Writers require hands-on learning

I read a short post this morning at Mindshift about visual learning. It’s gist is that, although people may prefer visual presentations, having information presented in multiple ways is best for learning, especially if one of the multiple ways is visual.

For teachers of writing, keeping that fact in mind is important.

To develop a skill,  people have to do more than see someone else use the skill.  Knowing what to do is just the beginning.

To acquire a skill, people need to actually use it.   (If people could learn skills by watching experts, there would be thousands of NFL fans who developed skills to rival Tom Brady or Johnny Unitas just by watching television.)

Ideally, people make their initial attempts to learn a skill under controlled settings where mistakes aren’t catastrophic.

Once they have enough skill not to be dangerous, they need to practice in situations that mimic the actual setting in which they will use the skill.

As writing teachers, it’s well worth remembering that writing  is only learned hands-on and it’s learned best in practice settings that mimic real settings.

Writing teachers, unfortunately, often overlook the need for practice in simulated writing situation.

Writing nearly always involves both visual and kinesthetic activities. Sometimes writers use auditory or oral activities as well, reciting a mnemonic to themselves, for example, or discussing a planned piece of writing with a peer.

Most people, including English teachers, do the bulk of their writing in what journalists call “clean first draft” situations. That means that while we run spell check and try to allow at least a few hours between drafting and editing our draft, most of our writing is not rewritten even once: The edited first draft is the final draft.

I know that makes teachers of the process approach to writing shudder, but it makes typical students happy: They just want to get the assignment done.

The more times students get the assignment done—assuming they practice writing correctly—the sooner they develop skill at writing.

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Technology and skills: Today’s best BOGO deal

In the lead up to Black Friday, my inbox was full of messages from technology companies that don’t want me to miss out on the greatest deal ever—usually theirs.

Photo of classroom computers overlaid with "Is this technology a good deal?"

To get a really good deal on technology, buy one product that gets you two benefits:

  1. It’s technology you can use now.
  2. It’s technology that will allow you to develop a skill you can use later.

Technology you can use now but which doesn’t help you develop new skills isn’t worth what you’ll pay for it.

And you’ll probably never get around to learning to use new technology for which you have no immediate use, so that’s not worth having at any price.

The buy-two-benefits principle holds whether you’re buying technology for yourself or selecting technology for your classroom.

 

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Informal education can transform lives

quote from Seth Godin set against cement block foundation: "Formal education is a foundation but lifelong, informal education can transform our lives."

Education is the answer

It almost doesn’t matter what the question is, really.

Everyone is an independent actor, now more than ever, with access to information, to tools, to the leverage to make a difference.

Instead of being a cog merely waiting for instructions, we get to make decisions and take action based on what we know and what we believe.

Read the rest of this Seth Godin post.

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Foiled by training: Why multi-modal learning materials matter

I rarely attempt a new task without being reminded that not all people learn the same way.  I’ve written about how that plays out on the job here and here and probably other places I’ve forgotten about. This month I’ve been wrestling with a similar problem in the context of trying to master a new piece of software.

I’m in the process of trying to set up a new website to hold content from my old “you can teach writing” site.  I needed new web creation software to replace the Dreamweaver program I’d had since 2001.

I did my homework, tried CoffeeCup‘s Responsive Site Designer and decided to buy it.

I knew it would require some time to master RSD, but I’d learned Dreamweaver, I’ve had plenty of experience with grid-based design, including changing designs to fit various sized pages, so I didn’t think learning RSD would be too hard.

What I didn’t stop to consider was that Dreamweaver provided a book with text and screenshots; CoffeeCup recommended a video tutorial for RSD.

Screenshot of title page of one RSD training video.

For efficient learning, I need fixed text and still pictures.

I watched the first two RSD video segments which showed someone creating webpages.

There was no narrative to explain what trainer was doing. I could see his cursor hovered over certain places on the screen but I couldn’t tell what action, if any, he took.

I watched the videos again.

And watched them again.

And again.

screenshot of part of the RSD control panel

Section of RSD control panel.

After two days of that, I opened the program and tried to recreate what I saw on the video.

I’d watch a few seconds of video, switch to the program and try to reproduce the changes I saw in the page in the tutorial.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

I did the back-and-forth bit for several days and still had no clue how to use the program.

The control panel for the page creation screen has a black background with tiny light gray type. If I zoomed in to see the tiny type, I couldn’t see the page creation screen.

In the last two of the five videos in the tutorial, the action that the trainer took was masked by the Vimeo progress bar.

In frustration, I contacted CoffeeCup support and asked how to open a blank page.

Armed with that information and a rough layout I’d planned using a spreadsheet in lieu of a wire frame, I created a webpage in one afternoon.

My page isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. I’ve seen worse from people who supposedly knew what they were doing.

Take-aways

For me as a teacher and writer of instructional materials, every frustrating experience is a learning experience (after it’s over).

Some notes to myself, based on this experience:

  • Don’t make people feel stupid.
  • If you have something to show, make sure it’s visible.
  • Help people get started.
  • Provide cheat sheets.
  • Don’t assume everyone learns best the way you do.
  • Don’t assume everyone has prior experiences similar to yours.
  • Provide a menu (or other structure) to help people find the most relevant resources at various stages of the learning learning process.
  • If learners segment into distinct groups based on prior experience, consider making different menus for the different groups.

 

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Thinking backwards

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about thinking.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how to think backward from a goal.

For the last three months, I’ve been working at building a new website with content from my old “You Can Teach Writing” site.

That has necessitated learning a new software program to replace my antique Dreamweaver (purchased in 2000!), learning how to create responsive sites that will display properly on mobile devices, and figuring out how to organize all the website elements—photographs, illustrations, icons, call-out boxes, text, headlines—so I can find information when I need it and format it consistently across the site.

Finding all the information I need to learn requires a lot of research. All too often something I’m sure I will need to have later is discussed at the point where it is deployed, rather than at the point at which I ought to start collecting it.

I’ve not reached any earth-shaking conclusions from these three projects, but I’ve made a few observations that I want to remember when I teach.

Goals hold emotions

Goals always have an emotional component, either actual or potential.

I’ve seen that emotional component several times in software user forums where company employees were annoyed by users’ desire for step-by-step directions.

Users felt successful when they could complete a simple task quickly with the software, while the employees felt unsuccessful if users only wanted to do simple tasks quickly.

As a teacher, I’m tempted (and often succumb) to set goals whose achievement I would find satisfying. I’ve learned that if I set writing goals at a level that students think they can achieve and that they would be satisfied to achieve (I call it “C-level” for competence level), students are much more likely do the assigned work and achieve that level or higher.

Save information for use

People doing an information task for the first time waste a great deal of time and endure a great deal of frustration because they don’t know how to record the information they gather.

By contrast, experienced knowledge workers doing an information task develop strategies and templates for gathering, sorting, labeling, and saving the information they gather.

As a teacher, I try to give my students the benefit of my experience by providing strategies and templates that I and colleagues have found helpful.

Even though the materials I provide might not be useful to every student or in every situation, it’s generally easier for them to modify a prepared structure than to develop one from scratch.

Sequencing precedes skill

To an uninformed observer, skills look like an automatic response to a particular type of stimuli. Actually, skills are sets of tasks performed in such rapid sequence that the tasks seem to melt into one fluid action.

Before people are skilled, they learn to go through component tasks in sequence. Because tasks have both mental and physical components, the learners must:

  1. Remember the next action required.
  2. Physically position themselves to perform the action.
  3. Perform the action.
  4. Verify that the action was performed successfully or backup to #2.
  5. Remember the next action required and go through steps 2-5.

When my writing students “get it” they will behave—and feel—as if they were born knowing how to write.

I need to remember that getting to that point will require many repetitions of the underlying process to get their eyes, brains, and bodies to perform the necessary actions automatically.

 

 

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Teaching future-ready students: What skills should we teach?

In a previous post, I sketched how skill at learning to use digital tools for re-purposing information outlasts both the tools and the information. If you missed that post, you’ll find it here.

Today I’d like to look at what we should be teaching so that our students exit high school with skills that will last them for more than a decade.

Background of stone wall with overlaid words "Teachers aren't expected to teach everything;they're expected to teach the most important things.

Future-readiness is a historical problem

I’m a baby-boomer. Born and raised in a rural New York community not far from the site of the Woodstock Festival, I was the first in my family to go to college. My college roommate was from a rural Ohio community, the first in her family to go to college. Both of us toggled together scholarships, loans, and jobs to pay our way through college.

In the 1960’s our college said it was preparing us for the year 2000.

My roommate became a chemist whose work took her all over the Americas not only doing lab work, but helping cogeneration facilities maintain environmentally friendly practices. I became a writer/editor/teacher in the gig economy before the term was invented.

Although neither of us always had work we loved, each of us was able to move from job to job within different economic sectors with relative ease.

Our college delivered on its promise to prepare us for the year 2000.

Knowledge obsolescence overblown

Granted the speed of technological change from 1966 to 2016 was pokey compared to the speed of change in the last 25 years, but does that mean we can’t make any reasonable predictions about what skills students are going to need in 10-15 years?

Is world really changing so rapidly that anything we teach students today will be obsolete before they get to the workplace?

That suggestion prompts a pit-of-the-stomach reaction from anyone who has ever gotten a notice from a vendor saying the DuzAll software program they purchased for $29 the week before is being discontinued and replaced with DuzAllBetter (for an additional $110).

However, such visceral reactions to change don’t prove that we can’t make any predictions about tomorrow’s workplace.  If anything, they suggest there’s an ongoing need for a tool that solves the problem the original DuzAll set out to solve.

In the business world, if a problem persists, companies will continue making products to solve the problem.

Persistent problems show needed skills

We can make some reasonable guesses about the skills students are going to need in 10, 20, or 30 years by

  • looking at the problems today’s workplace tools attempt to solve
  • examining what skills enable today’s workers to use those tools efficiently and effectively

If we do that, I believe we’ll be able to identify within the general education program a fairly small set of teachable skills that we can be fairly confident will enable students to function well in their workplaces, including:

  • data storage
  • data analysis
  • process/systems analysis
  • identifying a problem that needs a solution (which may entail finding the root problem among a cluster of derivative problems)
  • communicating a nonfiction message clearly and concisely

(For Career Technical Education students, an additional set of teachable skills would need to be identified, probably on a per-program basis.)

Once we have our list, we can look at our curricula and identify obvious and not-so-obvious places where instruction and practice in our work-readiness skills fit well.

Desirable acquired workplace traits

While we’re doing our analysis of the workplace tools and skills, we will probably notice that certain attitudes, abilities, and competencies are typically associated with top performing workers, such as

  • self-management
  • time management
  • grit and determination
  • cooperating and getting along with others
  • reliability

Such competencies aren’t learned well, if at all, from instruction.

Students can, however, acquire attitudes and abilities while engaged in activities designed to help them master some more readily teachable skills in their courses. Teachers just need to make sure they regularly assign work that helps students hone desirable “soft skills” while mastering more concrete material.

Who is responsible?

Whose job is it to figure out what the essentials skills to teach are?

If nobody else in your school is doing it, it’s yours.

It’s not as hard as it sounds.

And even if you miss something or include something that turns out not to have been essential, your students are still going to be better off than if everybody hoped somebody else would take responsibility.

 

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Learning to relearn in a digital world

There are three main types of knowledge that can be taught and learned in schools:

  • Content: facts, concepts, and processes that are the stuff of instruction
  • Tools: classes of devices (including software) used to manipulate, remodel, re-purpose, and re-imagine facts, concepts, and processes.
  • Skills: procedures required to use those tools efficiently and effectively.

Of the three types of knowledge, skills are the most important for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Content expires quickly

Having content at one’s fingertips is probably useful for people who create bubble tests, but for most people remembering the factual material taught in school isn’t useful in the long term.

Content is primarily information we can look up as needed. Content is just stuff: It comes and becomes obsolete faster than entries in the Urban Dictionary.

For example, for decades there were nine planets. Then Pluto was demoted for not being good enough, and we bought T-shirts saying “In my day there were nine planets.”  Two years later, scientists found what they think may be a genuine planet at the edge of our solar system. Overnight our knowledge and our T-shirts were obsolete.

Similarly, this years’ PD on mindfulness and PBL will be replaced by PD on some other buzzwords and acronyms next year.

Tools become obsolete

In the last 30 years, the tools we’ve used to work with facts, concepts, and processes have become outdated almost as quickly as our content.

For example, the entire tool class known as word processors emerged and disappeared in a quarter of a century.  (If you remember using stand-alone word processors, you probably should be reviewing your Medicare coverage options for 2017 instead of reading this post)

Search engine AltaVista  and web host GeoCities—big names in the information sector 20 years ago—have become Jeopardy questions for nerds. Yahoo, which purchased both companies, seems to also be disappearing into technology’s sinkhole.

In five years we may be asking each other, “Do you remember when we used Twitter and Canva?”

Skills have durability

In the midst of all the degradable knowledge in our information age, skills still have remarkable staying power.

Chances are, if you learned how to use AltaVista in the ’90s, you learned how to use at least one other search engine since then.

If you created websites with GeoCities back in the ’90s, you probably have learned how to use several tools for creating websites and digital presentations since then.

Certainly, many tool-specific skills that were essential 20 years ago have practically disappeared—using a card catalog, writing a paper check, or operating a mimeograph machine are skills the under-20 population has not experienced—but the meta skills for retrieving information, transferring money, and making printed duplicates of written material have not changed.

Twitter may die off, but people will still use tools for interpersonal communication across distances.

The ability to learn to use a new digital tool with which to manipulate content to produce original outputs is a learning skill that can transfer from old tool to emerging tool and from old content to new content.

In my next post, I’ll explore what we need to teach (and what we shouldn’t bother to teach) to enable students to become good re-learners.


If you’re one of the 1,200+ people who subscribe to this blog by email (you wonderful people!) or one of the equally wonderful people who pick it up through RSS or through postings on Twitter or LinkedIn, you know that skill learning is one of my soapbox issues. Here are some of my earlier posts on the topic:

Reflections on learning from work experiences

Learning when those who can, teach

Work experience as education

Use your bloomin’ mind; get some bloomin’ skills

 

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Rural school-community relationship not black-and-white all over

Cover of Why Rural Schools Matter shows small school lit at night in dark surroundingsI’d been chewing over Why Rural Schools Matter for a few weeks when I saw a news release from Bates College where the book’s author, Mara Casey Tieken, currently teaches.

There’s nothing like providing a news peg to make an ex-journalist feel the need to start writing.

The release said Tieken had been awarded the 2016 Lyton Award from the New England Resource Center for Higher Education for her research on rural schools and their relationships with their communities.

Comparison portraits

Tieken studied the experiences of two Arkansas communities and their schools: Delight and Earle. Race played a significant role in each community through the years, but in rather different ways.

In Delight, the school is the center of the 311-person community; people have learned to put community ahead of racial considerations. Both blacks and whites united against consolidation, which they saw as the death-knell for their community.

In Earle, the community was divided along racial lines when desegregation became law. Whites fled. Blacks gained political power. But economic power has remained in the hands of the whites, who don’t have children in the schools.

Good reporting, well written

Tieken writes well. I don’t mean just that she writes well for an academic: Her writing is good by literary standards.

If anyone needs exemplars of good nonfiction, they’ll find plenty in Why Rural Schools Matter. Tieken uses all the tricks English teachers talk about—from vivid word pictures and engaging narrative to variable sentence lengths—and makes them disappear into seemingly effortless prose.

Tieken also reports well. She tells both sides of a story, withholds judgment until the facts are in, discloses her affiliations and biases.

What’s not said

The communities Tieken chose are unique and their situations complicated. Delight and Earle feel almost like two ends of a spectrum. That sense of divergence makes the issues stand out in stark terms, but it also makes the possibility of middle ground seem remote.

I can’t help thinking that if Tieken  had picked two rural school districts in South Dakota, for example, the book would have been very different, that there might have been a greater sense of optimism among the community members about their long-term survival. (Disclosure: I was born in rural New York and after college lived in rural communities in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia before coming back my rural NY roots.)

My sense is that by choosing schools with such distinctly different racial experiences, Tieken unwittingly shifted the focus from why rural schools matter to why race matters in rural schools.

Of the two questions, why rural schools matter is the more difficult to answer to the satisfaction of anyone outside rural schools.

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Good enough writing is a good enough standard

Reading a blog post by George Couros about the role of writing in education recently made me get out my soapbox.

Couros began by referring to a teacher’s account of a student named Maddisyn who in her third grade class blogged about The Dot and got a response from the book’s author, Peter H. Reynolds.

Four years later, when the student came back to share her experience with her third grade teacher’s current class, Couros quotes the student telling her listeners, “It was a really big deal for me … because most creative writing you do in grade 2 and grade 4ish, doesn’t really get out there, doesn’t really make a difference.”

From there, Couros segues to wondering:

Do we teach students to write in compelling ways that someone would actually want to read what they write, or do we teach them to write in a way that we can say we have simply taught to the curriculum?

Is “good enough” our standard or are we reaching for something much deeper and much more profound?

I don’t know what the answers are in Canada where Couros works, but here in America the answer to his first question is that we scarcely teach writing at all.  If teachers spend any time on writing, they typically present what the curriculum says about writing.

Quote: An English teachers' classes generally consiste of students who don't want to write, or don't have the skills to write, or don't have the home environment to learn to write.

The Maddisyns who want to write and have the skills and home environment to learn to write by imitating professional writers come along perhaps once or twice in an English teacher’s career.

The rest of the time, an English teacher’s classes consist mainly of students who don’t want to write, or don’t have the skills to write, or don’t have the home environment to learn to write.

Those are the students the English teacher must teach to write because they aren’t going to learn to write on their own.

I believe that “good enough” is a sufficiently high writing goal for the general English classroom provided teachers teach so every student writes competently.

Quote: Good enough is a high writing standard when it is the standard every student is expected to meet.

Most English teachers don’t want to hear that. They want to think their job is to inspire the Maddisyns, the 1–3 percent of students who could get along without them.

But teachers who aim to get every student to write competently find that a surprising number of the students who don’t want to write, don’t have the skills to write, or don’t have the home environment to learn to write turn out to write far better than they or their teachers could ever have expected.

At least that’s been my happy experience.

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Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck

Andrew Miller posted a piece on Edutopia almost a year ago titled “When Grading Harms Student Learning,” which he ends with “an essential question to ponder: How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?”

By the time Miller’s post showed up in my Twitter feed this week, it had drawn 31 responses.

Polar positions on grading

As you might guess, the comments on Miller’s post ranged from a recommending that grades be eliminated entirely saying indirectly that grades—or at least the standards they seem to represent—are an essential part of the school’s role in preparing students for life after school.

Mark Barnes takes the first position:

“Have you considered eliminating all number and letter grades? Is it possible that if a child does not complete an activity, there’s a problem with an activity? Number and letter grades lie about learning. Learning can never be measured.”

Mrs Hitchcock, an 8th grade science teacher from Eagar AZ leans, somewhat reluctantly, toward the tough love approach:

“On the one hand, our kids are more than just grades. On the other hand, we ARE still trying to teach kids to be responsible adults…Compliance is a HUGE part of being an adult, and public school is the only place a lot of kids will ever be held accountable for anything.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Kimberly Livaudais, who has taught 7-12 and at the college level.

“[college] students are so used to being able to turn work in late or re-test that many of them fail their first year when they have that rude awakening.”

Grades aren’t going away

I see no chance that schools will get rid of grading systems any time soon: They are too convenient.

(Convenience is one of the most desirable characteristics of 21st century products and services)

Nor do I see large employers abandoning grades as a hiring consideration, even while deploring the fact that grades are meaningless.

As an employer who also worked in human resources, I know employers who need staff ASAP are not going to look through electronic portfolios at least until they’ve narrowed the candidate pool to between three and five people: Portfolios aren’t convenient.

I also don’t see digital badges gaining traction among employers hiring for low-end, no-degree-needed jobs for the same reason: convenience. Employers hiring for those jobs aren’t going to click a half-dozen links to see what Josh’s badges mean.

And a surprising number of employers who ask applicants to email a letter of application don’t know those blue underlines in email messages indicate a clickable link.

My position on grading

My own position on grading sits somewhere between the two.
Don Doehla stated my position better than I can:

“We should have grading systems which honor growth, which empower, and which help support reflective practices.”

Such grading systems would accomplish Miller’s goal of providing students with hope that they aren’t doomed to a life of failure without encouraging students to think effort is the same as accomplishment.

Iteration is key to deep learning

I decided 40-some years ago that grading systems “which honor growth, empower, and support reflective practices” are incompatible with teaching content by units and with arbitrary marking periods. Even semester grades are a stretch for many subjects.

The most important concepts rarely can be mastered within a single unit: Important concepts are important because they apply to a great many specifics and have wide applicability.

Students need to be exposed to multiple examples of a concept and often need to be exposed to the concept in multiple ways. Squeezing a half-dozen examples shown via a half-dozen techniques into two class periods is not nearly as useful as spreading the material out in smaller doses over a period of weeks.

Teaching important skills requires even more iterations—which means a longer time frame—than teaching concepts.

The total amount of class time required for iterative teaching can be less than the time required for the concentrated focus, but is may very well need to extend over several marking periods.

Ditch the unit mindset

Shaking off the unit mindset allows teachers to work in environments employing procedures and processes such as:

  • annual outcomes
  • competency-based learning
  • mastery learning

I suspect many teachers would have no trouble getting rid of units if they could figure out how to grade a student’s achievement on a particular annual outcome when learning activities aimed at helping students master the outcome extend over months.

I do a couple of things in first year college English classes that may offer some insights.

My practice for grading

I set as my writing goal getting every student to write nonfiction competently. I call that C-level.

All topics that need to be covered in the curriculum are evaluated by means of written (“essay”) tests done in class.

All of the formal writing and informal writing (ungraded) assignments are about communications topics in the curriculum.

I evaluate each week’s formal writing—one paper is required each week—in terms of a list of characteristics of C-level writing. I word each characteristic so a student’s work can be assessed as meeting or not meeting the standard.

I tell students that once they reach C-level, I will drop all their grades to that point, even if they had straight F’s to that time.

Empower growth

With students writing just three days a week, I know it’s probably going to take a full semester before most students get to C-level.  That long slog is discouraging, so I provide a way for students to see measurable progress in one area that will contribute to their overall grade: writing mechanics.

Every student in the class has the same number of specific errors to master (usually three; never more than five),  but each student has his or her own list of habitual, serious errors in their writing to master during the course.

One student’s individual mastery plan might look like this:

  • put comma after introductory element
  • separate clauses in a compound sentence with a comma
  • distinguish between its and it’s

Each student gets a percentage of the paper’s total grade for having no more than X total errors of the types listed in their IMP.

I don’t grade informal writing, but I sometimes give bonus points—I call it an easy A—to  students who do all the informal, in-class writing every day they don’t have an excused absence from class.  For struggling students, the prospect of a few extra points may be enough to get them to engage with the informal writing, which will have more impact on their grade than the bonus points.

Hold students accountable

Students are responsible for mastering their own habitual errors. I have students graph their progress in eliminating their errors, and I keep track both of each student’s writing grade for the week and the part of the grade that is represented by the writing mechanics.

Once students see that their writing mechanics have improved enough that they could get higher than a C in the course, they are motivated to keep plugging away on the writing.

In my classes, no student ever fails just because of errors in writing mechanics, but no student gets higher than a C on a paper with more than the acceptable limit of errors from their own IMP.

Honor growth

When a student has performed at C-level or higher on three formal weekly papers in a row, I consider that student competent.  I strike through all previous grades and let the C stand.

The C represents what the student learned in my class. All the earlier F’s were for what the student learned in other teachers’ classes.

If they are happy with a C, students can stop turning in formal writing and still have a C for their grade.

Nobody has ever stopped working after earning their C.

For the final grade, I average the last three weekly papers, which approximates their performance level at the end of the class.

What’s your grading practice?

Have you found some ways to assess and grade without falling into the twin traps of giving away grades or punishing students for their prior teachers’ failings?

Please share.

 

 

 

 

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