Part 6 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer
“Grades matter…but learning matters more.”
Do you ever feel like grades get in the way of learning? Wouldn’t it be great if, after getting an exam back, our students wanted to discuss the ideas it addressed instead of to arguing for another point? And I’m sure you have those students who you wish could be easier on themselves when they don’t get a perfect score. In this chapter on learner-centered evaluation methods could be summed up in a short statement: “Make your evaluation methods formative.” According to the author, this requires two things.
1. Lowering the stakes of assessments. This decreases anxiety, and alleviates the pressure to focus on grades instead of learning. By lowering the stakes, we are not lowering the importance; we are simply removing an obstacle to learning.
2. Redesigning our evaluation process to promote learning
Weimer doesn’t throw grades out the window. As a teacher, I’m still surprised by how both parents and students obsess about grades (and not about learning). I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of grades; I view them as a necessary evil. Weimer is more rationale. She does presents several pages of research detailing the problems that grades can create: performance mindset instead of mastery, reinforcing lower, rather than higher-order thinking skills, etc. However, she recognizes that grades can provide a legitimate motivation for learning, and more importantly, grades are what we use to certify mastery. So, we have a responsibility to create a grading process characterized by integrity. That means our assessments will promote learning instead of just getting the grade.
“The ability to accurately assess the quality of one’s own work, as well as that of others is a skill useful during college and in most professions subsequently.”
This chapter is a goldmine of ideas. You’ll find detailed descriptions of a variety of assessment methods for exams, review sessions, debriefs, self-assessments, and peer assessments. Because most of her work is with college students, her ideas can be scaled up for university students and tweaked for high school students. It’s a dense chapter, so I’ll share just two concepts that I found valuable as a teacher.
My Two Takeaways
1. Tricky Exam Questions?
I’ve been accused of creating tricky exam questions. When my students express their frustration, I say something like, “I’m trying to get you to do more than just spit back the right answer. I want you to think about it and apply it. I want you to be able to solve problems with what you have learned.” I’ve always seen this as a legitimate practice. I now see that I was wrong.
There’s nothing wrong with having those kinds of questions on my exams. What was wrong was that I was not giving my students a chance to practice problem solving and application. Most of what we did in class was about information transfer. In other words, if I want to test my students’ ability to apply the content, I have to do more than simply cover the content; my students need opportunities to practice applying it in class.
“They [learners] must learn how to recognize what’s good, what needs to be fixed, and how to make it better. And how are those skills best developed?”
2. The One Thing that Has Held Me Back as a Teacher
If I had to pinpoint one thing that has held me back as a teacher, it’s been this: the idea that I have to provide my students with a solid foundation of content they could do things like apply, evaluate, and solve problems. There is a modicum of truth in that. But how much content is enough? It’s like Rockefeller’s response to the question , “How much money is enough?” His response: “Just one more dollar.” For me, it’s been, “Just one more week of content.”
It’s taken me ten years to realize that very little content is needed before moving students into those higher levels of thinking.
But what does that have to do with assessment?
Most of the assessment examples that Weimer gives us in this chapter could be or need to be implemented early in the semester. The advantages of this become clear. When we give our students opportunities to evaluate their own work, and the work of others, we launch them into a new way of interacting with the content–right from the start. Like in the game Super Mario Brothers, there’s a warp zone tunnel that will take you straight from level one to level four. This doesn’t mean that our students will immediately do well at level four, but Weimer gives some practical strategies for helping students develop these skills.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t jazzed to read this particular chapter in the book, but I’m surprised by just how practical it turned out to be. I’ve tried peer and self-evaluations with some success and with some failure, and these pages helped me to identify why things worked when they worked and why they fell flat.
The Next Installment
Students don’t initially love the learner-centered approach simply because it’s different, it requires change and more from them. But students are not the only ones who question this model of teaching, faculty are often just as critical. In, the next installment of this book review of Learner-Centered Teaching we’ll look at how to hand student and faculty resistance.
Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon
Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon