This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Grade Focused v. Learning Focused

Currently, I am participating in the BONKOPEN MOOC.  This weeks discussion of R2D2 (Read, Reflect, Display, Do) got me thinking about some of the issues that came up with my course redesign in biology (GOALS).  My students worked through concepts, wrote about what they learned, reflected on what they learned,...they WORKED.  One of the biggest stumbling block though was getting the students to realize that their work was not about the grade at the end, but the learning opportunity. 

Apart from the grumbling, many of the students admitted that they actually learned.  Some didn't believe that they had learned anything, then they saw their comprehensive final.  After the surprise abated, they looked at me and admitted that all the writing had put something in their head (i.e., they had learned).

What is surprising is that most of these same students would spend hours learning about something that "interested" them.  They would look things up, explore, read, etc....  When I asked if they were interested in biology, many of them said, YES.  When I asked if they independently studied biology, they said....wait for it...NO.  There is a disconnect in their mind between "academic" knowledge and what they find as interesting.

Add to this that most of our students are trained that they need to achieve a certain grade in a class, and we have a problem.  It doesn't matter if you learned a subject, only that you got an A in it.  One strange thing that happened this past semester, those students who were good "test takers" (i.e, they had learned to cramp and dump) did not excel.  They became the average student.  They did not participate in the learning opportunities, and it showed.

So my question to the general audience:  Do you want your students to be grade focused or learning focused?  How will you change your class to switch them to being learning focused?


  1. Is it a trick question? :-) Of course we want our students to be learning focused, but they've been raised in an environment that is Grade focused. There is nothing wrong with grades of course, they are a way of assessing learning. The problems come in when you misaling how you get the grade, with what the grade means. In my course everyone can get an "A," however that doesn't mean that everyone does get an "A". I do have rubrics available for each assignment, I am avaiable for consultation, and for the Major Paper, I do tell students "give me drafts, if you want, and I will give you feedback before the thing is actually due!" Having the opportunity to do drafts and improve your work is learning focused...even if a student is grade focused (i.e. "must get an A!!!!"), having such a "Draft and revise" procedure in place makes it possible to start with a grade focus, and graduate to a learning focus.

    1. Learning happens in the redo, in the correcting.
      Drafts are essential both for learning and for making sure the student who submits the work is the one who did it.
      Even tests should have a redo. I saw a video somewhere where they gave a test. Then they let the student discuss in it groups. And then they took the test again! I think the grades were 75% for the 1st attempt and 25% for the 2nd. Whatever. The instructor is conveying the message "Let's do whatever is needed to LEARN." @sumware

    2. Good points. I have been using the revision concept for exams and papers for about five years. It really does bear fruit.

  2. Thanks for the response Apostolos K. I should revise the question.

    When looking at your syllabus and class style, is it grade focused or learning focused? I have colleagues who would say that they are learning focused, but when you look at their class, it is all about a grade.

    Also, I like your approach to help students move from a grade to learning focus. I also really like the Draft-Revise system.