Will Richardson links to an article about proposals to move to a mastery learning model in Plano, TX middle schools. Most of the criticisms of the proposal the article mentions relate to the notion that if homework is not graded, students wont develop a sense of responsibility.  A table at the end of the article compares current policy, under which classroom disruptions , incomplete homework, and cheating result in lowered grades, with the proposal, under which this wouldn’t happen.  A question the article touches on but doesn’t explain fully is, “What does a bad grade mean?”

Alice and Bob both get failing grades in algebra.  To someone with access to only a transcript, they look identically (un)skilled.  But, in a system which penalizes behavior with grade reductions, it’s possible that Bob failed algebra because he truly didn’t understand algebra, while Alice understands algebra perfectly well, but lost so many points for being disruptive in class and not turning in homework that she failed the course.  Thus Alice’s F and Bob’s F don’t mean the same thing.  That’s a problem.

Let me clearly state that I am among the guilty, including completion grades as a substantial portion of my course points.  I do this for two reasons.

1. For many students, doing the practice activities is a key part of mastering the material.  I haven’t found a better  way to encourage them to do the practice than assigning course points for it.  I know that, for some students, the practice is meaningless tedium that they don’t need to learn;  but I can’t tell one group from the other at the beginning of the semester, and requiring only some students to do practice activities isn’t really fair, is it?  Isn’t punishing those who “get it” quickly with lots of (for them) busy work just as unfair?

2. Grading homework allows students who don’t test well to fill in gaps via “effort points” and pass.  Since retention and successful course completion is valued….

If I were to drop graded homework, what can I do to get those who need the extra practice to do it instead of sitting on their hands, failing the exams and the course and wondering why?

Comment away.

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