A Hidden Third Factor That Influences Math Scores?

I’ll be very interested to read what The Science Goddess has to say about intrinsic and extrinsic student motivation to succeed relative to grading linked to standards, and how it sorts out with regard for a student’s orientation toward either comparative performance or sheer subject mastery.

I’m thinking it will be a complex set of complex questions, and I would love to see the study design!

Prior to SG posing the question of how grading student output relates to motivation, I pretty much thought of student motivation to achieve being either encumbered or unencumbered by a teacher’s grading philosophy. In other words, poorly informed, idiosyncratic grading practices have the potential to crush student motivation to achieve, and enlightened grading practices simply unencumber the student, but eventually become transparent or invisible and are taken for granted like breathing fresh air.

I spent a lot of time trying to analyze what in the classroom stands in the way of student achievement. For example, for years we tried to improve math scores. It was like banging our heads against a brick wall. We used Northwest Regional Ed Lab’s “Onward to Excellence” model, a no-foolin’ piece of work, to guide us. Our principal was on fire and had the intellect to lead the charge. We barely budged those scores. My thinking lead me to this some years later…

Question: Can classroom assessment issues block motivation to achieve in math?

Possible Motivational Challenges:

1. Formative assessments are included in grades (no room for mistakes).

2. Homework is treated like a test – marked and included in the grade (students develop
“coping behaviors,” a euphemism for cheating).

3. Infrequent processing opportunities during instruction.

4. Sparse student-involved assessment.

5. Zeros or 50% given for late and missing work.

6. Teacher uses mean average (with outlying scores) to compute grades.

7. Make up policies are one-size-fits-all.

8. Missing or unclear exemplars for classwork/homework (should match instruction).

9. Recency of learning not considered in grade.


1. Analyze syllabi, grading policies, classroom rules. Check for research-based “best practices”.

2. Check understanding of computer grading program mechanics.

3. Check for mean averaging with extreme scores that skew the mean. Compare to median average of scores.

4. Check grade printouts.

5. Analyze homework policies.

6. Do classroom observations with focus on classroom assessment and processing as part of
instruction (including student-involved assessment).

7. Develop a processing activity/formative assessment “bank” that teachers can draw on.

8. Emphasize Assessment Literacy and grading for learning in professional development activities.

Note: Many of these challenges and solutions will apply to classes in other disciplines. Anyone care to add to the list?


5 thoughts on “A Hidden Third Factor That Influences Math Scores?

  1. It really is fascinating (for me) to think about…and I am most anxious to look more deeply at these sorts of connections.

    I wonder how much of what stands in the way of implementation is related to teachers/admins who are too worried about the “outliers”…i.e., the exceptions to every rule?

  2. You could be onto something there, SG. Most of the excuses I get from teachers for not adopting grading linked to standards start with, “Yes but…,” and then the exception to the rule.

    It’s a fall back for folks who have yet to learn to think. Here’s what I wrote about it July 1:

    “Grading policies need to be grounded in reality. That reality is this: most students will conform to the teacher’s expectations, especially if those expectations are reasonable. Teachers who set up punitive grading systems create self-fulfilling prophecies by gearing their policies to the exceptions, the what-ifs. Those teachers go looking for trouble and they find it. There will always be exceptional students on both ends of the normal population curve who will confound, amaze, and frustrate us, but creating a classroom management and/or grading policy that speaks to them and drags the majority of students into an academic minefield is counter-productive.”

    Does that sound like what you’re talking about?

  3. Wow, this was really good. I’m just thinking about how that would work in my class. It gives me a lot to think about for the coming year. Thanks.

  4. I have 2 words to add: heuristics and reflection. Some methods work backfire with students when the same methods have worked beautifully for some others. As teachers, we need to examine our discussions/advice/directives to students every-day and customise responses to assessments and corridor-talk to the student.

    Also, in Education, as in art, less is more. I would recommend a assessment landscape where testing is minimal, assessments (not necessarily graded) are maximum and a term end project with ongoing submissions sums up understanding over the year.


  5. Jose, vivek, thank you for your comments. This is a topic that I will revisit often.

    I hope you will both participate in the ongoing discussions.

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