MEA days

With the encouragement/arm-twisting of a beloved colleague, I bit the bullet and gave my first presentation at the MEA-MFT convention in Billings. For you out-of-staters, students get Thursday & Friday off of school and us teachers get to make a trip to share ideas, go to workshops, and get those all-important renewal units (all at our own expense, ofc).

The topic for the talk was “Motivating Students through Assessment” and it was about — what else? — SBG.

My two biggest fears going into the talk were these:
1) no one would show up
2) EVERYONE would show up

Lucky for me, I hit #2, talking to a 30+ person room for each session. I also discovered 5 minutes before I was scheduled to go on that my laptop doesn’t connect to projectors (damn you Alienware and your sleek, sexy design!), but since I’m a genius (aka I listened to people at PCMI who are way more tech-savvy than me), I had Google-Doc’d it, so all was well.

Why waste time with projectors when there are n00blordz to pwn?

The thesis of the talk, if it had one, was this:

“Many of the academically self-destructive behaviors we see in students are the product of the warped incentives created by traditional grading schemes.”

Seems like every teacher has stories about how the kids only care about points, or don’t care about learning, or don’t see the purpose in studying, or just grub for grades, and on and on, and if indeed this type of behavior is widespread, my inclination is to blame the system, not the individuals.

After all, if a student does not understand a concept, and you hand that student a 30-point worksheet due the next day on that same concept, with a test coming up later in the week, what’s the best plan for the student? If you said — work hard, get help, and use those problems to obtain mastery then DING DING DING you are a teacher because the actual best plan is to copy those answers off of someone who has already mastered the concept, get a guaranteed 30/30 and make a vague promise to yourself to learn the stuff before the test. After all, if it’s a concept that takes more than a day to learn, getting a low score on the worksheet and then failing the test definitely earns you an F, while locking in that 30/30 means you can blow off the test entirely and still probably pull a D. (especially if you’ve got a parent that will come in to the teacher conference — “Well, how can Sunshine’s test/quiz average be so low when s/he has SUCH GOOD GRADES on homework?”) And once that test is blown over, hey, you never need to worry about that material again because it ain’t coming up until the midterm.

In this situation, as in many others, we incentivize students to not learn and to not try, to either cheat or give up. Remember the Dunning-Kruger effect. Non-proficient students do not prepare well for tests because they do not KNOW they are non-proficient! We need to build up those meta-cognitive skills by giving them repeated attempts to demonstrate proficiency, coupled with timely and relevant feedback. Otherwise, how will they build those skills?
Anyway, this deserves a much more thought-out post, but I am headed out to teach some kids the only thing in life more fun than math — fencing.
Presentation is here, but be warned! I am not one of those presenters that uses PowerPoint as notecards, so it may be of little value. The Futurama characters come from the grading discussion I do with my students. The teachers were a lot more generous in grading!