When is the last time you remember navigating to a new place in your car without the aid of a global positioning system? Since the advent of smart phones, most of us can’t imagine driving to a new city or perhaps even within our own cities without the technology of a GPS. At our fingertips we are able to see clearly our desired destination, our current location, and precise directions for how to get where we are going. And each of these components, the destination, location, and directions, reported to us in real time, work together to get where we want to be.
The way that we plan curriculum, assign grades, and provide students with meaningful feedback should work together to provide a powerful educational GPS to guide student success. We can think of the components of the educational GPS in this way: The learning targets and standards are the destination, the grade is the current location, and the feedback is the turn-by-turn directions that guide learning. Let’s consider these critical pieces of this educational GPS and how these can work together to support their reaching academic standards.
Destination: Where am I going?
The first step to using any GPS is identifying the destination. No other piece of the GPS has any meaning without a desired destination. For students, the standards or learning targets are the destination. This is where we are going with this lesson, group of lessons, or by the end of the year. Knowing where they are going is a prerequisite for taking in feedback and adjusting their steps in learning. We regularly identify short-term destinations like learning targets. These tell students where we are going to be by the end of the lesson, group of lessons, or unit. Students also need a full understanding of our final destination for the academic year—the standards.
Supporting students to have a full understanding of the destination involves more than including it in our learning management software or posting it in the classroom. We must have dialogue with students to ensure they understand where they are going. They should know how it will look and feel when they arrive. Students should be able to state in their own words the learning targets and standards. They’ve got it when they can connect the learning targets with one another as a journey to the standards. This dialogue on learning targets may seem like it could take away from the precious time needed to teach the content, but it should be seen, instead, as an investment. Students who are clear on the destination can approach tasks with that destination in mind (Hattie, Fisher, & Frey, 2016).
Location: Where am I now?
As you make your way to your desired destination, your GPS gives you information on where you are and how far this is from your destination. As you look to the moving dot or arrow on your GPS, you expect this information to be accurate, and up to the second. This is the only function that scores on assignments should serve. And as important as the scoring task can feel to a teacher (and to students), the only information that a score is able to give is current location. Like the moving dot or arrow in a GPS, that score tells the students where they are right now toward the destination. But not all grading practices are created equal. And grades aren’t even necessary, and maybe aren’t the best way, to communicate location.
The GPS does not average your location over time. That wouldn’t be helpful at you’re your current location is your current location. Similarly, the grade should reflect where the student is right now. Let’s consider three students: Chris, Spencer and Maisie. Chris mastered the standard early on and maintained that performance. Spencer made steady progress and mastered the standard in the end. Maisie really struggled for a long time, but in the end, she, too, mastered the standard. If we average their scores, Chris ends up with a much higher score than Spencer, and Maisie receives the lowest score. But they all got there! Shouldn’t Maisie also receive the high score? Shouldn’t the teacher receive the high score for Maisie? Maisie’s performance, in fact, shows that teacher’s effectiveness better than the others. Chris came in with a high level of existing skills on this standard. His performance is not evidence of good teaching. He probably would have performed well even with poor teaching. It’s Maisie’s performance that is the evidence of good teaching. To average grades across a reporting period is like saying, “I don’t care if my teaching has any effect on student learning.” We hope students improve during the reporting period as a result of our excellent teaching and feedback!
Another way we can ensure the clarity of the grade in communicating current location is to use scales that are appropriate for the type of data we have. Percentage grades are among the most frequently used but are not the most accurate way to indicate level of learning. Although debates of logic and philosophy with regard to grading can be interesting, this issue of percentage grades is not a question of philosophy—it’s one of sound measurement. When we assign a percentage grade on a paper, this usually means “percentage of items correct.” But what does that tell us about level of proficiency toward a standard? We are not able, for example, to say that a student has attained 93% of the standard. Saying that a student got 93% of items correct is not the same as the student has 93% of the standard. It only says they got 93% of items correct, and those items were as difficult or as easy as the teacher decided to make them. This is why a 93% with an “easy teacher” may actually be better than an 83% in a “difficult teacher.” Our measures need to be more transparent and precise than this.
What about abandoning grades?
There are many people who call for the abandoning of grades altogether, and there are good arguments for this. After all, the information on current location isn’t necessary to get you to your destination. And grades aren’t needed for a student to learn. Some assert that without a number as the focus, students instead work to use the feedback that will help them improve. This is certainly an important possibility for us to consider. Ah, but knowing your current location is grounding. Without it, you’d likely be asking, “But where am I? And how far is it?” Like youngsters riding in the car to their vacation destination, students want to know, “Are we there, yet?” Having said that, we should be careful in how we communicate location with students. There is no reason this communication has to look like a typical grade. We can use colors, symbols, or qualitative data to describe location.
Should we decide to abandon communicating grades to students, we likely want to continue reducing data to symbols for our own internal use. These symbols allow us to examine our data for an entire class or entire school in order to improve instruction. When or whether to share the symbol with students is a different question from how we decide to manage data as an educator. But assigning a symbol to represent relative location to a learning target or standard is simply a reduction in data. We reduce data in order to consume the data more efficiently. Do you lose information when you reduce data? Absolutely. But you also gain efficiency in examining a lot of data. Imagine a principal’s trying to make decisions about resources, hiring, and professional learning opportunities if all of the student data were narrative. What an insurmountable task that would be! If instead there are symbols attached to student performance on skills or standards, teams and administrators can efficiently consume the data and make well-informed decisions based on how students are performing.
Turn-by-turn Directions: How do I get there?
Without a doubt, the most important function your GPS provides is to give you the directions to get where you are going. You need to know where you are going, and having your location helps you to make decisions, but we all know that what keeps us from getting lost and frustrated are those turn-by-turn directions. For students, this is the carefully-crafted and well-timed feedback that helps students navigate the curriculum. Feedback is among the most powerful interventions available to us (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).
But well-intended feedback isn’t always effective. Feedback is only effective if students use it to improve. Feedback should be given as soon as possible, and provide clear information to students on how to close the gap between their current performance and the expectation (William, 2016). And we have to teach students to hear and use the feedback we offer (Hattie, Fisher, & Frey, 2016). We are most effective when we teach students to improve their skills, not only revise a product to improve it. When we can see evidence of student improvement across multiple tasks and performances, we know our feedback was effective. Our GPS is functioning as it should!
As valuable as the guidance a GPS provides, it’s important to recognize that navigating with the help a GPS is completely different from hiring private transportation that navigates for you. You still play an active role in your journey, making many decisions based on the information given to you. Similarly, students need the information necessary to play an active role in navigating their own learning, facilitated by the educator. This GPS analogy can provide educators with a mnemonic to remember the purpose of standards, grades, and feedback to ensure that each of these components is working as intended. With a well-functioning GPS, students are actively involved in navigating their learning and focused not in the task of amassing points, but actively engaged and self directed in their growth as learners.
Hattie, J., and Timperley, H. (2007, March). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.
Hattie, J. Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2016, April). Do they hear you? Educational Leadership, 73(7), 16-21.
William, D. (2016, April). The secret of effective feedback? Educational Leadership, 73(7), 10-15.