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Student Disappointment Over Grades

It's not at all unusual for students at one time or another to express anger and confusion about the low grade they received on a test.  They tell their teachers that they thought they understood the material presented in class ("How We Should Be Teaching Math," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 23).  If so, why should they be penalized?

It's a fair question that warrants a frank answer. I've been on both sides of the issue as a student and as a teacher.  The problem is that "conceptual understanding" is a nebulous term.  It can mean different things to different people.  That's why it's incumbent on teachers to make it very clear to students exactly what they will be expected to do at the end of an instructional sequence.

When I was working on my California teaching credential at UCLA, one of the required courses was Curriculum and Instruction in Secondary Schools. It was taught by a young W. James Popham, who went on to become eminent in his field.  He explained that effective teaching can be best conceived as a paradigm consisting of four essential parts: objectives stated in behavioral terms, pre-testing, appropriately designed activities, and post-testing.

What causes so much negativity in students is that they never were told beforehand how to direct their study.  For example, if teachers want their students to understand a particular concept, they must tell their students how they will demonstrate their understanding.  Will nodding their heads be evidence enough?  Or will they have to, say, solve a particular equation in math or write a short persuasive essay in English?

Without this explanation beforehand, students can sincerely believe that they understand a given concept.  Only when they subsequently perform poorly on a test do they belatedly realize that they were wrong. As a student, I can't count the number of hours I spent trying to surmise what was important, only to learn later that I was wrong.  As a result, the grade I received on the test was low. It was not a question of not putting in the effort.  Instead, it was a question of not getting guidance from the teacher to help me focus my study.

I acknowledge that certain subjects are easier to fit into this paradigm than others.  For example, the hard sciences and math have an advantage over art, music and English because the latter three are intrinsically more subjective.  Nevertheless, teachers have a responsibility to clarify their goals. They'll be doing their students a great service, and in the process make their teaching lives more enjoyable.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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