Thought on Hollow Grades

Pushing good grades instead of mastering skills or Good grades for good grades sake

HiRes (2)Good grades are typically the salve that soothes parent concern. As long as their child is getting good grades and learns some content everything is great. Parents witness first hand their child studying and when they look at test results they see questions that seem challenging. What could be amiss? Their child is studying, learning and getting good grades. The question lies in what kind of process their child is put through to earn those grades. Parents need to examine the learning process and how the test is set up by the teacher. This includes how the student takes notes and how the teacher prepares them for challenging questions on the test that demonstrate mastery and thinking skills.

Many teachers in elementary, middle school and high school provide study guides for students to support students study process for a test. In addition, the study guide content is provided indirectly by the teacher. The indirect method means that a student provides the content for the study guide during class followed by the teacher validating the student provided content. This all occurs before the test. Students with adequate attention, working memory, processing speed and handwriting skills can follow along with the teacher confirmed answers to complete their study guides. Students that have processing, attention, handwriting or working memory issues are often unable to keep up with the verbal flow if information. As a result these students gather incomplete information or give up on the process. Frequently, they get poor grades on the test which supports the teacher pretense that this is a test. In addition, it validates the teacher and student perception that poor performers are not the smart kids. However, with proper intervention and support the “not smart” kids can learn the facts and feedback the information on the study guide and get good grades. More than once I have had teachers comeback and say that the actual teacher completed study guide given to students with processing or learning issues is an unfair advantage that other neuro-typical students don’t get. I reply that the way they prepare students for tests punishes the students with learning or handwriting issues. Actually, the orally provided study guide content from the teacher is a test of a child’s executive functioning, handwriting ability, memorization skills, working memory capacity and not necessarily their verbal or perceptual reasoning.

In many instances the questions that require higher cognitive thinking skills are reviewed and answered before the test. Students are able to write down the answer to questions that require analysis, synthesis or evaluation prior to seeing the question on the test. Students memorize these answers prior to the test and parrot information that seemingly exhibits high order thinking represented in models such as Bloom’s taxonomy. Parents that take the time to look at test results see great answers to potentially difficult questions.

In situations where information is parroted back on tests, the parents and schools are collaborating in the learning ruse. The schools provide the allusion that students are learning higher level thinking skills and parents are buying the notion because they are satisfied with good grades.

iStock_000018616434SmallWhat can parents do? Parents can insist their child learn the process of making their own study guide (see Tip on Notes that Count). Students that participate in making their own study guide are learning to identify main ideas, supporting detail, and key concepts. The goal is to work towards independence or mastery in the preparation of notes/study guides. The real test of your child’s level of higher order thinking occurs when the child answers them before the study guide content is revealed in class prior to the test. Tuning your child into the value of preparing and practicing for higher level thinking questions is very important for their future education in high school and college. How your child answers the questions on the actual test reveals lower level thinking skills such as remembering a long list of information from a teacher completed study guide. The real learning comes from how your child completes the study guide questions before the answers are divulged in class before the test. You and your child should celebrate successes in answers higher level thinking questions at home prior to teacher directed completion. At the same time, their success on parroting information on the actual test should be put in perspective. The good grade on the test means the student is able to remember lots of information.

In addition to working on mastery of note taking, students should be explicitly taught Bloom’s taxonomy. Bloom’s taxonomy is a hierarchy of thinking skills associated with questions for test questions or essays. A question that requires the recollection of facts is not as difficult as explaining how a model works. Explaining how a model works is not as difficult as creating an alternative model. Students need to identify each type of question and understand how to answer them. Likewise, parents need to understand the differences in question difficulty so they can appreciate the level of mastery and thinking skills their child demonstrates on assessments.

The skills associated with preparing study guides and with answering more difficult questions in Bloom’s taxonomy should take precedence over preparing students to parrot answers from teacher prepared and completed study guides. Students need scaffolding to learn how to take notes or prepare a study guide and scaffolding to learn how to answer more difficult types of questions that require high level thinking skills. Providing students a low resistance pathway to getting good grades by using teacher completed study guides does not help students learn skills necessary to become independent learners. Some excellent thinkers can answer higher level questions in class when the study guides are completed before the test. These fortunate few students receive the prompts from the teacher that help them to complete their thinking process. The majority of students in the class are observing, listening and busy writing the answers to higher thinking level questions. The majority of the class absorbs the higher level thinking skills in a passive manner as they write down their answers. For the majority of students the focus is on getting the content and not the process needed to get the content for a challenging question. If you know that the content to the study guide will be revealed in class, there is not a big incentive to work beyond a cursory level in preparing for the class discussion. Many students put their brains in idle until they complete the study guide in class before the test. Once they have the study guide, they go into memorization mode. Avoiding thoughtful and incremental preparation of notes/study guides, short circuits the learning processes that occurs when the brain uses its working memory and long term memory in higher level thinking exercises.

Having students prepare their own notes/study guides is a longer and more arduous path to mastery. Having students pursue this pathway will move them closer to being an independent learner. Providing answers to challenging questions requiring higher cognitive thinking prior to giving students the test is a passive approach to teaching students the skills associated with the use of higher cognitive skills. A test where students are required to memorize a study guide creates a hollow grade with limited substance. As a result, excellent hollow grades don’t reliably predict future performance in high school or college.