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Marks And Marking

( Originally Published 1924 )

Two important changes are coming about in regard to marking. One concerns the amount of marking, the other the method.

It has been no uncommon sight to see a teacher so busy asking questions of the pupils and marking each answer in her class-book, that she had no time either to teach or to be of other service to the children.

The examiner-teacher the one whose idea of teaching is assigning lessons one day and marking the children on their knowledge of them the next is as out of date as is the drillmaster type, whose formal deadly drilling on more or less unrelated, and often unimportant, facts has made so many children hate school.

A good teacher is too busy to calculate and put down a mark for everything a child says. She is too busy inspiring the children to an interest in the subject under discussion or making a contribution from her greater experience and broader knowledge. Also she is dealing with individuals whom she must study and understand. If she is figuring whether an answer or remark is worth 7 or 8 or perhaps 74 or 75 she can hardly be probing the child's thought and studying how best to give the needed light or to use the contribution he has made.

Furthermore, if by virtue of her skill and good fortune a teacher has a class that will take over the recitation and handle it in a way to let her sink for the most part into the background, she is nearly, if not quite, breaking faith with the members of that class by marking their discussion, which has of necessity become spontaneous and unselfconscious.

For pupils who are continually marked soon become self-conscious and calculating. They say, not what springs naturally from their own experiences and ideas, but what seems likely to obtain a good mark. They quite naturally and wisely play upon the idiosyncracies of the teacher, quoting her book if she has written one, her favorite authority if she has n't. There is a certain stimulus to hypocrisy in such dealings, a tendency toward intellectual dishonesty that it is unfortunate to encourage. There is also of necessity an emphasis on the gap between pupils and teachers, on a kind of rivalry that sometimes becomes antagonism. The pupil becomes a salesman. He sells to the teacher as little knowledge as possible for as high a mark as he can get.

Contrast with this the condition where marks are never in evidence, but the teaching presents vital and interesting matter for investigation and discussion. There should be standards of achievement to be reached, standards at least as definite as if obtained by continual marking, but they should be in the background, secondary to natural interest and to pride in achievement itself as contrasted with success in obtaining artificial rewards for achievement.

For while marks have undoubtedly served as the stimulus by which many pupils have been urged on to better school achievement, they are probably seldom or never the best stimulus. They are frankly artificial, to a certain extent sordid. The teacher who depends upon them to whip on her children should stop and ask herself if she is not simply too lazy to find better methods. She should ask herself whether her emphasis on marks has any effect in building the habit of success in each child, whether it makes a wish to contribute to the group, and pleasure in intellectual or other achievement, prime motives for the children ; whether it really stimulates and uses their natural interests; what effect it has on her own relations with her pupils, particularly whether it does not make her judge them by their success in getting high marks, so losing her insight into their possibilities and her patience with those of slow understanding.

It is beyond question that overemphasis on marks, either at home or at school, has serious effects on many children. With some it shows in nervous tension. Rating the members of a class in order, and stimulating each to try to improve his rating, and other such methods of continuous urging, have produced many sleepless nights, fits of hysteria, and setbacks from normal growth. Children unable to keep the pace demanded by parent or teacher some-times even fall into dishonest habits in the attempt to avoid the shame of disappointing that demand. I have known pupils to give at home, day by day, totally false reports of their progress and achievements, solely to satisfy the overanxious mother who counted high marks above sound development.

Then, too, marks are almost always more or less unfair: the more exact they pretend to be, the more unfair they are. It has been conclusively proved that even the best teachers have not common standards of judgment and skill in marking to a degree that will make different ones rate a pupil's work alike. Cases when a pupil changes from one class or one school to another and without change of attitude on his part finds himself rated as good instead of poor, or vice versa, are not uncommon. Experience in having a number of teachers mark the same paper have almost invariably shown such differences in judgment as completely to shake one's faith in too exact marks. When it is added that the same paper re-marked by the same teacher after a period long enough to en-sure forgetfulness will often show quite a variation in the grade given, it seems to prove beyond question that overfine marking is an absurdity and an untruth.

Those who have studied this subject most carefully are, I think, unanimous in believing that when pupils are marked at all, they should be graded in groups, each of which covers a fairly wide range, rather than by percentages. Consequently groups covering perhaps ten per cent are becoming the rule. Schools that have adopted such a method use A, a word such as Excellent, or 9, to indicate membership in the best group, perhaps corresponding roughly to those who formerly would have been marked from 90 % to too %. B, or Good, or 8, would cover the 8o% to 90 % grouping, C, or Fair, or 7, those who are 70 % to 80 %, and so on. This eliminates overfine distinctions, yet clearly indicates the type of work being done. Some schools use plus or minus, or both, to modify the marking or to show the trend upward or downward.

Such a system does not claim more than it can do, and it has not the unfair element of such markings as still exist in some schools, where percentages are averaged even to hundredths of one per cent! When it is considered that if one of two papers is marked before dinner, the other after, or one in the morning, the other at night, the teacher's judgment may differ by several per cent, the falseness of such pretenses to accuracy is manifest. The result of a calculation cannot be expected to be more accurate than the data on which it is based.

But any achievement-marks are at best somewhat unfair, as they, in much of the school work, place all pupils with all their varying characteristics and abilities, in competition in one field, and mark them, without consideration of any modifying factors, on their achievements in that field. It matters not that one may be almost a genius in that particular subject, and not give any effort to it, while another may have the least possible taste for it, yet work with the greatest industry and conscientious application. Not the habits shown or being formed, but the comparative success in returning to the teacher that which she demands, governs the marking.

It is often said that life presents this same condition : that it rewards success only, not the effort made. As an analogy this is a failure, for life allows each of us to find his or her own place, and tests us, so to speak, in groups of our own peers those with whom we are competing. If life forced each of us to be a carpenter, and gave or withheld success in accordance with our skill in woodworking, it would be a sad time for many of us who are reasonably successful in other fields. Such a condition would build up in us what schools unfortunately often build up in their pupils a discouraged habit of failure, because of inability to compete on even terms in that particular field. Instead of this, the world needs self-confidence, conviction, the habit and expectation of achievement.

It is the possibility of differentiation, of usefulness in various ways, that makes it possible for those of varying abilities, varying tastes, varying characteristics, to achieve success in their own fields, if they have the requisite qualities. It is this that prevents life from being atrociously unfair.

On the other hand, as I have already said, the school, especially in the elementary classes, has compelled all to try the same work, and then has compared their results only. It is time that attempts were made such as are now being made in various places to give credit for effort, for improvement, for the formation of habits valuable to one's self and to the community.

Many schools are prevented from making such changes by the fear that parents will object. To most parents the success of their children is, rightly enough, their greatest happiness. The only mistake many make is in living for the passing moment rather than planning for the future. It is such parents who start their children in school a little younger than is common, who push them a little faster, who pore over their marks and torture both children and teachers by attempts to force their helpless offspring beyond the capacity with which they are endowed.

Everyone concerned will be happier and better off when a saner way of marking is in force. For primary children at least, subject-marks proper are, I believe, not only unnecessary but a detriment. Children of such ages should be studied as to their development in all lines, including their response to language, to the field of numbers, to human activities of the past and present, to the various means of expression, but the results should be in the form of analyses of the growth of each child instead of in competitive form. Strength and weakness should, of course, be clearly shown; the parents' help should be invited when it is necessary; but there should not be opportunity for comparing Mary's mark in arithmetic with John's, or John's singing with Mary's.

The ideal way is for a parent, at least once a year, to go over such a study of a child with the teacher or supervisor who knows the pupil best; but unfortunately, in our present overcrowded conditions, too few teachers can spare the time for such constructive work.

Marks in the intermediate classes, perhaps up to about twelve-year-old children, might follow much the same method as that outlined for those younger. Parents should receive a summary of the reports on the most important developments going on in their children rather than a long, more or less meaningless list of subject-marks. It is more important to know whether a boy or girl is showing initiative, or attaining self-control, or learning to live and work in harmony with others, than it is to know whether his spelling or writing was marked 76 % or 82 %.

It is the school's business, of course, to see that a child attains mastery of the fundamentals of learning, and to keep the parents informed as to the normality of his progress in this respect. But that part of the report should not be too detailed; it should not cater to unhealthy pressure and competition, nor should it change school subjects into means of getting high marks instead of fascinating fields in which one's curiosity and interest may roam unafraid and unhampered.

As preparatory schools and colleges are at present constituted, subject-marks for those preparing for college are necessary. They must be achievement marks, so that the colleges may know the degree of success attained by the pupil in each subject. A school can, however, give with each achievement-mark a second mark for the effort or industry shown, and can by this more fairly praise or blame, if such a course proves necessary. The brilliant lazy boy will then not be spoiled by praise for marks for which he has not worked, but will rather feel ashamed if he has not given of his best.

Some interesting experiments in this line test the mentality of all pupils, and mark the success of each in proportion to his ability. It opens an interesting field of speculation as to the improvement in world progress if each one of us lived up fully to his possibilities! Certainly better ways of recognizing success in improving one's self, and the use of marks for analysis and consequent betterment, rather than as artificial rewards, should help in bringing such improvement nearer.

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