Practice without Penalty

Somewhere along the way we created an educational mindset around practice and homework that determined that if we don’t count it, the students won’t do it. This idea that everything counts is wrought with misrules and situation that make accurate grades a near impossibility. In so many other aspects of life – fine arts, athletics – we value the impact and importance of practice.  It seems odd that in school we’ve decided that every moment should be measured.

Here is my position:

Anytime a student makes a first attempt at practicing new learning it should not be included in the grade book until the teacher provides descriptive feedback on the student’s work.

First, let me clarify my view on the difference between practice and homework.

  • Practice refers to those times where students are making a first attempt and using or working with new learning.  For most of us, this represents some of the traditional homework we used to do and, in some cases, still assign. 
  • Homework refers more to work completed at home that is either an extension or deepening of the key learning outcomes or work completed after descriptive feedback has been provided and or in preparation for a summative assessment.

From my perspective, I don’t have any issues with this type of homework counting toward a final grade; my issue is when practice counts.  Here’s why:

1) Whose work is it? When students take work home there is always the possibility of outside influence.  Older siblings, parents, friends can (and one might argue should) be involved in supporting the student as he/she increases their understanding of the key learning.  The problem arises when practice results go into the grade book.  The outside influences could affect assessment accuracy and distort achievement results.

2) Flawless Instruction? The idea that I can teach something once and 30 diverse learners can now go home and proficiently complete an assignment is absurd.  We can’t assume that our instructional practices are so flawless that 30 different students (or even more if you teach multiple sections) will all get it at the end of the block…every day; even the most exceptional teachers can’t do that.

3) Clear directions? Even with the best intentions, we are not always clear with the directions we provide to students for completing the work independently. That’s the key – independently. It is also possible that we were clear but some students misunderstood, which is their responsibility, however, it wouldn’t be the first time a student, especially a vulnerable learner, misunderstood what they were supposed to do.

4) With or without me? This, of course, will shift as students become more mature, but in general, I’d rather students do the vast majority of their learning with me rather than without me.  By doing so, I can more accurately assess (not test) where they are along their learning continuum.

5) Score the GAMES, not the practice. There is a lot wrong within the professional sports world, but they do understand the importance of practice.  There is training camp, where they wear all of the equipment but it’s not a real game.  Then they have exhibition games which look, sound, and smell like real games – even charge the public real prices – but they don’t count.  Yes, they even keep score, but the games are zero weighted…they don’t matter.  Then they play the regular season, which counts, except nobody really cares who’s in first place after that because all that matters is who won the championship.  Somehow we need to have more “training camps”, “exhibition games”, and even “regular games” before our academic play-offs!

Two additional thoughts:

  1. If everything counts, when are students supposed to take the academic risks we encourage them to take? Most kids will stay in their safe zone.  Why risk a ‘F’ by going for an ‘B’ when I’m happy with a ‘C’?
  2. If the prospect of the grade is the only potential motivator, then it is possible the assignment isn’t really important and maybe the students shouldn’t be asked to do it in the first place.

My bias on Practice was/is this.

  • I assigned practice and checked to see if it was completed.
  • We went through the practice assignments and provided descriptive feedback to students.
  • I kept track of their practice scores (zero weight) but they never counted toward a report card grade!
  • Most students did their practice assignments and I never experienced the flood of assignments at the end of the year!

I think our students need room to breathe at school.  If every moment is graded students will play it safe, become passive learners, and never stretch themselves to their potential.

19 thoughts on “Practice without Penalty

  1. Thank you so much for writing this Tom. I often feel like an odd duck in my department as I don’t grade homework or practice activities in my elementary classroom. As someone who encourages students with written comments and oral feedback, I enjoy those moments when students realize that I’m there to guide them (and myself!) in learning, and not as a number cruncher for every task. As an educator who understands that I will never stop learning, I look forward to your book coming out soon.

    • Thanks for commenting Amy. I know I’ve felt like an odd duck many times! 🙂 I think we lose sight of the true purpose of school when we focus too much on numbering crunching…likely NOT the reason we all went into education! I’m looking forward to my book coming out as well…thanks! Take care. Tom.

  2. Hi Tom,

    I also appreciate this post. I like the idea that the practice/homework is checked. After all, in sports, if you don’t show up for practices, you aren’t likely going to get a chance to play in the game.

    I remember my high school math class back in the 70’s. All quizzes, homework assignments, tests and exams were amalgamated into one final mark. There really wasn’t a recognition of the need to practice of which you speak.

    Your piece reflects a real sense of the complexity of the learning process. I particularly appreciate the fact that you’re not concerned so much about students getting a mark, as you are about your assessment of learning being accurate. This is an important distinction.

    I’ve subscribed to your blog, and will look forward to future entries!

    • Thanks for all of your comments Stephen and I certainly appreciate you subscribing to my blog. I think there is a huge difference between accuracy and just getting a mark…and I’ve got a similar story form the early 80’s! Thansk again for taking the time to comment. Tom

  3. Great points! This makes me think about supporting language development and acquisition – whether a youngster or a newcomer. Practice is so important, of course. And think about how we support and celebrate even close approximations of those first words that are attempted! Only to be followed with encouragement, more practice, and clear modelling to support further experience and mastery during a long learning continuum.

    Yes, less grading of every moment…..let learning happen!

    • Thanks Sheila. We need to bring the non-graded moments back in to school. I’m not anti-grades in terms of eliminating them; I just think we need some balance in the kind of environment we create. Some of the reason “kids won’t do it if i don’t grade it” is because we’ve instilled that mentality in them. They are exhausted from trying to “do” school…accumulate points to build up a cushion. By grading everything WE have emphasized that grades are more important than learning. Language development is a natural fit…you have to practice and kids shouldn’t be penalized if they don’t acquire it fast enough. Thanks for taking the time to comment! Tom

  4. Nicely reasoned and well stated, Tim. It is strange that this eminently sensible suggestion should be considered to be controversial, but I am sure it is for some.

    For teachers, concern about your suggestion is probably based on an unfortunate feeling that marks are “earned” through diligent effort and thus they are a reward of sorts that motivates students. This pseudo-economy metaphor then infects the students who think that the only things that count are the ones that get marked. It may take some time to undo the harmful effects of that erroneous equation, but I could not agree more that it is an important task to tackle.

    As we do so, it would be helpful to bring parents into the conversation as well since they probably hold the same unfortunate assumptions as their children.

    So what’s this about a book?

    • Thanks for commenting Bruce. Yes, surprisingly the concept of practice is still controversial. I agree that it will take time to shift the paradigm around practice and the pseudo-economy you refer to. I agree also with your statement about parents for two reasons. First, some parents do hold the same assumptions that kids do. Second, some parents are worn out from trying to keep their child’s head above water when it comes to school. One can only imagine the desperation each night in some homes as they see their kids drowning in a sea of low grades for “first-attempt” learning.

      My book…first one, set for release in early to mid May…very excited about it. More plans to write in the future as well. It’s been an amazing experience…I’m quite humbled by the whole thing.

      Anyway, thanks for taking the time and thanks for asking about my book. Tom

  5. I mused on this topic myself in my last blogpost … it is reassuring to read the thoughts of another like mind!

    I don’t grade everything that students do, but I DO give feedback (either written or conferenced) on their work/practice. I have only been at my new school for a little over 6 months and I am back on the long road of re-educating students (especially senior students) not to ask “what grade did I get?” but rather “what comments did you make?” I love your sports analogy … might try that one on my students, students and, perhaps more importantly, my colleagues.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts (*u*)

    • Thanks for the positive feedback. It can take a long time to bring everyone to a point where they embrace the new paradigm around teaching and learning; a paradigm that includes practice without penalty. The sports analogy (or dance, or singing) works because it makes so much sense…then kids walk into school and experience something different. I will check out your post…we like-minded educators have to stick together!!! 🙂

  6. Tom,
    Another great post! I like how you reasoned your way through this idea and made it crystal clear. In particular, your use of the sports “practice” and “games” really hit it home. Also, your #2 Flawless Instruction? is a nice reminder that we have lots of challenges and so do our students as they sit and listen to one teacher despite their individual learning styles and interests. I enjoyed this read and have also forwarded it to my student teacher.

    • Thanks a lot Bernie. The practice v. games analogy seems to make sense to people. I also agree that we have to remind ourselves that as good as we are, we’re not that good that we only have to teach it once; that if they don’t learn it was somehow only the students fault. thanks for forwarding the post as well! Tom

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