February 22, 2011

Meaningful Assessment Without Grades

I just completed assessing melody composition projects and accompanying critical analyses submitted by students in my Music Theory I class.  The students worked in small groups to learn content-related information necessary for completion of the project, then applied his/her learning in composing a children's "learning" song (similar to that of the "ABCs" song) for a self-selected learning topic (such as days of the week, oceans, months, planets, etc.). They worked for 2 weeks composing, sharing their efforts both with myself and their learning group throughout the time period, revising their compositions, and sharing again. Final projects were taught to the class by the composers, with written critical analyses posted along with the melodies to a class website for all to review and comment.

For the first time that I can recall, the project assessment process was actually enjoyable for me, and I hope valuable for students. No grades were assigned, no rubrics, no points, no percentages (thank you Joe Bower). Rather, I evaluated each melody and analysis in a narrative manner, then met individually with each student to discuss their projects.

The individual meetings allowed me to express my thoughts and offer suggestions, but also helped me to better understand each students' thinking and considerations for the decisions made. In short, our assessment meetings opened a dialog between teacher and student, a conduit for growth and thinking, and established a connection with my students that I haven't experienced previously. Each conversation was different, unique, allowing us explore new creative approaches and possibilities, and to better understand the consequences of certain decisions. Our conversations also gave me the chance to fill in any gaps in student understanding that arose or were exhibited. In short, this assessment approach offered specific, direct, and meaningful feedback to each student in a way that assigning a grade or providing written comments alone cannot offer.

Yes, a grade could be assigned  to each project in addition the student-teacher dialog, but what would be the value in doing so? If the personal assessment already shared through dialog with the student gives the feedback necessary to help the student develop and learn in the future, what added value does placing a number or letter on an assignment have? Grading only serves to make the learning process more competitive and potentially destructive, as students compare their scores with their peers and against an arbitrary measure of learning, and quite likely would stifle individual creativity as students strive to meet a singular view of what is "good."

Instead, unfettered by grades or creative expectations, my students shared some wonderfully creative compositions that were clearly effective and memorable. And, I am very pleased to say, not one student asked what grade they received for their project.

Admittedly, I put forth much more effort and devoted significantly more time to assessing each project in this manner, but the benefit in doing so is potentially greater student learning, creativity, responsibility, and growth. I will use this assessment approach again.

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