Homework Follow-up

A student asked me today about my blog. "Don't you write it for teachers?"

I've never specifically thought about my target audience much, but yeah, I suppose most posts are for teachers. It's not that I'm specifically avoiding writing for students, I just don't think I'm the right person to target the 16-year-old-girl demographic. Which made it all the more surprising when my recent post about homework was not only read by some students, but shared by them. I had three different girls stop me in the hallway and say they really liked the post, and one even went so far as to tell her teacher to read it too.

In that post, I specifically avoided suggesting that teachers should never give homework. If I had said that, it would be obvious why my students agreed so strongly. Instead, I simply suggested that teachers should be more aware of the realities their students face. The fact that students responded so positively to that message tells me they would welcome the chance to engage their teachers in this line of dialogue.

When I was in high school, one of my classmates asked our World History teacher why he never gave surveys to the students at the end of the year like other teachers did. His response: "What does a 16-year-old know about education?" While he may have been particularly blunt, his opinion wasn't rare. Most of my colleagues now are more open-minded than that, but that attitude persists. And yes, after almost ten years of teaching, I do know more about education than my students, but that doesn't mean some of them don't spend time thinking about how they learn just as I think about how I teach.

So whether it's homework or grading policies, I've started more frequently asking students what they think. "How long did this assignment take you? How much do you think it should be worth? What's a good assignment to finish up this unit?" It's not that I've given over my lesson-planning to my students, and I still override them pretty frequently, but I'm definitely a better teacher now that I'm able to have those conversations with them. My first few years of teaching I didn't always have that confidence to ask their opinion, but after a few years of being humbled in the classroom, that's no longer an issue. I welcome their take, and it's often more thoughtful than I'd expect.

Which takes me back to my conversation this morning:

"Don't you write it for teachers?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Why?"

"It just seems like the teachers who need to read it the most probably won't."

We try to teach our students to be "open to growth", and we teachers need to model that too. I don't think there's anything special about my blog, but I'm definitely a better teacher for having sought out a variety of opinions. Yes, even (especially) those of teenagers.


Our online gradebook displays grades with one decimal point. And according to the company's online forums, many teachers and college professors around the country are quite upset with this lack of precision. How can a teacher possibly rate a student's performance if they don't know if their grade is a 92.44% or a 92.45%?

For me, grading is one of the hardest parts about teaching. It's not easy to assign numerical grades to students' work, especially knowing just how many students tend to conflate that grade in the course with their value as a person. (Not that we teachers should get any sympathy from students for this–their job is hard too.) Anything we teachers can do to make it more objective removes a bit of that psychic burden.

But we have to admit that there's always a subjective quality to grading, from the creation of the assessments to the grading of them. We can try to limit the subjective portion, but my fear is that using our fancy digital gradebooks to give more precise numbers only gives the illusion of objectivity. "I'm sorry, Bertha, I know you're a great student, but you only earned 89.99% of the available points this semester, so that's just not an A."

Some teachers are fine with that philosophy, and that's OK. Of course, there has to be a cutoff between an A and a B somewhere. I just don't have the confidence to say that I didn't "cost" them a hundredth of a point somewhere over the course of the semester. So much as I try to ensure that each assessment is precisely written and then graded consistently for every student, I'm not perfect. What if I was a little hungry when I read Bertha's essay, and I marked off a few more points than I did on somebody else's essay of similar quality? Or what if a single multiple choice question on a test was unclear, with two possible correct answers?

There's nothing wrong with teachers who don't have these same doubts as I do, and are completely comfortable with highly precise grading scales. But I can't help but wonder if this has the potential to be an example of the "False Precision Fallacy":

False precision (also called overprecision, fake precision, misplaced precision and spurious accuracy) occurs when numerical data are presented in a manner that implies better precision than is actually the case; since precision is a limit to accuracy, this often leads to overconfidence in the accuracy as well.

It's entirely possible (likely even) that I'm wrong about all this, but acknowledging the inherent subjectivity of grading rather than fighting it has given me peace–I don't lose sleep when I give students the benefit of the doubt.