Grades and Assessment are NOT the Same Thing

I recently read some teachers interchangeably using these two phrases: “how I grade” and “how I assess." These phrases were in response to a question regarding authentic assessment, so I was confused as this was not a discussion that had anything to do with grades.  My guess is that there is a misunderstanding of the two.  

The overemphasis on test scores and school grades, coupled with our own learning experiences probably contribute the most to this confusion. They make us hungry for grades—a one-time evaluative shot—as opposed to assessment, which is far more long-reaching and entails a greater degree of effort on the part of both the assessor and the assessed.

It’s actually the goal of each concept that makes the difference.  Carnegie Mellon’s (n.d.) Eberly Center site for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, asserts that “the goal of grading is to evaluate individual students’ learning and performance…the goal of assessment is to improve student learning.”

So, why the confusion?  Particularly when our ultimate goal is to improve student learning?

It seems to boil down to a habit or possibly a culture of grading. I don’t think that teachers want grades to be the driving force in their classrooms, not at all. However, the shift in mindset from grading to assessing is definitely not so easy to make. Students rebel. Parents rebel.  Districts require this or that many (arbitrary) grades. 

Further, it’s difficult to get used to NOT putting a grade on a student paper or homework submission and, instead, determine where that student needs to move forward in his/her learning.  Further, students are used to seeing grades as a way of understanding their performance. 
Once we understand the difference, we'll accomplish so much more!

Many of my English teacher peers can relate to the attempt to distinguish between assessing and grades as they would painstakingly work through a student paper, noting where the student needed to revise. However, far from using those notes as a tool to aid in learning, the student would find the nearest trash can to throw that work in.  Probably an hour or so of teacher work, pitched with LeBron-esque precision into an institutional bin. 


Helping students understand the difference between grading and assessment will make a huge difference in their motivation to use the advice and suggestions we offer. They can then actually USE what we do if we make assessment the goal, not the grade. 

My AP Lang students used to go bonkers with their paper revisions because I wouldn’t grade them until they’d mastered the concept we were working on.  These are the kids who thrived on grades, so you can imagine the backlash.  Their parents were none too happy at first, either. I did have to do some explaining, but once I assured them that (eventually) their children would receive a grade and probably one that actually reflected something, they were pleased.  The end result was that the students’ writing expanded into something far more in-depth and meaningful. 

Understanding the difference between grades and assessment is a crucial first step into helping students become lifelong learners. 

Hold your ground.

Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.) What is the difference between assessment and grading? Retrieved May 23, 2014 from http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/grading-assessment.html


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The Guilt of Online Learning

First, I feel the need to attempt to dispel the idealization of online learning.  

This is NOT what online learning looks like:

This is what online learning looks like:

These latter images, though they wouldn’t encourage students towards online coursework, would at least offer learners more authentic insight into what level of time management they’re in for with this kind of learning experience. (Anyway, who really takes a laptop to the beach?) 

There are tons of sites on how to manage time, and several offer suggestions specifically for online classes.  And of course, it’s pretty clear that if you manage your time well, you’ll be more successful at most things in life, but especially with online learning.

However, if that’s the case, then why do learners, even older adult learners, even professional learners who already have degrees, struggle with time management? If it is just a matter of knowing what to do and how to do it, then everyone should be posting his or her initial discussion posts by the deadline and completing modules in time. 

But that’s not what happens. 

I humbly suggest that adult online learners struggle with time management because they de-prioritize their online courses out of some sort of guilt. Something else comes along that they feel more obligated to do or more guilty about not doing. And the prioritization of things, by virtue of how obligated we feel to do them, is a huge part of time management.    

At least half of the learners in an online class, (particularly those who are also working full-time) will start scrambling somewhere midcourse. They’ll submit things at the last minute or fall behind a module or so and have to double-time it to the end of the course. Of course, this hastiness impedes their learning. Oh, they’ll get it done, but with extreme stress and without the depth of learning that will really help them out.
The very thing that makes online learning so attractive—its inherent time flexibility—is also the one thing getting in the way for these learners. Flexibility, guilt, and an inability to prioritize well is a time-management disaster waiting to happen. 

Further compounding the issue is that one of the primary strategies for successfully completing an online course is to set aside time to do it

Yeah, right.

IF we had time to set aside, we would probably have taken the face-to-face course in the first place.   Those of us taking online courses are (for the most part) working full-time and dealing with families. We don’t have the time to set aside time. If we had the time to set aside time, we’d set aside the time. 

And thinking that we can work on the course late at night or on weekends doesn’t make it any easier. If anything, things get more complicated. Late at night, we’re tired. Weekends, we’re busy. 

If anything, we actually tend to do better with the inflexibility of a scheduled class time (MWF 6pm-8pm).  Potentially, we do better because we’re able to say, “I can’t (go to the store, go to dinner, etc.) because I have class.” Others understand that, and we are able to justify prioritizing the class. We don’t feel guilty about it. It’s as though the authority of the schedule makes the difference.

What’s trickier is telling people, “I can’t (go to the beach, pick you up at the airport, etc.) because I have to do some work in my online course, today.” That’s where part of the guilt comes in because we know we can always do our online course “any time.”   

How can we say no?  

To say that online learning requires time management skills is an understatement. Underneath, you must have a backbone of steel that's impervious to guilt and manipulation. You have to be your own authority. Only then can you prioritize and set aside the necessary time. 

It ain’t easy.