My 3 Keys To Helping Students Build Resilience

On Twitter I keep seeing posts from edu-people I follow that deal with the topics of grit, growth mindset, and resilience, among other topics that pop up in the summer when we can’t share our battle stories and lessons learned from the trenches once the school year starts.

Resilience was the topic of this blog post by Tom James that I recently read, and the author asked for others to share their thoughts on resilience (and grading). I left a fairly lengthy comment with my reply, and because I started my blog as a way to reflect on such issues, I thought I should turn my comment into my own blog post. Here it is, with a couple of additional nuggets added on:

I don’t have any formal research on this, but I m a high school teacher who has provided opportunities for retakes and redos for a few years I certainly have some anecdotal evidence to share.

Resilience literally means to recover quickly from difficulty, so a critical practice for developing resilience in students is to provide quality feedback on what went wrong. How can we expect students to recover quickly from the difficulty of failing at a task if they are unsure where they went wrong? After all, if they knew where they went wrong, wouldn’t they have fixed it before submitting for review?

Another key practice that I have found to be important is to let the students know what they did right. Rarely have I had students consistently miss the mark so badly that they did nothing correctly on their assignments. But I found that my time-saving grading practice of only pointing out what needed to be fixed led to students feeling only like failures. Students became less resilient, because what students want to be resilient when they know they will only be told how wrong they were the next time? Once I started pointing out what the students did well they were noticeably more likely to have a desire to fix the things that needed fixing.

Finally, a strategy that I will be implementing this school year is one that is a vital component of standards based grading: ditching the letter grades and, more importantly I think, the percentages. Letter grades and percentages give students an out. They give them the choice of accepting inadequate performance. They do this because they are considered a final evaluation of performance because that’s how they have been used for so long. Once students see a letter grade or percentage, they believe that’s it, that’s the end of the learning of that topic, that’s the end of my opportunity to master the topic. Some teachers use rubrics to show students exactly what they need to do to earn high marks, but the standard 3-5 point rubric still gives the students the opportunity to choose a poor, but “passing” level of performance. If we want students to reach a certain level of proficiency, why not make that the only choice? The 1 point rubric helps develop resilience by not letting students choose otherwise – they either get 0 or they are proficient, with unlimited attempts to get to proficient. I personally prefer the 2 point rubric. This allows for a proficient level of understanding and a mastery level. Every student should be expected to reach the proficient level, but students who go above and beyond the proficient level and demonstrate an unusually deep understanding of the topic should be rewarded for doing so.

I’m nervous about implementing this new grading system. I find the same questions running through my mind:

  • How many attempts will most students need to reach proficiency?
  • What will I do if a student tries over and over again but can’t seem to ‘get it’? Do they cut their losses and move on? Will they be OK with that since they will essentially get a 0 for that topic?
  • Do I have enough supplemental and enriching content and activities for students who reach proficiency on all the topics before the term is over?

Though I’m nervous, I know that such a system will really force the students to show me that they know the material at an acceptable level of understanding.

The Case For Re-Do’s and Retakes (HINT: It’s about the LEARNING)

I was perusing my twitter feed and came across this post from @Jason_appel:

   

Because I’ve been studying Standards-Based Learning and Grading heavily since late spring, I thought I would share my thoughts on these questions that Jason raised about allowing re-do’s and retakes. If you already viewed the Google Doc linked in this tweet:

 

feel free to disregard the following text, which is exactly what appeared in the Google Doc. However, I would really appreciate your thoughts about my responses to Jason in the form of a comment at the end of this post. That’s one of my main goals for this blog – to get feedback from others.

If you did not see the Google Doc, read on, and please share your thoughts in a comment at the end of this post.

 

“I want to hold students accountable for preparing ahead of time.”

There is only one problem with this statement, and that is the word “accountable.” We should only hold students accountable for demonstrating of learning, not soft skills. Are soft skills important? Absolutely, but that is not what we are assessing. Things like preparation, attendance, and staying on task are all behaviors that LEAD to successful learning, but are not things for which we need to hold students “accountable.” What if I don’t even need to prepare ahead of time? What if I can successfully demonstrate mastery without preparing ahead of time? Should there be an asterisk next to my performance indicator because I didn’t effectively prepare ahead of time? Students who NEED to prepare ahead of time will see the VALUE in doing so when they perform better after better preparation on subsequent assessments.

 

“Will students take a test to see questions, then prepare to retake for a better grade? (Answer is yes)”

Actually, the answer is only ‘yes’ if the retake is the exact same test and only requires them to regurgitate facts or processes they have been ‘programmed’ to do. If students can simply memorize answers for the retake, maybe the problem is that the assessment is not an effective demonstration of LEARNING but is rather a demonstration of MEMORIZING. Consider making the assessment questions more authentic, ones that require real understanding of the concepts and putting the concepts into real situations. Is this more work for the teacher? Absolutely. Is creating multiple versions of the assessment for retake purposes more work for the teacher? Absolutely. But as teachers, we are to serve students, not necessarily make our lives more convenient or less stressful. Work with your department to share the load of creating these authentic assessments so that each teacher does not bear the burden alone.

 

“How does grading factor in? Should a student who shows mastery only after multiple attempts be able to get the same grade as a student who shows mastery on first attempt? My students and parents will see this as unfair.”

Yes, they should get the same grade, because they have both reached the goal set for all students: mastery of the content. Why does the path make a difference? Why should students who show mastery after only one attempt be made to do it over and over again? Or, if you want to consider fairness, how fair is it to only let students attempt mastery one time? Remember that the goal is to show mastery, not to show mastery in one try. Rick Wormeli, who you responded to in your tweet has used this example many times…think of all the professional tests required to gain certification: the bar exam, the driver’s license exam, grad school entrance exams, CPA exams, heck, even the Praxis exams to become a teacher. All of these allow the test takers to take them more than once, and only their most recent score is considered for certification. Why do we hold teenage high school students to a much stricter standard? I would also recommend that you check out Rick’s “Fair Isn’t Always Equal.”

 

“What is a student’s mindset if they go into an assessment expecting to retake it? This happens all the time in my class. 10 minutes in: ‘Can I retake this?’”

It seems like you are assuming each student’s mindset who is expecting to retake it is one of ‘I’m totally gaming this system – I don’t really need to know anything, I’ll just eventually memorize all the answers and get a 100%.’

Maybe a student would treat the initial attempt as a trial run, so they know exactly what they are expected to know and be able to do. Maybe when that student asks ‘Can I retake this?’ they want to know that, even if they fail, they will get to try again, to persevere and eventually show you that they can do it. Is that unacceptable? How less intimidating would it be if students could go into a test of some sort and not have to really worry about scoring well, but be able to just focus on actually knowing the test material? Wouldn’t that be a better reflection of what the student learned? The bottom line is that in standards-based grading, you must show mastery or you don’t get credit, so being allowed to retake a test or other type of assessment is crucial. Students are no longer allowed to accept a 60% (which tells the student what, exactly, anyway?) – they will master the content or be given an incomplete. When you shift to such a philosophy, students will generally not approach retakes as ‘gaming the system’ but rather as another chance to show they’ve learned the material and can demonstrate mastery. And regardless, if students want to put themselves in a position to do EXTRA work by putting in EXTRA time to do a retake, doesn’t that tell you that they are interested in performing well? Why should they be denied that chance?

 

“Does allowing retakes of assessments prepare students for college? I don’t think colleges are allowing retakes at all.”

My personal response to this is that we are not preparing all students for college. Not all will go to college, and not all will go to the same types of colleges – some may go to colleges that do allow retakes and some might go to colleges that don’t. Unless we analyze the retake policies of every college available we won’t know that, but yes, I would agree that generally colleges do not allow retakes. However, by allowing students in high school to retake assessments, we are putting emphasis on the LEARNING rather than the assessment, which is just the vehicle for demonstrating learning. By allowing retakes in high school, students are free to explore the best way for them to learn, to try different methods or strategies, because they will be allowed to test out those strategies without fear of failure because they know they will be able to try again. By doing so, they will figure out their personal best methods for preparing for exams in college, putting themselves in a much better position to succeed on the first try.

I would also point out that in college, students have MUCH more time during the day to focus on their studies and prepare, and have many more resources for getting help than they do in high school. I would imagine you would be hard-pressed to find an undergraduate student who goes from one class to the next, with maybe 5-10 minutes in between, from 8:00-3:00, Monday through Friday, like most high school students generally do. That alone makes it much more feasible for students to be able to prepare for their one attempt at college exams.

 

To conclude, the point of retakes is to allow our students to actually LEARN, not prepare for some test. By relieving the stress of having to perform on one attempt at an assessment, students are free to learn without risk of failure. Failure becomes a natural part of the process, not a shameful conclusion.