Saturday, August 24, 2013
No Busy Work, Please!
Last year about this time, my school was forming a committee (on which I was lucky enough to serve, and by "lucky" I mean I couldn't think of a good excuse to get out of it) to review our grading policy and, in the process, to consider implementing a "no-zero" policy. We read some articles on the subject by a distinguished educator whose persuasive techniques were either weak or duplicitous and whose use of statistics was not much better.
As I pondered this nonsense, it dawned on me that a more essential issue was the quality and quantity of the tasks we assign and grade. In a post for this very blog, I encouraged teachers to think more carefully about the value of what they require of their students. I encouraged them to articulate clearly to the students the reason behind and the value of each assignment -- to never require them to do work "because I said so."
I argued that there is neither virtue nor pedagogical value in amassing a huge number of grades. In fact, I believed then and still believe now the concept of diminishing returns applies to graded work. I also believe that when students know there'll be 27 graded assignments in a quarter, they feel pretty okay about skipping one here and there.
As I was writing this snarky little masterpiece, I interrupted the narrative to admit that the writing was rushed "because I have a bunch of quizzes to get to."
That was last year. Now a new year is upon us and, man, have things changed!
Maybe not. A committee will once again address the grading-policy issue, and I will once again be a part of it. And as I sit at my computer, once again, to remind especially my new colleagues not to burden themselves or their students with superfluous work, I feel the need to quickly bring this thing to a close so that I may return to grading.
Click here for last year's essay in all its snarkiness.
If you have so much grading that you don't have time to read it, here's the Spark Notes version: Assign only work that will help students become more competent in your discipline; it's okay to assign more than you grade (more about this in a future post); always tell your students how an assignment will help them and where it fits in the big picture.
Giving your students lots and lots of work doesn't make you a better teacher. It makes you and your students tireder, less fit for teaching and learning. (One day we should talk about the teacher's role in cultivating workaholism, of encouraging the culture of busyness.)
We become better teachers when we spend more time imagining learning activities and less time filling up the gradebook and in writing stuff in the margins that only a small percentage of students ever read. We also become better teachers when we leave time to convalesce, rehabilitate and rejuvenate during these precious but fleeting weekends.