This article by Liz Tay in the Australian iTnews highlights the work of Indiana University researcher Lee Sheldon, who’s suggested that employees and teachers may need new systems to motivate their next incoming generation:
Sheldon grades his classes on a system similar to World of Warcraft. Students start at Level 1 and zero experience points (XP), and work their way upwards towards mastery. Materially, this system isn’t that different from what’s already out there. The only difference is the viewpoint — top-down or bottom-up?
The vast majority of our school grading systems are based on the idea that a student starts with a perfect score, and works downward from there. Failed tests are a sea of red minus signs and huge X’s. By that definition, the most successful student is the one that has failed the least. Sheldon’s students start from a point of being (functionally) worthless, and slowly work their way up towards mastery.
Real life is closer to Sheldon’s model. And anything that makes school a bit more like real life is okay in my book.
Job descriptions are written in terms of competencies — i.e., “you should be able to do x, y, and z; ability to do a, b, and c is a bonus.” Any extra skills you might have are generally immaterial to the job. I’m a software developer now, and so my ability to juggle is meaningless.
I kind of wish I was still teaching, so I could try out Sheldon’s scheme. For example, I’d consider defining grades in terms of competencies, rather than points on a test. Consider grading a unit on Newton’s laws. What if the expectations, presented at the beginning of the unit, looked like this?
A student will receive a grade of D upon: (1) reciting Newton’s three laws, and (2) giving an example of each.
A student will receive a grade of C upon: achieving the requirements for a grade of D, and (3) solving basic force problems using Newton’s second law in one dimension.
A student will receive a grade of B upon: achieving the requirements for a grade of C, and (4) solving basic force problems using forces at right angles using Newton’s second law in two dimensions.
A student will receive a grade of A upon: achieving the requirements for a grade of B, and (5) solving complex force problems involving four or more forces at any angles in two dimensions.
A test would become five questions, corresponding to the numbered entries above. (Or maybe 15 questions, three for each item. The student “passes” that competency if (s)he gets at least two of three right.)
Optimistically, this system gets rid of grade inflation. Numerical grades tend to be relative to one another, and the entire class can swing up or down (usually up) as a whole. At the end of the quarter, what does a grade of ‘90′ mean? Not much.
If you’re an overachieving student, an average of 97 doesn’t tell you anything about your absolute proficiency at the subject. And worse, it dissuades you from learning even more, since the system says that you’re already at the top of the scale. Why bother?
Sheldon’s system may even result in students choosing “majors” in high school. For those who have a good sense of what their career would bring them, this isn’t a bad thing in the least. I knew I hated literature and history from a young age, and I loved math and science. What if I could direct my energy in really excelling in those fields, while attaining lesser mastery in those fields in which I had no interest? In fact, why even bother having a maximum grade? Students who can analyze literature four grade levels above their chronological grade level should be rewarded for doing so.
I don’t expect schools to take on something like this. Ironically I think parents and administrators like the fluid nature of grades. Grades can be easily manipulated and are quite subjective. Teachers and students can attempt to “explain away” the reason for a particular grade penalty. (E.g., “this question wasn’t perfectly fair,” “I talked about it in class but it wasn’t in the textbook,” “you didn’t get enough partial credit,” et cetera.)
Sheldon’s grading system would expose the disparity in achievement across genders and races. And it would show that students with learning and mental disabilities are actually not able to keep up with their peers, which is a politically incorrect result (even if it is, in most cases, true).
What do you think? Paradigm shift? Or a new way of looking at the same problem?