• Sara Needleman

Motivation in a Proficiency Model: How do Teachers Approach Multiple Attempts and Retakes?

I’ve recently thought a lot about Ron Berger’s assertions in Leaders of Their Own Learning. As suggested by the title, we should strive to give our students agency. The greatest success I’ve had with this practice comes as my USM students and I step from semester I to semester II in our two-part course on Proficiency-Based Planning and Assessment. I ask them to generate a list of everything they still want to learn about proficiency-based assessment and I build the plan for our second semester from their desires. Their brainstormed lists are good and they always include a set of questions that would best be addressed by current teachers as opposed to me. As such, I convene a panel to discuss those questions. Below are some excerpts of interns’ questions and my wise panelists’ responses.

How do we motivate students in an era of multiple attempts at assignments?

A good starting place to answer this question is another question: What causes lack of motivation? Often it’s the perception that you might not succeed. Teachers need to build in supports for students to be sure they really can succeed. We need to provide lots of relational support and direct coaching of students. We also need to present them with the language of assessment early on so they put in an honest and full effort. And in a truly proficiency-based system, we need to make sure students know when it’s time to assess so they step into the assessment situation with the knowledge that it really counts.

One path to increased motivation is the separation of Habits of work (HOW) from academics. This separation helps teachers and students figure out what is actually going on. An honest conversation about HOW leads to questions like “Are you working your hardest and you need more time or are you not holding up your end of the deal?” If we somehow make HOW grades a prerequisite for re-assessment, students are more motivated to do their part in order to earn the opportunity to try again. The second attempt should necessarily include some student-teacher collaboration for reassessment design. This model puts significant onus on the student and therefore might make working hard the first time more appealing.

At a macro-systemic level, the one administrator sitting on our panel shared that her district has asked the Maine Principal’s Association (MPA) to consider eligibility based solely on HOW grades. This practice would truly signal to students that the habits of work and learning they demonstrate are deeply important to those of us paying attention.

As we continued to address motivation and multiple assessments, one of our panelists reminded us that these issues of motivation all exist in a tradition system too. Struggles with motivation are not new. Those who were motivated before are still motivated. She went on to convey that a huge piece of proficiency is educating the community; the parents and the students. A poorly implemented system reflects lack of communication. When stake-holders understand, issues of motivation subside. Students and parents see that the students have more control over their learning. This is a really good thing.

How long does “The Door” stay open? What do we do when it needs to close?

There were two different approaches to leaving the door open. A few teachers said the door is open until the end of the trimester or even the end of the school year. Everyone agreed that there is no grade-based penalty for trying again and again. In one situation, if the trimester ends and a student is still not meeting standards, the school looks at that student’s HOW grades. If the student is meeting expectations with HOW grades, they are given an Incomplete. Then there is an “amnesty” period for students who need extra support and time. Students need to apply for this amnesty if they don’t have a HOW grade of a 3. This panelist also included that individual plans are made all the time to meet students’ needs.

With a different approach, after two weeks, a particular assignment becomes “inaccessible”. The student still needs to meet the target, but they need to show their proficiency in a different way. The student “loses the opportunity” to complete that certain assignment. (S)he needs to complete a different assignment to demonstrate proficiency on those specific targets.

We discussed that after the two weeks, students will likely need more and perhaps different instruction. They might also need a different type of assessment to determine proficiency.

Another aspect of some Two Week policies is that within the two weeks, and sometimes, within 48 hours of seeing their initial assessment scores, the student needs to ask for help; (s)he needs to take the initiative and make a time to meet with the teacher. In some cases, a teacher reaches out to a student, encouraging that student to initiate. In other cases, a teacher might need to “hunt hard” for the students who are sliding away to get them to do what they need to do. It’s all part of teaching them to lead their own learning.

Inherent in proficiency is helping students see the connection between the learning activities, formative assessments and summative assessments we design for them. One panelist described a new rule he stumbled into a few years ago: if you have not done the work, you can’t take the test. This worked! This new discovery allows him to leave the window open forever. If you have not done formative work, you can’t do the summative assessment. The formative work is the method to building the knowledge base. In some cases, this means students move very quickly and in other cases, they move quite slowly. Most are very motivated to complete the work. They generally want to succeed.

When this particular panelist was asked how he manages such an individualized system, he shared that he creates a parallel curriculum. He uses a Moodle site to provide his students with access to information that would otherwise come from him. The site includes target-based, step-by-step resources so students can jump in where they are ready and work at their own pace. Along the way, he provides lots of mini lessons depending on which students are ready for which content at a given time. He admits that this approach takes time and effort to set up, especially since the content really needs to be focused, but he also finds his students are actually getting through more of it than ever before and each of them moves at a pace that works for her/him.

Does the teacher-student relationship change?

One of the themes that shone through in the discussion is that proficiency has led teachers to reframe their relationships with their students in very positive ways. One of our panelists said, “I know my students so much better as people and learners than I have before.” She has come to value the things each student actually does well and helps them zero in on the things they really need help with. This same sentiment was echoed in the comment, “be sure to validate the things they already know how to do. Give them credit for targets as they demonstrate them, even if that is not part of the formal assessment at hand (speaking and listening is a good example.)” Another panelist went on to say, “We need to see students as our partners, the people we are working with, not those we are working against. When we punish them with grades, they shut down and even rebel against us.” There were some smiles all around at the recognition that validating hard work through the positive application of HOW grades helps students and teachers.

In addition to the notion that, “you have to develop relationships with your students, be able to conference with them and therefore know them,” several of our panelists suggested that “this might require some unlearning and relearning for veteran teachers. That could be scary. And hard.” But the truth is, working in a proficiency-based system “actually makes teachers smarter than they used to be. They truly need to know what they are asking of students in terms of content and 21st C skills like collaboration, creativity and problem-solving.” When the conversation with a parent is about analysis of data as opposed to memorization of facts the teacher actually has a lot more credibility. These new conversations are about learning, and levels of learning, not work completion. The conversations and the grades that support them focus on what kids know and can do rather than on sorting them into groups. Students are actually self-motivated when they see this is the new paradigm. When the goals and the path to learning are clear, the students “own their part much better.”

With deep gratitude to and sincere admiration for my panelists:

Ted Becker, Windham High School

Sarah Gay, South Portland High School

Mallory Haar, Casco Bay High School

Kelly Orr, Baxter Academy

Garrett Sanborn, Traip Academy

Megan Welter, Memorial Middle School

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