Sometimes you can change everything by changing nothing

So I thought long and hard about what I could possibly contribute to an assessment carnival, and amongst all my opinions decided maybe I should contribute something concrete for once.  So, what I have to offer is one simple thing you can do if you love all the things you hear, but don’t have time to implement anything in a way you’d be comfortable with.  This is the one thing you can do tomorrow, with a virtually no change to your prep or instruction that will start to change the way your students think.  Or you can add it on to whatever innovative things you’re already trying and it won’t throw a wrench in your plans or require you to change anything.

Stop marking exams. Even better, stop marking everything.  I’m serious.  The only thing I have marked in the last 2.5 years is a few major projects and final exams.  The projects were likely poor planning on my part, and if I could stop marking finals I would.

Why?  Research tells us that even the best descriptive feedback  is ignored if it appears beside a mark.  The vast majority of students just don’t take the time to look into why that number is there, unless they are unhappy with their mark.  Even then, you’re not guaranteed they will look at your feedback carefully, they will likely skim the assignment/test and file it away.

How?  Make your students mark them of course!  This changes virtually nothing you do.  I still correct everything – typically this means circling the first error – but I assign no points.  When the students are given back their tests, it’s their job to mark and correct them.  I’ve always used a 3 point holistic method of grading for 95% of my exam questions (instead of trying to assign points per step) and I have the students do the same.  This forces the students to look and assess each question.  It encourages great conversation in the classroom as I am extremely unhelpful to them as they are trying to decide if they have earned a 2 or a 2.5.  After the students have marked and corrected their exams, I do look over them to see if we are on the same page.  This is the only added work for you, but I can check a class of 35 in an hour so the extra work is minimal.  Typically students are far harder on themselves than I am for their first few exams until they really get a hang of the marking system.

You can stop there.  You’ve just injected some meaning into those points that your students love to collect.  They have to tie them to what the expectations are and understand how they’ve performed compared to those expectations.  If you’d like to take it up yet another notch, after marking and correcting their exam, have your students fill out a reflection sheet that relates every question back to a concept or skill you were targeting.  This will give them a real visual as to where their strengths are and what they need to keep working on.  If you include a space for them to analyze what kind of mistakes they are making, it can also give them insights in how to adjust their studying or writing strategies.

So, don’t mark your next exam.  Let your students surprise you with the thoughtfulness of their discussions and their desire to understand just where those magical points come from.

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6 thoughts on “Sometimes you can change everything by changing nothing

  1. Pingback: TEACHING|chemistry
  2. Re: Bryan’s question. Could you give me a fuller sense of how you grade with your 3-point holistic scale? As someone used to assigning points per step/difficulty of each step, I am having a hard time understanding how you would grade a problem incorrectly solved such as

    3x+5 = 10
    3x = 15
    x = 12

    Would it be a point off for the subtraction error and 1 point off for the conceptional misunderstanding of “subtracting” 3 from 3x? I’m intrigued by your idea but just having a hard time understanding how you ensure consistency with your approach and are able to justify the grading to parents if their child graded themselves too harshly.

    1. Sorry these got lost on my radar for a bit…

      Paul I would give that question a 1. My scale looks (roughly) like this
      0 – no clue what so ever (typically a blank question or something made up)
      1 – an attempt at solving the question that is at least related to how you could solve the question
      2 – shows understanding of the concept but has made a large computational error
      3 – correct solution

      I will also give out 2.5s for careless errors.

  3. Thanks much for the clarification! You’ve given me much food for thought in reevaluating my own grading practices, which is a good thing.

  4. Thanks for the clarification. I like your approach a great deal and will give some further thought as to whether to try it out in the fall.

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