Failing Students

I read a post today over at Smarter Classroom Management about how failure can be good for students.

As a proponent of growth mindset, I’ve know that failure is where we do a lot of our learning. I am often heard saying this in my classrooms, but it wasn’t until I read this article that I realized that “failure” included actually failing assessments (less than 50%).

Since starting teacher’s college, I’ve be trained to think of failure as more like trying something (a math problem, creating a chemical solution, building a model space probe, etc.), not getting it at first, then figuring it out.

I still think the latter type of failure is an important part of the learning process, but I am also reminded that we should not be afraid of exposing our students to the first type, especially if earned.

After I read this article, I thought about my assessment practices in my first semester of teaching high school. I think I  could have challenged my students more, and I also think I gave too many opportunities to get high/additional marks. For example:

  • I began the year by offering bonus tickets if students completed certain extra tasks that they could apply to assignments or tests (I did this for the first 2 months as motivation, but I think it backfired because they began asking for them)
  • I found marking via a rubric made it very difficult to give students less than a 50%. I started adding a “level 0” as the lowest level so I could give lower than 50% if warranted
  • I feel that I sometimes was too lenient on tests. I always focus on marking process, not just getting the right answer. I still feel this is appropriate at the high school level, but I think I need to think more about my marking strategies.
  • I did find it very hard to mark consistently, and would have to go back and forth between different tests/assignments. I would be torn between adding marks to one student’s assessment or taking marks of another.

I think teachers face a lot of pressure to “make sure” students get high marks, and a lot of the responsibility is taken away from the student. There is the expected pressure from the students and parents, of course, but there is also indirect pressure because of previous guiding assessment documents (we now have Growing Success, which came out in 2010).

I’ve heard from more experienced teachers that in the years before Growing Success, there were guidelines that did NOT allow zeros, deductions for late assignments, etc.. I think this caused (and still causes) a lot of the fear around failing students. The students who are in high school now went through elementary when these guidelines were in place and continue to have the same expectations.

In fact, this was often addressed in teachers college, and it began to feel  like they were saying “you’ll need to provide mountains of evidence and proof dating back years and years to the student/parents/department head/principal/superintendent/ministry of education/etc. for giving a zero or failing mark, so don’t do it unless you’re prepared for the fight of your life”.

So add together all the sources of pressure, my being a new teacher, and (if I’m being honest) a fear of being seen as harsh or unfair, the results were probably higher grades than if the courses were taught by  a more experienced teacher.

The more I teacher, the more I realize this profession has a huge learning curve and I have a loooooooong climb ahead of me. But, I’m always trying to learn, re-assess, and then make changes as I go. It might feel like a two-step forward, one-step back process, but I’m still moving forward.

What are your thoughts on failure in the classroom? Is it acceptable to give zeros or failing marks? In what scenarios? What is your practice?

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