Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Grading Systems vs. Feedback Systems vs. Incentive Systems

I know that I'm teetering very close to over-saturating the internet with talk of grading and feedback, and I promise that I'll take a step back, but first I want to share a challenge I received on my last post.
Honestly, it's been hard for me to discern what you're trying to write about and what it is you'd like to discuss - SBG as an educational movement? The tension between SBG and grades? Calling on SBG advocates to defend their system so you can understand it/tear it down?
That's mathymcmatherson pushing me to be clearer about my argument. In response, here's a brief summary of where I stand, without much in the way of justification.

  • Your feedback system should not be your grading system. SBG is certainly a grading system, but many teachers think of SBG as also providing important feedback to their students. This is not a good idea. 
  • Your grading system should not be used to motivate kids. Grades -- and really all extrinsic rewards like badges, points, declarations of incompetence or mastery -- should not be used to motivate your students to learn math, because you want kids to have their own motivations to do good things, and cheap rewards are known to backfire. Yet many teachers use SBG to motivate learning.
  • We know what good feedback looks like, and it's very good for learning. Good feedback helps learning by giving kids a chance to reflect and reengage with problem-solving, conversation, and all that good stuff. The Shell Center recommends questions as a particularly effective form of feedback. This is miles away from getting a "novice" on "Solving Linear Equations" or what have you.
  • None of this is a reason not to use SBG. My real problem is with the way people think about feedback and incentives. I think that the way people talk about SBG reveals some problematic views on feedback and motivation, but none of this is an argument against using SBG. Use SBG if it helps, but your book-keeping isn't good feedback and you should expect any changes in motivation to come with some troubling side-effects.
I have other things that I believe, but these are the crucial bits.


  1. It's time for bed, but I wanted to drop a comment in and (hopefully) pick up the conversation tomorrow. I'm coming from a very undecided place right now, but here's my followup question on your first bullet:

    "Your feedback system should not be your grading system." Agreed. That would be a totally deficient feedback system.

    "...many teachers think of SBG as also providing important feedback to their students. This is not a good idea." The way things run in my classroom, students invariably get some of their feedback through SBG assessment results. My key word here is "some," and it's a balance I hope to shift further toward something the Shell Center would approve. I wonder if there is more meaning packed into your use of "important" than I sense at the moment. I consider the feedback my students receive in this manner to be helpful and useful and therefore important, though by no means do I consider that feedback to be the "most" important, or all that students need or should expect from a dedicated teacher.

    Okay, that's all for now. Thoughts?

    1. I think that it's unlikely that our students are getting much out of the SBG feedback. First, because SBG feedback is clearly tied to a judgment of the students ability. We know that when kids perceive their abilities as being judged even the best comments lose their ability to help learning. Judgments of ability ruin feedback. (This is also why grades ruin feedback.)

      Second, I don't think the feedback itself given in SBG is helpful to kids. What's the path from "You're a beginner at solving linear equations" to actually learning to solve a linear equation? Some say that kids will go home and study linear equations more if you tell them they're bad at them, which doesn't fit with what I know about high school students. But maybe your kids are different than mine.

      So, does SBG provide "important" feedback? I'm suspicious that the feedback given in SBG does very much good at all. But maybe we like it anyway, because it gives more feedback than traditional grading? (I'm suspicious, see above.)

      Fine. But let's not pretend that this is the gold standard in feedback, and let's make sure that we're working our tails off to give kids the best feedback possible. After all, we know that great feedback helps learning. Do we know that better grading helps learning?

    2. I completely agree.. I think that SBG probably does more for teachers than students over the long run. In my experience, at least, it has said much more about my practices and pacing as a teacher. When there are across the board issues with the grades on a particular topic/standard/etc, it provides feedback for you as the teacher to slow down because there is clearly a gap there. For the students, I'm not sure what it provides outside of a context where they can view their grades as dynamic on a much more regular basis than just a unit test every X amount of weeks. It certainly isn't perfect, but I think it has made me a better teacher in some ways.

      I'm still new at this though, I might fall in love or begin to despise it as next year progresses.

  2. Michael, I wrote a reply. It was long. And (I hope) somewhat thoughtful. The Internet ate my reply. So I'll write something long-ish sometime soon. Possibly even as a post on my own blog.

    But before I rehash what I wrote this morning... I'm wondering if you have a single sentence definition of WHAT feedback is and another single sentence description of what feedback is FOR. If you've already written one or both, please forgive me and send me a link. Otherwise, I'd love to know, in your mind:

    1. What is feedback?
    2. What is the purpose of feedback?


    P.S. I activated the "super copy past clipboard action" on Alfred, and will never lose a comment due to a defiant WiFi connection again. :)

    1. Definitions are very, very hard. I'm sure I'll get this wrong, but I also want to be succinct.

      (1) Feedback is information about how you're doing in what you're trying to do.
      (2) Feedback is for improving what you're trying to do.

      I don't have a lot at stake in (1). Something as big as "feedback" is going to be hard to nail down. this piece by Grant Wiggins makes some distinctions that I find helpful, e.g. between feedback ("here's what happened..."), evaluation ("you aren't doing this right because..."), and advice ("here's what you should've done...")

      I'm going to get sort of annoying when we talk about (2), though. Of course, you could have other uses for feedback if you want, but I think that learning is what we should care about.

      And I'm going to wave around (2) a lot. For instance, if you think that SBG is providing better feedback for kids, I'm going to push you a bit to tell me how it's helping kids improve. Basically, what's the learning theory?

      One's last note on (1). Questions are a very effective form of feedback. But if feedback is information, then how is a question feedback? Umm, so maybe that definition isn't great. Or maybe a question isn't feedback, and it's just some other helpful way to respond to a student's thinking? Or maybe a question is an artful way of sharing information with a student, so a question is really just information? This gets knotty.

  3. You ask: "What's the path from 'You're a beginner at solving linear equations" to actually learning to solve a linear equation?'" I think the path is to have some loosely-structured time built into each week, in which students work on whichever skills they're missing. They don't have to do it from home. They find a friend in class who does know it, or a Khan exercise, or you (the teacher), and work on whatever they need to work on. I do agree that if this opportunity isn't built into the school week, then SBG may be a net negative for motivation, by just waving students' failures in their faces. But if you want to encourage a growth mindset, it is helpful to let kids track their growth, as long as you give them time and resources in class to facilitate their growth.

    1. There's some crucial agreement here I want to highlight, Kevin:

      I do agree that if this opportunity isn't built into the school week, then SBG may be a net negative for motivation, by just waving students' failures in their faces.

      We agree that SBG could potentially harm motivation. This positions you against a large (majority?) contingent of SBG teachers who (a) don't structure this sort of study hall time into their classes and (b) believe that SBG increases their students' motivation to learn.

      I love the idea of loosely-structured study time each week. Though it's not my ideal, I also see how you would like standards-tracking to be used to direct what kids do with this time. I still worry about the way proficiency-judgments/grades are mixed in with all of this -- are the kids really tracking their own growth in SBG? -- and I tend to think my Geometry students need more practice using the Pythagorean Theorem when they aren't practicing using the Pythagorean Theorem. But I think that structuring the sort of time you're describing in class is a great thing, and I'd love for this, along with oodles of great feedback, to become part of the SBG "package."

  4. Cool. I appreciate your doing this series of posts--they helped me clarify my thinking on the topic quite a bit.