Just Try-It Tuesday: Learning Vs: Points

Grading tends to be a controversial topic among educators, and has been for quite some time. A lot of the controversy involves whether or not formative assessments (homework, practice, daily grades) should be included into grades, and if so, how much should they count? Some argue that only summative evidence (assessments that occur at the end of a learning cycle) should be included in the overall grade.    I don’t intend to open the entire can of worms in this post; I do want to pry the edge of the can open and peak inside to see if there is some common ground to be found.


TRY IT OUT Tuesday!

This Week’s Challenge:  Think about your assessment and grading practices.  Ask yourself: “What seems to be more important to your students Earning Points or Learning the Content?”  My challenge this week is to make sure your instructional practices are centered around learning – not just compliance.


The Point-centered Classroom VS the Learning-Centered Classroom


In the red corner, we have the Point-Focused Classroom where students only do formative work to earn points or avoid consequences.  Compliance seems to be more important than learning in these classrooms.

Practices that lead to the “point-focused” classroom:

  • Putting a number grade on everything.Image result for red boxer
  • Leaving kids out of assessment process.
  • Unclear criteria for success.
  • Vague or lack of communication of learning targets.
  • Lack of prescriptive feedback.
  • Praising students for high scores rather than focusing on the learning behind the scores.
  • Using grades  or work as punishment.
  • Strict Late work policies
  • No Re-do’s

Conversations that may occur in or about a “Point-Focused Class:”

 1. Student:  “Why do I have to do this?  I already know how to do this!”

     Teacher:  “You need to practice anyways, If you don’t you will get a zero.”

       2.  Student: “Why do I have to do this? I can’t do it, and I am just going to fail anyways.

     Teacher:  “You need to practice anyways, If you don’t you will get a zero.”

3.  Student:”Why do I have to do this! I don’t even care about (insert subject here).”

     Teacher: “It’s on the test.”

4. Teacher: “Doing this assignment is worth X points.  It will impact your grade greatly if you choose not to do it.”

5. Parent:  “I noticed my son has an F in (insert subject here), What is he struggling with, so I can help out at home?”

    Teacher: “He failed his last test and does not complete the homework.”

6. Parent: “Your grade in (insert subject here) is slipping. What do you need help on?”

    Student: “I dunno, my teacher says I just need to study and turn in my work on time.”

7.  Student 1: “Hey can I copy your homework from today, I already know this stuff, but don’t feel like doing; it’s a waste of time for me.”

     Student 2: “Sure, I don’t care.  I just did it so Mr. Price will stop griping at me.”

8. Student: “I didn’t do well on the test friday, but I went back and reread the chapter and did some practice problems     on my own I found on the internet. I think I get it now. Can I take the test again, or do another assignment?”

    Teacher: “No, the “F” you earned is a natural consequence of your lack of preparedness.  This will teach you to be responsible.”

Image result for blue boxing gloveIn the blue corner, we have the Learning-Focused classroom where students understand the work they do will contribute to learning the content.

Practices that lead to a learning-focused classroom:

  • Sharing clear learning targets with students.
  • Sharing criteria for success with students.
  • Creating rubrics with students.
  • Using “Anchor papers” to show students what each level of rubric looks like.
  • Train students to use rubrics to self and peer evaluate.
  • Students track assessment data and identify their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Students, with help of a teacher, develops plan to address weaknesses.
  • Students receive prescriptive feedback on formative assessments.
  • Formative assessments are not graded, so students can focus on the prescriptive feedback, rather than an overall result.

Conversations that may occur in this type of classroom:

1. Student: “Why do I have to do this?  I already know how to do this?”

Teacher: “You need to know how to add fractions (Insert other knowledge/skill her) because, (insert reason that   involves real life application beyond a single test.)”

2. Student: “Why do I have to do this? I am just going to fail anyways.”

Teacher: “You aren’t doing this to pass or fail; you are doing this to practice and to find out what exact areas you may need extra help with that way  we can make sure that you do learn this concept.”

3.  Student:”Why do I have to do this! I don’t even care about (insert subject here).”

Teacher: “You aren’t doing this to pass or fail; you are doing this to practice and to find out what exact areas you may need extra help with that way  we can make sure that you do learn this concept.”

4. Teacher: “Completing today’s homework will help you understand (insert learning target here), if you feel you already have a grasp on the content you can come see me and show me evidence, then I will have an enrichment activity for you to do rather than the practice problems.”

5. Parent: “I noticed my son has an F in (insert subject here), What is he struggling with, so I can help out at home?”

Teacher: “Thanks for you concern! Your son is struggling with (insert specific learning target here), but seems to have a good understanding of (insert subject here). Here are some extra practice problems to do and a link to a video that explains the concept.  Once your son completes the practice and watches the video he can come in on his own time to be re-assessed on this target.”

6. Parent: “Your grade in (insert subject here) is slipping. What do you need help on?”

Student: “My tracking sheet says that I am struggling in (insert specific learning target here).”

Parent:  “You better ask your mom on that one; I forgot how to do that.”

7. Student 1: “Hey can I see your homework from last night, I forgot how to (insert specific learning target here).”

Student 2: “All you have to do is… (explains how to do problem).”

8. Student: “I didn’t do well on the test friday, but I went back and reread the chapter and did some practice problems     on my own I found on the internet. I think I get it now. Can I take the test again, or do another assignment?”

Teacher:  “Sure! I am glad you were responsible enough to re-learn the content on your own.  Your re-test will be more difficult than the original test. Since I don’t have time to create another test just for you, I will give you credit if you summarize what you know about this content in a 2 page report. Doing this will help me understand that you really do know your stuff, and help you remember being prepared the first time is easier than playing catch up.”


Results: Image result for winning a boxing match image

The winner is: Learning-Centered Classes!!! “The motivation for practicing and working hard should come from student’s having a clear understanding that it will contribute to learning.” – Ken O’Connor:  A Repair Kit for Grading (2011)

Fighters endure grueling workouts, exhaustive sparring sessions, and strict diets in order to prepare for a fight.  Elite athletes will tell you their motivation to put themselves through that type of work comes from a desire to get better.  When a fighter can connect the amount or type of training to success in an actual fight, you can be sure that he/she will 1: find value in the training itself and won’t need any tangible motivators and 2: will train with increased effort because the focus is on improvement.

Whatever your grading practices are, my intent is to find common ground that we should all be able to agree on.  Our classrooms ought be centered around learning VS. compliance.  Students who do work ONLY because of points or to avoid getting in trouble will not progress at the same rate as students who are training to get better. We can help students develop a “Growth Mindset,” by showing them that their efforts on formative assessments are directly connected to learning.

Students have been trained for a long time to do work in school for points or to avoid consequences.  We must re-train them to value learning over grades.  We can do this by letting assessment data speak for itself.  Improvement isn’t something that just happens. Students will eventually come to the realization that it is their efforts that determines the outcome, not their intelligence.


TRY IT OUT TuesdaybClosing Thoughts:


Think about your compliant students. Ask yourself: “Why are these students doing this work? Is it because they truly want to learn the content, or are they doing it to earn points?”  What actions have I done to motivate students to actually want to learn the content?.

Think about the students who often choose not to do the work. Ask yourself: “What is keeping these students from doing the work?  Is it because they want to avoid doing work in which they know they will fail? Are they in a hole so deep that earning points are meaningless to them? Have they had opportunities to connect their efforts with success? When discussing assessment results, do we focus too much on grades? Or do we emphasize the value of learning the content?

I would love to say that any of the suggestions will turn all of your unmotivated students into enthusiastic go-getters instantaneously.  Unfortunately,  I don’t think that is the case. For some, changing their mindset will be a slow process.  There are a lot of behaviors and habits to unlearn that are the result of spending year in points-centered classrooms.  What works for some students many not work for all.  If there is one certainty in education, it is that there are very few simple solutions. 

* Update: 2/25/16

In order to help clarify my main point, I wanted to add a recent experience to illustrate why I think Learning Centered classrooms are more effective than Point-Centered classrooms.

I coach a U12 soccer team and had practice last night- the first of the season.  We did several activities designed for the players to practice their ball control and passing and receiving the ball.  I made it a point to constantly remind the players what I was looking for exactly.  A few of the coaching points I made:

  • Firm passes – with just the right amount of speed.
  • Dribbling with the head up to see the field and passing options.
  • Receiving passes with a soft touch away from pressure.

We eventually progressed through some activities and began playing a small-sided game 4V4.  Now the players were trying to score goals like a normal soccer game.  Although they were playing the game, I still offered feedback while they were playing that dealt only with the coaching points above.  I let players know when they met the target and when they didn’t I coached over the game to give them feedback.

At one point in the game, a player (we will call him, “Johnny”) in-bounding the ball noticed that the defense was out of position, and instead of simply passing the ball to a nearby wide-open player, he attempted a difficult shot from all the way down the field and missed.  The following dialogue occurred after:

Johnny’s teammate: “Johnny! why’d you do that!”

Johnny: “I was trying to score, so we can win!”

Johnny’s teammate: “We aren’t doing this to win, we are working on passing!”

The point I am trying to make isn’t whether Johnny should of passed it or not. There are many reasons why he probably should of shot it.The point is Johnny’s teammate is clearly approaching the small-sided game differently than Johnny.

Johnny just wants to win. He isn’t necessarily thinking about his passing, or any other coaching points; he is going to do whatever he thinks will help him win. For him winning is more important than the actual improvement.

Johnny’s teammate on the other hand recognizes that the small sided game is an opportunity to practice and improve a specific skill.  Being mindful of this – will perhaps help him reflect on his own play, take more risks, and actively try to improve a skill.

Johnny is a great player, but I fear his focus on “winning” or “points” can distract him from deliberately trying to improve.

As coaches and teachers, we can shape our classrooms and train our students to focus on improvement during practice.  When we practice (formative  activities/assessments), it is okay to take risks, fail, and struggle.  In fact I would argue that those are essential to learning. It is when we actually play the game (or the summative test) that winning becomes the goal .



Just Try-It Tuesday: Clear Directions

TRY IT OUT Tuesday!

This is the second edition of Just Try-It Tuesday! This weeks tip is inspired by watching my son play soccer this weekend.  During the game a ball was rolling to a player, and the kid just kicked the ball back to the other team without really thinking about where the ball was going – a common occurrence in youth soccer.  I heard a coach shout “C’mon! make good passes!”

While that is good advice, I don’t necessarily think it was helpful.  Is that player going to suddenly take the time to self-reflect and teach himself the subtleties of a good pass?  Chances are if he knew those things he would have done so the first time.  A more helpful coach may try to wait for a break in the action and say something along these lines:

“Hey, next time that ball comes to you, and you have time. trap the ball, get your head up, and knock it to someone wearing the same color shirt as you are.”

Topic: Giving Clear Directions

Just Try-It Challenge: Ask Yourself, “How many times do I give directions that are too vague and require students to figure out what  I really mean?”

Sometimes we assume a lot of our students when we give directions.  For example, we may be preparing a short mini-lecture and begin with something like, “Everyone pay attention, we are going to talk about…”

Inevitably, a student, let’s call him John, keeps his head down as you begin and the following exchange occurs.

You: “John, I asked you to please pay attention.”

John: “I was listening! Gah!…” (in a Napoleon Dynamitesque voice).

These situations can escalate into meaningless power-struggles where John is trying to defend his innocence by trying to prove he was paying attention and the teacher is forced into the role of either trying to prove he wasn’t, addressing his poor attitude with a consequence, or ignoring the exchange altogether – none of which are ideal.

Getting into an argument to prove he wasn’t paying attention is a waste of precious learning time and petty.  Giving him a consequence is unfair, because he very well may have been listening and therefore – paying attention according to his own twisted teenage version of paying attention. Ignoring the issue altogether diminishes your authority in the class.

We could spend time talking about John’s attitude and how he should be more respectful, but I would rather take a more preemptive approach and avoid situations like this altogether by giving clear directions to begin with.

Clear directions are made of these components:

Specific: Think precise actions

Concrete: Think simple vs. abstract

Sequential: When skills are complex listing actions may be necessary

Observable: Directions should be observable, so that you can see compliance and therefore hold students accountable easier.

Example: “Okay class, I am going to talk to you for a little bit about…. When I am talking I need to see everyone’s head up, your notebooks are opened, and you have a pencil in your hand – just in case I say something life-changing…”

In the above example, if John’s head remains down, there is no argument to be had; he is clearly being defiant and has no leg to stand on.  There is no need to prove anything to John. Providing clear directions helps a teacher protect the learning environment by avoiding pointless power-struggles with students.

Clear directions also extend to academic expectations as well.  Consider the examples below:

Instead of: “Use good definitions on your handout”

Try: “I need your definitions to be in complete sentences and include the academic vocabulary we discussed.” (specific)

Instead of “Look for evidence in the article”

Try: “When you find evidence in the article, underline it” (observable)

Instead of: “Talk to a partner about this”

Try: “Make eye contact with someone seating next to you, take turns brainstorming ideas in writing, the partner with the longest hair goes first; you have 2 minutes. Go!” (sequential)

Instead of: “When you are writing just be creative!”

Try: “In your writing take some risks by using, action verbs, specific adjectives, figurative language, and the different syntax strategies we talked about.” (concrete)


When you get frustrated with students not meeting your expectations, reflect on the quality of your directions.  While good directions will never solve all of your problems, making sure your directions are specific, observable, sequential, and concrete will remove any guess work for your students.

TRY IT OUT Tuesdayb



Just Try-It Tuesdays!

Inspired by one of my esteemed colleagues Brett “BB” Bradley, who illuminated our staff about the devastating effects of what he dubbed as the “February Funk.”  He describes this annual phenomenon below:

 Its cold. Daylight is short. Spring Break is way off in the distance. Enrollment and parent conferences are lurking.  The weather and barometric pressure changes weekly. Your New Years diet is making you temperamental or you’re upset that you already stopped your new years diet. The pressure of testing is building. All of these contributing factors are the perfect breeding ground for February Funk.  It creeps in slowly without you even knowing.  Kind of like when you eat at an onion burger joint and everyone around you knows you just ate at an onion burger joint but you don’t smell anything.

While I admit, I cannot prevent the funk from making it’s way to our school, but maybe… just maybe… I can help mitigate the effects by sharing instructional practices and other reflections on a weekly basis in a segment I will call:


TRY IT OUT Tuesday!

My plan is to provide quick and easy-to-implement strategies or reflection questions each Tuesday.  I didn’t choose Tuesday for the alliterative value alone; I chose Tuesday because it is early enough in the week to consider actually implementing some of these strategies.

Each week I will post a general topic and a Just Try-It challenge for the week.  These challenges won’t be the answer to all of your woes – but some of them may work.  I would love to hear if anyone implements any of these strategies or has any other insights regarding the weekly challenge.

This Weeks Challenge


Topic: Questioning

Just Try-It Challenge:  During whole class questioning ask yourself “Are ALL of my students thinking about the answer to every question I ask?” If the answer is no, then change something you are doing.

Chances are you will be asking questions to your students during whole class instruction at some point this week.  A lot of time we get into the habit of allowing ONLY volunteers to answer questions.  It sounds like this:

“Who can tell me…”

“Does anybody know…”

“Who remembers…”

We often do this because of the time and pressure we are under to simple get through the content.  This type of questioning isn’t always bad, BUT we must keep in mind that by allowing only volunteers to answer we are also allowing a large majority of the class to not think about the answers to these questions.  I am not just talking about defiant students who shamelessly put their head down or ear buds in during lecture (although they are certainly part of this majority). I am talking about those students who are very skilled at hiding in plain site. The compliant, yet un-engaged student, who makes eye contact and occasionally nods in agreement while you discuss the content, but perform poorly on assignments.


How do I get all of my students to think about the answer to every question?


1. Cold Call students.  Ask the question –> Pause (wait time) –> Say  students a name

  • Saving the name until the end of the sequence gives ALL students time to think about the answer before they know who has been called on.
  • Cold Calling students sends the message that at any given time every student may be held accountable.

2. Have students commit answers to writing.

  • This technique works best for Open Questions (questions with infinite number of answers) and Opinion Questions (questions that don’t have right/wrong answers).
  •  When students have their answers written in front of them, it is easier to Cold Call them, because they already have something to share.
  • Having students write answers helps to guarantee that they have, at the very least, thought about the question.

3. Chaining Questions: Asking questions of a student and after that student answers asking the same question or a related question of another student.

“What is the first step I need to do to solve this problem?  John?”

John answers.Liam Neeson Taken Meme | IN MY CLASS, YOU CANNOT HIDE. I WILL FIND YOU, AND I WILL ASK YOU QUESTIONS. | image tagged in memes,liam neeson taken | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

“Why do I need to do that? Jane?”

Jane answers.

“Can you tell me another way to do this? Joe?”

Joe answers.

  • Mixing Cold Call with Chaining Questions makes for lively pace which helps keep kids engaged.
  • Chain Questioning enables teachers to scaffold questions from simple to complex and push more thinking onto the students rather than doing all of the explaining.


I am sure there are many other ways for you to help ensure that ALL students are thinking about the answers to ALL the questions you ask.  If you have something that works for you please let me know in the comments section.



TRY IT OUT Tuesdayb