Thoughts for Thursday: Process over Outcomes

Process over Outcomes

First, I know it’s Friday.  I got busy with client work and other shenanigans this week that ate up a lot more of my time than I’d planned for.  I’m really having a hard time managing my time lately with all of the plates I have spinning, so I’m sorry If you were looking forward to this article yesterday.  

One of my jobs at the moment is at a local community college teaching business writing.  It’s finals week, so grading and writing the test took a lot of time this week. Because it’s the end of the semester, I’ve also been inundated with e-mails from students desperate to raise their grades. This got me thinking about today’s (yesterday’s) topic.

Teaching y’all about teaching…

Many of these students have put in minimal effort throughout the semester, and they are hoping that by some miracle the final exam of the final paper will get them a passing grade.  Let’s get all meta about education for a moment, shall we…

First of all, a good teacher sets up his (Sorry, ladies. I’m writing from my own perspective and experience, so I’ll be using masculine pronouns here.) class so that the work is the thing, not the tests or final projects.  This is because a good teacher knows that learning is about process, not a final grade. This is as true for math and science as it is for language and art.

The purpose of the course I taught this semester was to prepare my students for English 101.  We discussed the writing process from the very beginning, and talked over and over about revision, thoughtful writing, and intentional language.  I designed the class so that the homework assignments were worth 50 percent of the grade, and all other projects, tests, quizzes, and the final paper made up smaller percentages of the rest of the grade.

Fish climbing trees…

There are a couple of reasons I set things up this way.  First, I want my students to succeed, and many of them have test anxiety or other performance issues when it comes to high-stakes situations.  By giving them a chance to pass – even if they don’t pass a final exam or miss the mark on a final paper – I can keep them engaged for the whole term.  Second, think about the point of an exam or a final paper. The purpose for these activities is to assess a student’s learning. Einstein is often quoted as saying “…if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”  Tests are one way to measure learning. Papers are another. Presentations are still another. So is homework.

The point is, there are myriad ways to assess outcomes and skills, and it is unfair to students to judge their learning based mostly on a single performance outcome.  From the learner’s perspective, it’s unfair to judge one’s self this way, too. If you are worried about a grade, you’re not worrying about the skills. I have had students who probably learned more math (by trying to calculate their chances of passing) in my ELA classes than anything having to do with literacy.  

So what, then – get rid of grades?

No.  Not exactly.  What I want to try is getting rid of access to grades.  There has been a lot of research done about the efficacy of grades.  Some studies suggest getting rid of them altogether. Others suggest we should simply change the language that we use (I’m a fan of this, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough).  Still more have found that allowing students to self-grade has merit. As with any systematic change, it should take a lot of diligent research before a decision on course correction is made, but for our purposes here, let’s just look at a thought experiment.

The Scenario:

A teacher designs a composition class with a lot of small writing assignments, a couple of tests, a large group project, and a final essay.  He gives due dates for each assignment, but tells the students they can have as many attempts at each assignment as they like so long as the first draft is turned in by the due date.  The teacher gives feedback on each attempt, but no actual grades. The students do not see a grade at all – only the instructor’s remarks. They won’t know their final grade until the end of the term.  However, they do know they will be graded.

How would this affect you as a learner?  I know that as a student myself I’m as guilty as all of my students when it comes to grade-grubbing.  I’ve logged hours on a calculator trying to figure out which assignments I could blow off and which ones were essential.  I know that as a student used to operating this way, I would hate this system at first.  The not knowing would kill me.

Here’s what else would happen, though.  I would work as hard as I could on every assignment, probably obsessing over each one.  I would make sure that every piece of work I turned in was as good as I could possibly make it before I was satisfied with it.  I would constantly ask my teacher to clarify directions, if I was doing the assignments correctly, and what I needed to work on.  By removing the grade from the equation, it would force me to focus on only the written feedback my teacher was giving me. By focusing on the feedback rather than the number or letter, I’d focus on the skills needed to address the feedback and become a better writer.

What about you?

That’s how I’d react, but I’m only one type of student.  Every student is different, and some students might react in a completely different way.  I think some would welcome the idea of not knowing their grades because they wouldn’t be distracted.  Still others may become so frustrated in the absence of extrinsic motivation that they shut down or give up.  It’s the ones in the middle that I wonder about.

For so many of my students, the final grade is more important than the skills they need.  I can’t say I blame them, in fact, until last year, I was one of them. Society tells us that the outcome – whether you win or lose, whether you pass or fail – is all that matters.  That’s success on society’s terms – an external metric, and I think those metrics are important.  However, we shouldn’t forget about our own internal metrics for success.  

The Big Picture

Just as I’ve discussed over and over throughout the past few weeks, there is a difference between personal power (this relates to the individualist or Taoist modes of thinking I’ve brought up) and social power (this relates to the collectivist or Confucianist paradigm).  When you focus on the process rather than the outcome, you’re focusing on self-cultivation. When you focus on the outcome, you’re focusing on only the strata into which society is going to place you. I would hope that for the students in my model above, the shift in emphasis from outcome to process could change their entire educational experience.  

When worrying about grades, students are focused on an external metric – their performance compared to the performance of their peers or some other extrinsic standard (a rubric, for example).  They’re not focused on their interaction with the skills they need to achieve internal success (mastery of skills rather than a high letter grade).

Focusing on Outcome is Akin to Treading Water

To put it in another context, I overheard a conversation today between two women.  One looked at the Fitbit on her arm and said “I need to get moving, I only have about 2,000 steps in today.”  To which the other woman replied, “Well, you could just shake your arm a bunch – that’ll get you to 10,000.” It was a joke, of course, but don’t we do that all the time?  Of course she could trick the machine into thinking she took 10,000 steps, but that wouldn’t do anything for her fitness, would it? I fear we’re doing the same thing with education.  We’re so focused on getting the A that we miss the content altogether.

Boiling it all down

When I was in tech school for the Air Force, an MTL (“diet drill-sergeant” for you non-military types) was trying to give my classmates and I a pep talk. I’ll never forget one of the things he said, but probably not for the reasons he said it.  He told us “You only need a 70% to pass. What do you call a doctor who gets a 70% GPA? You call him, ‘Doctor!’”

I have several problems with his logic, not the least of which is the fact that I sure as hell don’t want a C-average doctor working on me.  I know that it seems I’m contradicting myself here by implying that grades are important, but trust me, there’s nothing contradictory about the logic here.  I do think grades are important.  I don’t want a doctor working on me who was only a C student.  Then again, I also don’t want a doctor working on me who was so driven to “succeed” that he took shortcuts to get a straight A average.

I guess what it all comes down to is this:  I know people who have masters’ degrees who couldn’t tell you the capital of their own state.  I also know people who never graduated high school who could engineer better solutions for electrical or mechanical problems than many college-educated engineers could. The degree or the grade is only as good as the effort it took to get it.  Focus on the process, and the results will come.

Okay, speaking of process over results… There will be a Fearless Friday tonight, but it’s going to be a while before it’s up. Also, this post will probably be updated with links and pics later tonight.

One thought on “Thoughts for Thursday: Process over Outcomes

  1. Pingback: Fearless Friday… er… Slacker Saturday, I guess. | Brandonia

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