Weighted grades suck

Man, I’ve been gone for far too long. I mean my last post was like back in the Reagan administration! So I thought I’d come back to blogging with something not really too techy but nonetheless important. I want to talk about weighted grades and how bad they are and what we can do to replace them.

What are weighted grades?
Weighted grades utilize categories and then each category has a certain percentage. I know that’s not very clear but check out the example we will be using for this post below.

Categories:
* Tests = 40%
* Quizzes = 30%
* Homework = 20%
* Participation = 10%

As you can see if you add up all the percentage you will reach 100%. This is the basic set up for weighted grading. Teachers can have more or less but it must add up to 100%.

Why do teachers/schools use weighted grades
It all has to do with volume. If you use a point only grading system, where everything has a point value and no categories, and you have fifteen homework assignments that total 500 points and two tests that total 200 points, then you can see how homework grades can overpower the assessments. Check out the example below to see what I mean. Let’s assume this is a typical student with no extreme test anxiety.

As you can see this student (completely fictitious by the way) did reasonably well on her/his homework (B average) but when it came time for the tests, there is a big drop. You can also see they are nearly failing, but when you see the C+ on the final grade you think – this student didn’t do too bad. The final grade doesn’t reflect what is happening. What is happening was that the homework grades were overpowering the test grades thus not giving a realistic depiction of what is happening. There can be a lot of explanations here, maybe they were working on their homework with a tutor, friend or parent but maybe didn’t prepare for the tests too well, thus the student had not reached any mastery at all.

So people came up with weighted grades. Let’s take a look at those same grades but weighted. Let’s make the weighting for these grades equal 50% for homework and 50% for tests. What we need to do is multiply the percentage by the average for each category and then add them together.

Now the average is 72.94%. A little more reliable. Now, let’s re-weight those categories. Let’s make tests 70% and homework 30%. Now the result is a 68.36% (D+ grade). This works even better. You are probably saying to yourself Patrick – what’s the problem? This seems to work! At first it does but let’s look at a more complicated scenario in the next section.

When and A- actually equals a B+
In this example we will look at student with 4 different categories listed below.
Categories:
* Tests = 40%
* Quizzes = 30%
* Homework = 20%
* Participation = 10%

Now let’s go take a look at Fred’s grades (I like the name Fred). So check out the Fred’s academic performance.

He has a steady 90% A- right now but that will change. I am going to give Fred an A (94%) on his next quiz and watch what happens to his overall grade.

Holy crap! Fred had an A-, received an 94%, A on his last quiz and his grade dropped from a 90% A- to a B+. Now let me say that one more time. Fred had 90% = A-. He took a quiz and scored a 94% = A. His last grade was higher than his overall averaged yet it dropped his grade!

So what the hell happened here? Why did everything go all pear shaped. Why did up become down? For that we need to look into the math.

Here is the formula which explains how this is calculated. I’ll write it in words and then with numbers:
(Tests weighting) + (Quizzes weighting) + (Homework weighting) + (Participation weighting)

The actual equation:
(85.1 x .40) + (97.6 x .30) + (84.9 x .20) + (90 x .10) = 89.3, B+

The first set of numbers represents the test weighting and so on. What happened was that Fred had a 100% quiz average before quiz #3. When he scored an A, it dropped his quiz average which ultimately dropped his overall average. So there it is – the correct math explaining why a students grade dropped from an A- to a B+ even though they scored an A on a quiz.

This is not some mythical grading unicorn that doesn’t happen ever – this happens all the time, every year. I mean how do you explain that to a student or a parent? How do you show them this (or similar equation) and expect that to justify that their student did well. It’s not good enough. It simply does not seem fair.

How did you do that again?
Another issue with weighting grades is the math behind it. As you can see, the math behind it is not that difficult, yet I would guess that over 50% of teachers I’ve encountered who use weighted grades could not explain it to their students or parents.

I’ve even have had high school counselors come to me and inquire about situations like this. These are smart people but in their mind it doesn’t make sense even though it is mathematically correct.

Now if the teachers and counselors are a little unclear about it can you guess how many students know how to calculate their grades? Yep – shockingly low. Shouldn’t people understand how this is calculated? You bet they should. Transparency within school is key to its success. It shouldn’t be a black box where the only people who knows what is happening are the people working there.

Solutions
The first thing to do is take weighted grades and dump them at the beginning of the next school year. Just dump them man – get rid of them. Then move to a point only system. Here you can have a few a choices of how to deal with points but it boils down to good planning.

1,000 points
This solution is give all teachers 1,000 points. They have to create assignments, assessments, projects, whatever but it must total 1000 points. This forces the teacher(s) to plan carefully, thoughtfully and make sure that no entry can overpower another entry. That way everyone knows – without asking- how the grade is calculate. Just add up all the points and divide by 1000. Simple for admin, parents and students.

The downside to this is that the teachers won’t be too happy. Teachers like the freedom to evaluate and change their course on the fly as they needs arise. Also, what if they spend too much time on a lesson and can’t get all 1,000 points in? These are legitimate concerns but it does give a solid structure that gives the teachers.

Another argument against this is that there are some classes where it may be difficult to work 1,000 points such as drama, music or art classes were performance and long term projects are the norm.

Another possibility is to give some freedom but with a tiny catch. Allow teachers to use a point only system but allow them to come up with what the final number of points will be. However, teachers need to plan and submit all their plans for graded assignments/assessments. It should also be revealed to students/parents as well. Transparency is key here.

Another more radical approach is dumping grades all together but that’s a post for another time. For now, however, if you’re using weighted categories – try dumping them to a more transparent and fairer point only system.

What do you think? Leave those comments below.

The problem with LMS’s

I’m not going to lie to you – I really like Edmodo. Hell I’ve made five versions of an Edmodo guide that has been viewed over 50,000 times and the latest version is more than fifty pages. You don’t do something like that unless you like something, are paid to do or old told to do it by a superior. I’m lucky, I fall into the first category. I know that Edmodo can help organize a class, improve communication between the teacher and her/his students and make life generally easier for the teacher. I know Edmodo does this and more and I know that other learning management systems (LMS) do too.

However, I read an article in Hack Education called Beyond the LMS by Audrey Watters. The article talks about a great deal of issues but one that stood out was why Audrey doesn’t think LMS are a good idea. Her example was Blackboard but this point here really stuck with me.

After all, at the end of each class, students would lose access to the materials — could lose, I suppose. there are some administrative controls to extend it. Anything they’d written in the forums, for example, any interactions they’d had through the messaging system: gone.

You see, she is right. After a class is over in Edmodo, I have three options:

  1. Delete the class forever – not a good idea.
  2. Keep the class open – Not the best idea either. Who knows what it could turn into.
  3. Archive the class – No one can post, delete or make any changes. The info is available but you have to scroll or search through it

I archived all my classes, but if you’ve ever used Edmodo and archived a class and then tried to find something – good luck. The search isn’t that great which means you need to scroll through everything, and it shows so much info at a time. I’ve had to do this and it is a time consuming pain in the ass. My students wouldn’t go through all that.

Sure, the info is there but not easily accessible which means no one is going to sift through that to find what they’re looking for unless it is a real emergency and even then maybe.

One thing I believe is that technology can bring unparalleled transparency to a school. It can let all teachers of a subject/grade level to consolidate all their materials in one place, collaborate on cornerstone assessments and thus make everything better horizontally aligned which is a problem I’ve seen at every school I worked at.

It can also allow teachers in different grades to see what is being taught above and below them and thus bring more vertical alignment within a school. Also a problem I’ve seen at every school I’ve worked in, but Edmodo and other systems aren’t great at that. Their focus is far smaller. Improve organization of a class, improve communication within the class and to help bring more transparency to the students in the class. I love that but now that I think about what Audrey wrote, I think of all the resources they lose out on after the year/semester is over.

This makes me think of good old Omar. Omar, uses WordPress blogs for his classes. At first I thought he was making more work for himself. He had to set up the blog, he had to manually add each student to the blog, he had to make sure they could access the blog through their account. He had to make sure that the categories and tags were all set up and more and more, but at the end of the day (or school year) that info is still there. It’s still available for his students. It’s a record of what they’ve accomplished, what they still need to improve upon and more. They can take that with them (or at least access it in the future).

I like that idea more. I like the idea of students being able to take their work with them from class, to class and year to year. I love Edmodo and will most likely use it again in the future, but I’ll also do something else. Maybe a blog or a website to help correspond with what the LMS is doing. I want to create something with my students that they can take with them. I don’t want my class to be a stand alone class – I want it to be transparent and to have longevity beyong the school year.

In the end, if every year is a blank slate what was the point of all the previous years?

I don’t like email – but I like Slack!

I don’t like emails. As IT coordinator I get what I consider to be a lot of emails – around 60 a day right now. I’m often too busy during the day to go through them effectively and leave them till I get home. Then I spend around two hours mowing through them. I don’t like email not because I hate the volume I receive, but more due to its inefficiency.

Our school just had its first day of the school year today. Leading up to this week I received around 50–60 emails a day on top of trying to do my part to get the school in shape. I often, spend my day running around, completing tasks, helping my colleagues however I can and rarely have time to sit down and address them pesky emails. That leaves me with 50+ emails every night to mow through.

You might be thinking that the volume of email I receive is what bothers me, but that’s really not it. It’s how inefficient it is. Let me paint a picture for you. A teacher in a classroom is having trouble printing and so are five other teachers who have the same issue. Even though it’s one issue all five teachers will email me at different times to report it.

Instead of just dealing with all five issues at once, we end up dealing with them individually throughout the day – interrupting our tasks and thus making our time less effective. It’s not the teacher’s fault. How are they supposed to know that the issue is not confined to them? They’re just reporting an issue that is pressing and needs to be solved.

Another problem with this scenario is that only I see the message. I work with 5 other very talented and capable ICT engineers who are often as good or better at solving issues than myself. They will often miss out on these issues as they are only sent to me. Then if I do forward it onto a team member, they maybe too busy working on another problem to help that teacher in a timely manner.

See – not too efficient.

Now let me give you another issue. A member of the IT team wants to let me know of an issue so they email me. Sounds OK right? Not really. There may be other members of the team who need to know about this but are left in the dark. This leads me to do a lot of micromanaging and miscommunication. This often leaves the team going over the same old ground again and again. I don’t blame my team members – email is fast, reliable, and for a long time the only means to reach out to someone. It just happens to not be a sucky tool for team communication.

Groups

To help combat this I created a Google group. You don’t need to have Google apps for education, but it helps if you do. Instead of emailing just me, they email the group. All of the IT team will receive the email as well as myself, thus keeping the whole team informed and in the loop. I have one person per grade level or subject email a list of problems their team has. So we can engage in multiple issues in one visit as opposed to stopping back again and again.

This helps a little bit but we run into another problem. The rogue emailer. A person who decides that the protocol just doesn’t apply to them or they simply forget to send it to the group. This person isn’t nefarious and they probably feel that one direct email is harmless. Now chain that together with 15–20 people in a day. Yep – that is a lot busy work. Often, these emails can get buried in my inbox too, escaping the focus of the IT team and making the sender frustrated.

You see, I can’t control these people anymore than I can control the weather. I would have better luck getting Omar to clean his desk. :) They act independently and to be honest – there aren’t any consequences they will suffer doing this. I can’t dock their pay or place them in time out – are you kidding me. Also, for me to ignore their request just is irresponsible and not in my nature. The result is a bloated inbox that eats up my time.

So you see – I don’t like email, but I’m stuck with it. I deal with too many people to ignore it and there isn’t a better option out there for me – at least not yet. Yet, all hope is not lost.

Slack

Then I saw an article on The Verge about Slack. Slack is a way for groups or teams to communicate. Despite the link bait headline

Slack lets you create a small community focused on nothing but communication. Check out the screen shot below.

At a quick glance it may look like a simple chat program and it certainly has that feature (even with emojis) but there is much more to it. On the far left hand column there are some cool features.

As you can see there are channels. Slack creates a General and a Random channel (of course you can rename or delete these). I’ve also added Major Issues and Xerox to the mix as well. Then below that is a list of all members in the team. Since I created the group I have control on who is in the group. You can create as many channels as you want and each channel requires a purpose so it is clear why it was created.

When they are online a green dot is next to their name so I know who on my team is watching and available for immediate action. When I send a message, they receive it in real time and can reply. I can even send direct messages if need be.

Another great feature is how you can add Integrations to your Slack team. You can up to five for free and then you need to pay after that. For us, it works great because I can add Google Drive to it, making it easy to share files with my team.

In fact there is an impressive amount of integrations that you can add to Slack making it much more than just a communication hub for your team. Another great feature is how Slack handles linked files and actual files. You can easily find them in a side bar that you can hide or show at any time.

So for example, we were going to be setting up some new computers for about 60 staff members. We needed print drivers, ActivInspire, AirServer and a few other programs. As a team we all had them but no easy place to store them all. Slack stepped in and we were all able to upload our files and make them accessible for the entire team. This has already proved to be very, very nice.

This helps me and the rest of the team stay on the same page. We can update each other of ongoing projects, alert everyone of new issues, ask for help. No worry of sending errant emails to the wrong person, or accidentally hit Reply to all. It’s closed, just for us and gives us a clearer focus.

This isn’t to say that it is perfect, but it is certainly better than just email. My team and I still use email, especially dealing with vendors or administration to build an email chain, but when it comes to communication within the team Slack is the way to go for us.

It also has an iOS app, an Android app and desktop apps for Windows and Mac. They have all the bases covered here. If, you’re like Tony who is rocking Linux, you can still access the web version and if you have a BlackBerry, get a new phone.

Not for everyone

Don’t get me wrong, Slack will not replace email. That would probably be a disaster – but it helps me keep in touch with the IT team. Could this work within a school? I think it could if used properly. You wouldn’t want a Slack for an entire division or even a grade level, but let’s say you have a curriculum team, Slack could work very well. Also, if you have a team of people in charge of reaccreditation or working on a grant – Slack may very well be the better route to helping you build something effective and meaningful in your school.

The fact that all messages are easily searchable, files are very easy to find, you can make focused channels for various sections of your project makes Slack a real alternative to emailing when working within groups or on teams. Technology doesn’t always make our lives better or easier, but Slack is a product that seems to offer more focus, better efficiency and a clearer focus for members of a team. Give it a try for you and your team. It’s free!

https://slack.com/

Back to school with Edmodo

edmodo_image

Ah-the beginning of another fine school year. The printers are warm and busy, teachers are shaking hands and hugging each other catching up from the summer holiday and bulletin boards are being covered getting ready for that all important first day of school. Another thing that teachers are getting ready is their Edmodo groups.

If you haven’t heard yet, Edmodo is a learning management system – in fact I dare say it is the most popular one in the world! It’s free to use, powerful and doesn’t take too much time to set up.

Still unsure, then check out my Edmodo guide. You can find it on Scribd here or check it out below.

Edmodo by Patrick Cauley

Don’t copy and paste that image yet!

Most teachers I know (this includes me) often break the law. No we aren’t knocking over banks, stealing cars or performing identity theft. No, we are strictly small time crooks. What we do, is steal images that have been copyrighted. Yep, we are a truly nefarious bunch but it is nonetheless the law we are breaking and we are supposed to be a good model for our students.

The problem is most teachers have no idea what they’re doing is wrong. They search for images on Google, find one, copy and paste it into their document and have no idea if they are allowed to use it or not. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s there for you.

So how do you know? You want that cute kitten in your newsletter, homework assignment, rubric or class blog but now you’re worried the FBI will swoop down and lock you away for 25 years.

Fear not my fellow educators. I saw this flow chart the other day on Lifehacker that will help you answer your questions.

The flow chart was created by Curtis Newbold at The Visual Communication Guy. It pretty much covers it all, but if for some reason you are still unsure then the safe bet is to not use it and make your own from scratch.

For the actual link to the original post on the Visual Communication Guy click here.