Friday, December 2, 2011

Reflections on Grading and Writing Report Cards

1.     Grades Matter
I have spent the past week writing student report cards. Using excel, I compiled the exam scores, organized and programmed them to produce individual student report cards. I also spent two days teaching one of the teachers this process, so that he can continue when I am gone.
Previously, I thought motivating students using grades did not work because so many students are failing or barely passing. This week, during this process of writing report cards, many students came to check their scores. Sometimes, the records were wrong, so I made the corrections. What surprised me was that students not only came during school hours, but after school to check their grades. Many were incredibly meticulous, looking at every single number on the report card.
Indeed, I was wrong. Grades do matter, and can be a useful motivational tool. It has not worked so far because the students only saw their grades at the very end of the semester, and only if the teachers managed to finish this giant administrative task by hand. I remember when I was in high school I always knew my current grade at every moment. I knew how well I had to do on future assignments to get an A or A-. Those were very powerful motivations.
So what matters is how the grades are used to motivate people. Are there enough assessments to show students their current status, rather than just two exams? Is the administrative work smooth and easy enough so that students can know their scores easily? For these reasons, basic computer skills and easy-to-use software are critical.

2.     Students are Better than Teachers
When talking about poor student performance, students are often blamed. “The students in Mtwara are just not smart enough” is a common phrase in the staff office. This turned out to be false today.
Our Headmaster is responsible for teaching physics. It turns out he graded the final exams, but not the midterm exams. So what he did was that he took the final exam scores, and added 5 points for the midterm exams. This scheme, that was evident on the paper I received, was ridiculous in so many ways. The students noticed it in a heartbeat, and they complained. When they left the staff office, I too complained to the teachers. When I raised the matter to Mr. Innocent, the Deputy Headmaster and a dedicated teacher I respect, he pointed out the evil truth: in a strict hierarchical social system, there is no way to solve this problem. In other words, when the Headmaster is the King of the School, no one dares to oppose him. In fact, neither did I want to confront him, because it is just an additional headache in so many different levels.
The students complained, so I told them that if they have a problem with their physics grades, they should bring it up to the Headmaster, the person responsible for grading. Two students, both student leaders, got the physics lab key, searched the place, found the unmarked papers, and brought it to the Headmaster. He will now grade them. Clearly, the students are not as stupid as teachers so often think they are. In fact, they are better than us teachers.