“You want me to grade ya? Well, you gotta’ ask yourself, do you feel lucky … well do ya punk?”

Semi-annual exam grading this week. I am trying to migrate more each semester to journal portfolio grading. This semester I managed to get approval for exams worth 0% of course grades. But I made them Pass/Fail, which is probably a bit rough on students. So I also had an “earned pass” criteria, which meant students had to complete weekly journals, forum discussions, and homework quiz sets, to “earn a pass” in case they failed both exams. This works quite well.

The downside is that with 15 weeks of journals to review and forum posts to read and send feedback on, for every student, the total hours I spend on assessment exceeds the time I am being paid for lecturing. (It is about 450 hours for a class of 60 students. And I estimate I am only paid for 60 hours of assessment work, because that is all the office time I am given to submit grades after final exams are over. And it seems to me most other lecturers work some magic to finish their grading in about 12 hours, I do not know how they do it.)

So I am going to request next semester for dropping exams altogether, and instead getting quality control through short weekly tests in lecture class where exam conditions will be simulated. This will force me to grade tests each week, so at the end of term the exam grading will not take so long. But it does not reduce the assessment hours, in fact I think it will increase my overall work burden. So I will also need to scale back journal portfolios to bi-weekly instead of weekly. I will also probably need to make the short tests bi-weekly too, since, with 120 students, grading tests each week will overload my hours.

The problem is not that I dislike being under-paid for my work, I could care less about money. What I do not like is wasting time and not being able to spend more time on research and course quality improvements and developing better educational software. Actually, I do not consider assessment a waste of time. But it is tedious and depressing work sometimes. So I really just think I personally need to be smarter about how I allocate my time, and overloading on assessment is decreasing the time I could be spending on course quality improvements, so ultimately I am hindering improving student learning by spending too much time on assessment.

That’s enough moaning!  What I really want to blog about today is the problem with tests and exams as assessments, and some of the issues of freedom in learning that are stifled by tests and exams, and how to do things better without abandoning the good uses for tests.

edu_FreedomToLearn_BertrandRussellSo ok, I think I have been subjected to enough education to exercise my opinion!

To get you warmed up, consider what you are doing as a teacher if you have a prescribed syllabus with prescribed materials and resources and no freedom of selection for students.  When students are not permitted to fire up Firefox or Chrome to search for their own learning resources, what is this?.  What you are doing then is called censorship.  And that is probably the most polite word for it.

edu_censorship_GeorgeBernardShawIn the past it was not censorship, it was in fact liberation!  But times have changed.  Teachers used to be the fountains of wisdom and guidance.  They would gather resources, or purchase textbooks, and thereby give students access to a wide world.  But now there is no need for that, and teachers who continue prescribing textbooks and using the same resources for all students, they are now ironically the censors.  They are limiting student freedom.  The Internet has changed the world this much!  It has turned liberators into censors overnight.  Amazing.

So please, if you are a teacher read this and share it. If you are studying to become a teacher then please do not become a censor.   Learn how to give your students freedom and structured guidance.  If you are already a teacher please do not continue being a censor.

Teaching to the Tests, “Hello-oh!?”

One interesting thing I have learned (or rather had confirmed) is that university teaching is far superior to high school teaching in a few ways.

  • You, the lecturer, get to structure the course however you want, provided you meet fairly minimal general university requirements.
  • Because of that structural freedom you can teach to the tests! This is a good thing!

“What’s that?” you say. How can teaching to the tests be a good thing? Hell, it is something I wrote dozens of paragraphs railing against when I was doing teacher training courses, and in later blogs. And despite not liking to admit it, it is what most high school teachers end up doing in New Zealand. It is a tragedy. But why? And why or when and how can teaching to the tests actually be a good thing?

The answer, and I think the only way teaching to tests is natural and good, is when the teacher has absolute control over both the test format and the classroom atmosphere and methods.

First of all, I like using tests or exams to get feedback about what basics students have learned. But I do not use these results to judge students. A three hour exam is only a snapshot. I can never fit in all the course content into such a short exam, so it would be unfair to use the exam to judge students who did well in learning topics in the course that will not appear in my exam papers. And students could be “having a bad day”, if I tested them another day their score could go up or down significantly. So I realise exams and tests are terrific for gathering course outcome quality information. But you are a bit evil, in my opinion, if you use exams and tests as summative assessments. Summative assessments should be feedback to students, but not used for grading or judgemental purposes. Instead, the only fair way to grade and judge students is by using quality weekly or “whole semester assessments.

Secondly, if a teacher is biased then “whole semester” assessments (like journal portfolios) can be terribly insecure and unreliable. So you need to try to anonymise work before you grade it, so as to eliminate overt bias. And you might think you are not biased, but believe me, the research will tell you that you are most certainly biased, you cannot help it, it is subconscious and therefore beyond your immediate conscious control. But you can proactively consciously control bias by eliminating it’s source, which is knowing which student’s work you are currently grading.

You can later think about “correcting” such anonymised grades on a case-by-case basis by allowing for known student learning impairments. But you should not bias your grades a priori by knowing which student you are grading at the time. A’ight?! Biased teachers are well-documented. Teachers need to be close to students and form strong relationships, that is a proven good learning requirement. But it works against accurate and unbiased assessment. So you need to anonymise student work prior to grading. This could mean getting rid of hand-written work, favouring electronic submissions.

If you use tests wisely you can use them as both student and teacher assessment vehicles. Students should not feel too much stress with short weekly tests. They should not be swatting for them, the tests should naturally extend learning done in class or from previous weekly homework. If you control the format and content of tests then you can design your teaching to match. So if you like highly creative and cognitive learning styles you can administer cognitive testing with lots of imagination required. If you prefer a more kinesthetic learning style for another topic you can make the test kinesthetic. You can suit and tailor your teaching style to naturally match the topic and then also the follow-up tests.

This sort of total control is not possible in schools under present day state-wide run standards-based exams. That’s why such exam regimes are evil and inefficient and terrible for promoting good learning.

With teacher-run lessons + tests you get the best of all worlds. If one teacher is slack, their students get disadvantaged for sure, but they would anyway under a standards-based regime. The difference with teacher-run courses is that the teacher’s exams and course content can be examined, rather than the students getting examined, and so ultimate education quality control rests upon the administrator who should get to examine the teacher resources and test formats and content. That’s the way to run state-based exams. You examine the teachers, not the students.

There can even be a second tier of filtering and quality control. The school itself can assess the teacher quality. Then slack teachers can be sent to state-wide authorities of assessment. We need to remember the state employees are the teachers, not the students. So we should at least first worry about assessing teacher quality, not student quality. Our present schools systems, around the world, backwards all this have. 😉  I know educators mean well. But they need to listen to Sir Ken Robinson and Alfie Kohn a bit harder.

So in the foreseeable future, sadly, I will not be returning to secondary school teaching. Never under the present national standards regime anyway. It basically would make me an ordinary teacher. But I have extraordinary talents. The NZQA run system would effectively dull my talents and would mask them from expression. Under the current NZQA system which most schools are mandated to follow, I would be a really horrid teacher. I would not be teaching to the tests, and my students would likely not acquire grades that reflect their learning.

It is not impossible to teach students creatively and with fun and inspiration and still help them acquire good grades under NCEA. But it is really, really hard, and I am not that good a teacher. The real massive and obvious flaw in New Zealand is that teachers think they can all do this. But they cannot. They either end up teaching to the tests, and their students get reasonable grades, but average learning, or they buck the system and teach however they damn please and their students get poor grades. I would guess only about 1% or 3% of teachers have the genius and skill and long fought-for expertise to run a truly creative and imaginary learning experience and also get students who can ace the NCEA exams.

If, as a nation of people who love education, we cannot have all teachers be the geniuses who can do this, and if it requires exceptionally gifted teachers to do this, then why oh why are we forcing them to use the NCEA or similar exam regimes? If you do not have all teachers being such geniuses, then, I think, morally and ethically you are bound to not using a standards-based summative assessment system for judging students. You instead need to unleash the raw talent of all teachers by giving them freedom to teach in a style they enjoy, because this will naturally reflect in the brightness and happiness and learning of their students. And to check on the quality of your education system you must assess these teachers, not their students.

The tragedy is, for me, that I think I would enjoy secondary school teaching a lot more than university lecturing if the free-to-learn system I propose was in place. The younger children have a brightness and brilliance that is captivating.  So it is a real pleasure to teach them and guide them along their way.  These bright lights seem to become dulled when they become young adults.  Or maybe that’s just the effect that school has on them?

*      *       *

So, the thing is, I see no reason why high school teaching cannot be more like university teaching. Please give the teachers the control over both their course style and their assessments. This will make everyone happier and less stressed. Test the teacher quality ahead of student quality at the national level. Make education about empowering students to discover their interests, and not to follow by rote the content provided by the teachers. And definitely not content dictated and remanded by a state-run government institution. If the government desire accountability of schools, they should look at teacher quality, not student quality. With good teachers you can trust them to get the most from their students, right! That’s a statement not a question!

There are many good references I should provide, but I will just give you one that hits most points I made above:


That wasn’t an ad.  Here are the wordpress inserted ads …


4 thoughts on ““You want me to grade ya? Well, you gotta’ ask yourself, do you feel lucky … well do ya punk?”

  1. This is so refreshing!! Tests are critical but should be seen more as tools for the student and teacher to assess what has been learned so far. I have not read Freedom to Learn but will order a copy. Thanks for this detailed post!! Your class sounds wonderful what do you teach?

    • Hi Andy. Thanks for your kind comments. I teach Statistics and Information Technology. But my specialty is matheamtical physics. They do not have a physics program where I lecture. I am in Thailand lecturing with an international programme. But the incomming student English language proficiency is about native English 5 to 9 year old level in both comprehension and vocabulary. Also, in the programme I teach the students are heading for tourism, business or hospitality majors, and they have to take my courses as compulsory (which I am dead against, but that’s the way things are for now). Most of these students have taken an arts based stream at high school and so they may have not done any mathematics for years. So they are unmotivated and anxious. It is a small part of a much bigger problem in Thai education. There is a lot of faking and face-saving going on, and I have not been able to get to the root of it, but it has forced me to teach in very unconventional ways, emphasizing honesty and exploration, choosing topics of their own interest, and emphasizing fun and play. Even so, the students take formalities too seriously and almost uniformly the students want to get high grades without achieving any understanding. And despite my best efforts you would not believe the ratio of questions about course topics to grading topics I get, it is about 5% topic related to 95% grades-anxiety related.

      • Wow thanks for such a detailed reply this is fascinating!! That is a terrible idea to force students to take classes they don’t want to take. Any time students are seeing your class as just something the have to put up with it is a recipe for unenthusiastic learners. Have you ever tried using motivational techniques to help them? You might consider reading a book called Instant Influence by Michael Pantalon. It is phenomenal and is all about how to get people to find their own reasons to do things. So, for instance, you might say on the first day of class, “OK, I know most of you aren’t taking this class because you chose to, but theoretically if you WERE going to choose to take this class on your own why might you do that?” Then proceeding to help them generate a list of reasons. It is powerful stuff!!

      • That “Instant Influence” idea sounds perfect. In fact, it is close to what I actually do in my courses. It is a largely pointless battle trying to force the students here to learn a bunch of statistical methods that honestly they will probably never use in life. I have discussion forums set up online, and the first one is “What do you want to Learn about Statistics?” If students have no idea what would be useful or fun to learn then I try to guide them along learning the minimal basic principles and concepts, but if they do know what they want then I let them go ahead and explore, they get credits then by writing up their study in journals. It is a massive amount of time and effort to grade journal portfolios, about ten times the hours needed to grade an exam. But I make the time since I just think the learning outcomes are healthier than the easier road of marking a bunch of exam papers.

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