, are guilty of idolatry when it comes to grades. The end of the Fall semester brought with it the semi-annual begging and pleading to have mathematical scales tipped, debating over grading authenticity, or wishing for a visit from the Extra Credit Fairy. (The use of online grade reporting doesn't help; publish gradebooks on the web and suddenly everyone is a math whiz.) The grade rules all--so much so that the students pay attention to little else.
Posit: Students are able to log on to the Internet and see the teachers' gradebooks in real time.
Consequence: Students will monitor, scrutinize, and calculate exactly what is needed for a desired grade; or they will use the data as evidence when challenging a grade.
Result: Students will focus as much or more on the calculation of their grades than on the actual learning in class.
Conclusion: The students' focus must be shifted away from grades if effective learning is to take place.
Of course, to shift the focus back to the learning and away from the grades we need to re-examine our entire approach to grading. After careful consideration, I've decided upon the best place to look for a decent model:
Canada. Vancouver, to be specific. And I don't mean their schools.
Consider Olympic athletes: they train for [at least] four years for three weeks of competition. There may be some minor competitions along the way, but nothing that has any impact on the actual Olympic games--that comes much later. Everything during that training period is geared toward one goal: to make excellence automatic, so that it can be done perfectly during the actual games. It's all about training, it's a discipline meant to bring about excellence, and it's not judged in its final form until the three weeks of competition. The Olympic athlete focuses on the training and the sport the entire time. They don't settle for something that is "good enough," they work to be the best. As educators, we need to find a way to infuse that ethic--to train, to focus on the learning, not the grade--of striving for excellence.
Here's what I propose as an "Olympic" model for curriculum planning: make the final exam worth 90% of the final semester grade*, then schedule everything as "training" [preparation] for the "games" [final exam]. Granted, it does require quite a lot of backward planning; in fact, it may not be a bad idea to let students know at the outset what they will be asked to do and required to achieve during the final exam. Feedback will need to be genuine, but it should only be feedback as it pertains to the final exam requirements, just as all Olympic training pertains to performance at the games. There may be some minor grading along the way, but nothing that would be worth trying to calculate, scrutinize, or manipulate. By taking everything else away, all the students can possibly focus on is the learning.
When I shared this idea with my wife, she remarked that it seemed unreasonable to judge the whole of a semester's worth of preparation on a two-hour final exam (people do crash, endo, melt down, or otherwise have a bad day). My reply is this: it takes three weeks and numerous rounds to determine an Olympic athlete's rank in the games; why should this curriculum model be any different? The final exams relative to this kind of approach should last about the same, in my opinion: a battery of tests and exercises which, if the student has trained properly, should not be difficult. If anything, this method would be more equitable than the Olympic games, since there really is no limit on the number of gold, silver, and bronze medals available.**
It's an idea, at any rate, and admittedly it's not without its complications: the parameters for the final exam would need to be worked out well in advance, and the planning would need to be exhaustive. Parents would lose their minds, having nothing to keep score with as the semester progressed. How this would impact colleges (other than admitting hyper-prepared students) is anyone's guess.
Since the transcript grades--the ones reported at the end of each semester--are the ones the students (and parents, and colleges) care about most, let all/most of the actual grading occur there; until then, remove all other distractions and focus on training. Without grades to worry about, they may actually learn something.
* . . . or 95% or 100%, I don't care. The point is to make mid-semester grade calculation either impossible or meaningless, so that the focus can't be anywhere but the learning.
** I know, I know. It sounds a lot like the framework for an AP class: all the assignments and exercises designed to prepare for one big test at the end. Ironically, it's the Honors and AP students who are most guilty of scoremongering and ignoring the learning.