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Assessment, Opinion

Physical reactions to “no marks” announcement

Marks encourage institutional engagement – not connected to learning

Last week, as I was about to launch into a lesson that introduces assessment for learning structures into my classroom, I noticed a flash drive camera sitting at the corner of my desk.

As I moved to address my English 8 learners, I noticed my hand move to the camera. While I spoke to my class, my thumb pressed record – the result is a teacher’s eye-view of Grade 8 students figuring out how to build clear and specific criteria, peer coach, self assess and peer assess.

The video also captures their expressions in response to the big announcement mid-way through: “I won’t be giving you marks this year.” Although I announce this fact every year, I have never recorded it. I was delighted to find that the video captured many expressions I didn’t notice while giving the lesson.

For example, on the actual day, I did not see Joanne’s reaction: her face retained a careful blankness for a beat after the announcement, then she jerked back as if she had just been (gently) slapped in the face, her eyes bugging out before regaining her careful composure.

I also hadn’t noticed Mike’s face until I watched the film and saw his quiet reaction. Prior to the announcement he had been standing at the back of the room, picking at his hands, wearing his ball cap on backwards, looking around every once in awhile. After the announcement, he looked straight at me – his expression suggesting that he was trying to gauge how much he can trust me – and his hands fell, relaxed, to his sides. 

A couple seconds later, one boy whooped in appreciation, breaking the tension. A few students looked stressed. These, I am told from last year’s records, are the “strong” students. These students’ hands shot up: “What about report cards?”

Well, what about them? The authors of the Canadian Education Association’s report on intellectual engagement ask this question too: “many students do well (i.e., get high marks) in their courses without being intellectually engaged, leaving us to wonder instead: What do marks and current classroom-level assessments actually measure?”

Answer? Often, institutional engagement: a desire to attend classes, complete homework, participate in class, and have a good attitude about the whole arrangement. Measurements of actual learning are included as well, but a lot less so than many of us would like to believe.

For the typical “A” student, removing marks forces them to look beyond their familiar 93% – or whatever it may be. Feedback in place of marks forces the high performing students to find a steady confidence in an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses rather than a confidence that they can play the game of school (institutional engagement).

For traditionally lower performing students, removing marks from the learning situation, as the expression on Mike’s face in the video shows, lifts a burdensome expectation of failure or underperformance and results in quiet expressions of hope. Now that’s an environment for learning.

NOTE: This post was inspired by the recent CEA What did you do in school today? Report.