Differing Interpretations

Last week a colleague brought a concern to our department meeting.  Exactly one week before final exams, a student had approached him with a drop form.  Perplexed that the student would even be able to obtain a drop form a such a late date, the colleague inquired as to our school policy regarding dropping classes.  The answer he received – “because of AFL we allow drops at any time now” – has left me scratching my head.

Assessment for Learning, at heart (in my opinion), is about providing students with as many possibilities for meaningful feedback as possible so they can improve, be more successful, and ultimately learn more.  Does allowing students to drop a course at any point in the semester accomplish this goal?

As a department we discussed how such a conclusion could be extrapolated from AFL principles.  AFL encourages teachers to provide opportunities for multiple feedback loops; these can be in the form of teacher assessment, peer assessment or self-assessment.  In order to provide an opportunity to improve, an important piece of AFL is that after receiving feedback it is crucial that the student is able to use the feedback to improve.  This can be in the form of continuing to work on a piece of work, re-doing an assignment, having the chance to complete a different assignment with similar criteria, re-writing an exam, etc.  A continuation of this idea is that if we are continually offering students a chance to improve, we should honour the improvement process and place significantly more value on their most recent work.  This may mean ignoring early marks or using the mean instead of the average.  In short, we are called upon as professionals to reflect what our students are able to attain in a consistent fashion.  We acknowledge that often learning requires making mistakes and students shouldn’t be punished for learning.

To reflect these values, the Ministry of Education has recently decided that student transcripts will no longer show all marks ever received in a course, they will simply reflect the best mark.  If a student chooses to re-take a course to improve, they will remove the original mark from the student’s transcript.  This makes sense to me.  If a student is dedicated enough to take a course twice, why hold the original mark above their heads?

This is where I can see the connection between allowing students to drop a course at any point during the semester and AFL.  If the mark will be replaced by a better mark in the long run, why put a poor mark on the transcript anyway, right?  This just doesn’t sit right with me however.  Taking a class to completion a second time requires a great deal of perseverance and effort.  The student needs to make a personal change somewhere along the way to see improved results.  They are using some kind of feedback to adjust what they are doing and improve.  What does allowing a student to drop teach?  To me it feels very much like encouraging students not to try things that might be difficult and that they might fail at the first time.

I am in conflict, however, with research in the effects of failing students.  Time and time again, it is shown that the most detrimental thing we can do to our students is fail them.  While it’s often concluded then that this research then advocates for “pushing students through,” I simply feel that this means providing more (and maybe different) opportunities for students to see success.  To encourage perseverance, not to let students off the hook.  Is there a solution where we can continue to give students opportunities, without failing them, but which respects the integrity of our courses and doesn’t toy with the idea of “pushing students through?”

It feels very much that the idea of encouraging and valuing learning has been twisted here to temporarily bandage a very complex issue.  What is the right thing to do with students who are not able to see success within the imposed timeframe of a school semester?  Neither of the current solutions – fail them or let them drop – seem like good ones, but our current structure doesn’t seem to present a different option that would be palatable to the masses.

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