Monday, 4 April 2016

To grade or not to grade??

Over the past few months I have been involved in graded (and ungraded) lesson observations.  For 45 minutes to an hour, I sit in a classroom and watch the teaching and learning that is taking place.  I have a form to complete which prompts me to look at various things such as classroom management, evidence that learning is taking place, assessment tracking, lesson planning and so on.

What I've noticed though is how staff behave at the end of the observation, when the lecturer and I start the feedback session. I always start by asking the lecturer 'What do you think went well?' and 'What didn't go so well?'  More often than not, this is followed by a somewhat garbled response - understandable - the lecturer is relieved that the observation is over and is anxious to hear my views, not dissect the lesson themselves.

But what really happens is this:  if I grade the lesson as 'Excellent' (a grade 1), then the lecturer thinks 'Yippee - I did it, I am an excellent teacher, and you can now say anything you like because it doesn't matter because I'm already excellent';  if I grade the lesson as 'Adequate' (grade 3) - or worse, 'Unsatisfactory' (grade 4), the lecturer doesn't hear anything I say beyond that, what they have heard is 'despite your best efforts, and the sleepless nights you have had in the run up to this observation, you are still only adequate at this job, mediocre at best.  They are now thinking, 'what is the point, I've worked this hard to just be adequate'.  They do no hear my advice or suggestions for improvements, they do not listen to the good elements that I highlight, they hear instead a barrage of 'adequate', 'reasonable', 'satisfactory', words that are damning by their mediocrity.

I once discussed a grade with a lecturer who I felt had missed a number of opportunities to stretch and challenge the students.  The lesson was - dare I say it - 'adequate': learners were achieving at a level that was expected of them, but they weren't going the extra mile.  At the end of the observation I sat with the lecturer and told him I was not sure whether I was going to give him a 'good' or an 'adequate'.  He told me that he would hand in his notice the next day if I gave him the lower grade.  He asked me how he could face his colleagues with an 'adequate'.  We chatted for a long time that day, and I gave him his 'good' in the end, because I could not see any benefit to him or his students if he left, and because it was a borderline decision anyway.  I discussed with him the shortcomings of the session, and I highlighted his strengths too.  Did giving this lecturer a grade encourage him to do better?  Did it make him think deeply about the way he taught the lesson?  I very much doubt it.  Without the grade at all, he might just have listened to my observations and feedback and reviewed how he was engaging with those learners.

The same is true for students.  I've observed students scroll through a marked, annotated assignment right to the end to find their grade.  If they've done well, they turn to their friends with a whoop and then ask them what they got.  If the student did badly, they scowl and move on.  It is very rare that I see a student sit and digest all the comments and feedback I have given them on an assignment, and then use this information to improve their next piece of work.

I once tried an experiment.  Initially I gave the learners their written feedback as usual for an assignment.  When we started the next assignment some weeks later, I asked them to review the feedback they had from the first assignment and then told them to write a point or two about how they would respond to this feedback in their second assignment.  I got them to write this point as the first line of their next assignment.  It was met with some confusion ('why are we doing this?') and some suspicion ('what is she getting at?'), but it at least got some of the learners to consider how they might improve on their previous grades.  This is something I think is worth adopting as regular practice, and it would certainly be interesting to research the outcomes of such activities to see if it has a positive impact on grades.

One thing I can say is that I really enjoy giving lecturers feedback on their lessons.  I find that the experiences I have had throughout my teaching career give me a good insight into what is effective and which tools might enhance a lesson, and I am very enthusiastic about sharing these ideas with staff.  I really don't like giving lecturers a grade.  Some colleges are already moving away from graded observations and discussions I've had with these colleagues suggest that after an initial period of uncertainty from staff, the consensus is that these observations are more effective in that staff get more out of the process than just receiving a judgement.  Perhaps there might be room for both?

Useful Reading

There are some excellent insights into Feedback and Assessment (mainly from a student / teacher perspective rather than lesson observations) on the UKEdChat pages, and a very good research article by Ruth Butler (rather old now from 1988) called Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation: The Effects of Task Involving and Ego Involving Evaluation on Interest and Performance.  Finally there is an excellent piece of research by John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007) entitled 'The Power of Feedback' which is well worth a read.

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