Striving for Balance and Flexibility in Teaching and Grading

Kathleen DiSanto, Upper School Science Teacher

As a teacher, I’ve sought to pursue and maintain what many educators have called “a growth mindset.” This means that I always try to be open to using new strategies and methods to enhance my students’ learning.

When I studied science in high school, college, and graduate school, the teacher usually functioned as “the sage on the stage,” someone who lectured, instructed, and explained. But when I became a teacher myself, I quickly realized that students would learn more deeply and effectively if I sometimes served as “the guide on the side,” someone who provides them with direction and support as they discover information and concepts and formulate new ideas themselves. 

In the classroom, I seek to strike a balance between teacher-centered learning and student-centered learning. Sometimes lecturing is the most effective way to supply and consolidate information clearly, thoroughly and efficiently. Lectures also provide the skills, structure, and vocabulary that allow students to then pursue their own exploration in purposeful and systematic ways. Learning is like the process of building a house; the teacher builds the foundation and framework so that students can complete the structure by constructing the interior walls, rooms and ceilings.

What does student-directed learning look like? In my physics courses, it often involves practical, bite-sized activities that enable students to test skills and concepts they’ve learned from lectures and apply them to real-world experiences. 

To study Newton’s Second Law of Motion, for instance, my students perform test runs of a moving cart with a fan attached to it. While varying the speed of the fan and the mass of the cart, students time the cart to determine its acceleration. They soon discover that, as Newton stated, the greater the mass of the object, the greater the force (the fan) needed to accelerate it.  

Student-center learning can also involve group work. When performing calculations in class, for instance, each of my students writes, not in a notebook, but on on a 24 in. by 24 in. white board. This enables students to share their work with other students more easily, a process that often generates lively chatter and even laughter as students compare and discuss their computations. I’ve learned that a loud class isn’t necessarily a bad class, and that everyone can be a little bit silly and still learn.

I also try to achieve flexibility and balance in my grading policies. Most of my teachers in high school and college based their grading on content and details rather than process and offered no opportunities for reassessments. Instead, I evaluate my students on the skills they’ve learned. Rather than receiving one grade for an assessment, each student earns a separate score for each skill demonstrated, and during the course of a semester each skill is assessed at least three times. Recognizing that students learn at different rates, I offer each student the opportunity to take up to two reassessments per semester covering up to three skills of their choosing. 

I envision the flow between teacher-directed learning and student-directed learning, as well as the pace and progress of each student’s mastery, as a wave-like pulse that surges and wanes throughout the semester. Achieving the right equilibrium in methods of teaching and assessing students is challenging but ultimately effective, rewarding and enjoyable for my students and for me. 

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