Gas station without pumps

2010 October 3

Just scoring points

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:01
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I recently re-read a marvelous 4-page essay that uses metaphors to explain why students and professors have such different expectations of student learning.  The essay is Just Scoring Points by Walter R. Tschinkel from The Chronicle Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education April 13, 2007.

He first presents the metaphor that seems to fit what politicians believe when they require lots of testing to standards: that of pouring knowledge into empty vessels.  Both students and professors reject this metaphor as inappropriate.

Next he presents another cliché: constructing a building by laying a foundation, then adding one brick after another, gradually layering on knowledge to form a coherent whole.  Students were generally happy with this metaphor (as are many teachers, given its ubiquity), but Tschinkel points out that student behavior does not fit this metaphor at all.  If students really were building an edifice of knowledge, they would retain more from exam to exam and from course to course.  One doesn’t build a building by letting half the bricks evaporate every 6 months.

Instead, Tschinkel proposes that student behavior is better explained with a sports metaphor.  The exams correspond to important games.  Students spend a lot of effort figuring out how to win the game and maximize their scores, but once the game is over, nothing is left but the score.  At the end of their education, all they have is the GPA: their cumulative score from several seasons.  Any knowledge or skills they retain from their education is purely incidental.

Tschinkel points out that this behavior is an adaptive response to the way they are graded and rewarded for being in school.  Their funding continues as long as they pass enough exams, whether or not they retain anything from their education.  He suggests that lectures, multiple-choice exams, and curricula consisting of essentially independent courses all contribute to the problem.

Some of his solutions are (as he recognizes) unlikely to happen, because of the price. Non-lecture instruction is generally much more expensive than lectures, as are hand-graded essays rather than machine-scored multiple-choice tests.  More integrated curricula are certainly possible. Even now, some programs (especially engineering ones) have much more interlocked courses than most programs, so that students who do not retain sufficient material from one course to the next fail (engineering professors are also much more willing to fail students who don’t know required material than professors in other fields are).

Going back to a recurring theme on this blog, what does Tshinkel’s metaphor suggest about standards-based grading (SBG) and sustained performance? The SBG approach to grading seems to be based on the fill-a-bucket model, with many buckets to fill, but the assumption that once filled they stay that way. There is nothing inherent in SBG that moves students away from gathering points rather than knowledge: they just have to gather the points in many different buckets. They can concentrate on one bucket at a time, then forget it to move on to the next. Since SBG is based on students demonstrating mastery once or twice, but not at particular times, it does not quite fit with the “game” metaphor, though.  From a sports metaphor, it is more like recording your personal best, but not necessarily retaining the ability to duplicate the feat.

The question remains open: how do we get students to value the knowledge and skills they acquire in classes enough to retain them for future use?


  1. How do online educations
    rate, with offline? Are they much cheaper than going to a college off line?

    Comment by Wm. Roberts — 2010 October 3 @ 03:35 | Reply

  2. I think it could be helpful to find a metaphor we like, and want to model our classes and reward systems after. For example, the brick-by-brick metaphor appeals to me (if we can keep the bricks from evaporating, or at least build many redundant load-bearing walls). So, as a teacher, I might think about how I can measure and report the quality of the foundation – or find some other way to show that that structural integrity is what I care about. Clearly, testing only the most recent layer of bricks deemphasizes the earlier layers, and if we need tests to be confident about those basic layers, we’ll want to keep testing them frequently throughout the course. Of course, this still assumes that students remember everything from prerequisite courses – unless you want to test counting and addition repeatedly in your calculus class, you’re going to be stuck making basic assumptions about pre-existing skill levels!

    Comment by Riley — 2010 October 5 @ 10:58 | Reply

  3. […] they’ve been playing the rest of school their whole lives, and GSWP hits that nerve hard with Just scoring points.        No CommentsPosted in Uncategorized Leave a Reply Click here to […]

    Pingback by Smart Criticism of SBG « Point of Inflection — 2010 October 5 @ 11:15 | Reply

  4. “The SBG approach to grading seems to be based on the fill-a-bucket model, with many buckets to fill, but the assumption that once filled they stay that way.”

    I think it should be noted that some iterations of standards-based grading include lowering grades over time, i.e.

    Comment by Matt Townsley — 2010 October 6 @ 15:31 | Reply

  5. […] Beyond point chasing: self assessment October 7, 2010 by quantumprogress SBG is awesome, but in my experience, in the hands of a stressed out, “I just need to get this done so I can get my A so I can stay on the stress treadmill for college” student, the least reflective student can quickly replace “what do I need to do to get an ‘A’” with “what do I need to do to get a 3?” essentially trading one carrot for another and missing out on the entire point of the emphasis on learning. You can find a very powerful essay about this topic over at Gas Station With Pumps(a great blog): Just Scoring Points. […]

    Pingback by Beyond point chasing: self assessment « Quantum Progress — 2010 October 6 @ 20:13 | Reply

  6. I was going to mention what Shawn did, about grades going down in some SBG versions, but since he already did, I’ll say something else instead.

    I think one of the reasons that students are able to let their “bricks evaporate into thin air” is that we teach them information–and some of them even learn it–which they never use again. Either in class or out of it. Or, possibly, they aren’t using this information for a really long time (say, from algebra 1 to algebra 2) and then WHAM! their teachers expect them to recall something from a year and a half ago.

    It sounds like the engineering profs have a system that better builds on itself than the crazy high school math system we have in place. There are ways to do this within the math curriculum. My freshmen just finished a unit on matrices, and are now working on transformational geometry. And coming up, they are going to be using matrix multiplication to perform transformations. So, if they didn’t figure it out before, they better figure it out now. In this case, they can take their old bucket and use it to fill up this new one…but now I’m mixing my metaphors.

    Comment by The Space Between the Numbers — 2010 October 7 @ 06:56 | Reply

    • Yes, this is what engineering programs rely on: using the material repeatedly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen in engineering curricula, and knowledge and skills evaporate just as in other programs.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 October 7 @ 07:18 | Reply

  7. […] “If it doesn’t have a grade, I won’t be earning points, and everyone knows that only the points matter“? “I want to go into a field where everything worth knowing has already been collected […]

    Pingback by What college students (and professors) do wrong « Gas station without pumps — 2010 October 8 @ 12:01 | Reply

  8. I have always struggled with the point chasing idea. I implemented SBG to help this. I still believe in SBG, but I have created point chasers of another kind. My students retest and retest and retest until they master a standard, but often after learning, forget it. I implemented Summative Assessments into my SBG system and this seems to help. Until students want to learn for the sake of learning, learning must be measured. I haven’t found that perfect method, yet, but I’ve found an improvement in SBG.

    Comment by ambercaldwell — 2010 October 8 @ 15:39 | Reply

  9. Your post uncovers what I have found to be an underlying problem: even when you want to teach like a social constructivist, it’s difficult to assess in a way that’s not essentially behaviorist.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while and it usually leads me to two questions:

    1. Does the number and size of the buckets matter? (To use your fill-a-bucket metaphor.) I have a sense (but no evidence) that fewer, more comprehensive SBG standards would make it easier to keep students focused on real learning instead of completing a series of prescribed tasks.

    2. Does the format of the assessment matter? Might SBG work better if the assessments weren’t sit-by-yourself, pencil-on-paper instruments? What does assessment look like in a sociocultural perspective, and would a system move students away from the goal of “just scoring points?”

    Comment by Raymond Johnson — 2010 October 10 @ 16:55 | Reply

  10. The question remains open: how do we get students to value the knowledge and skills they acquire in classes enough to retain them for future use?

    I’ll never forget picking up my Chem 11C Honors (3rd quarter, 1st year undergrad chem) final the following September, looking at one question, and saying “wow, that’s a really cool question. I wish I could remember how I solved it!” This was in a class where I got an A+. :-(

    The only way I know of to get people to retain knowledge is to make them use it, repeatedly. There was a recent article on Study Skills titled something along the lines of “Everything you think you know about how to study is wrong” that had some interesting results, including that a hard test “teaches” information better than an easy test (apparently if you have to work hard to remember something, it creates more “connections” in your brain, and so you end up remembering it for a lot longer).

    So you could try to design a major with a clear course progression, where the course used things that were supposedly learned in previous courses, and where you warned the students up front that they were going to have to retain information from quarter to quarter, or else flunk all their later classes. But, esp. at a place like UCSC, where students can have a hard time getting the exact courses they want, when they want them, you’re going to have students whose graduation is delayed a year because they weren’t able to get into that one critical class they needed.

    Comment by Greg — 2010 October 11 @ 12:50 | Reply

  11. […] implement SBG without any fundamental changes to your philosophy, and students in an SBGed course may still chase points, so “SBG” is not enough.  I think we need a new term.“Active SBG” means:In […]

    Pingback by Active SBG « Point of Inflection — 2010 October 12 @ 07:28 | Reply

  12. […] Oct I was certainly aware of them as I was constructing (copying) the system, even before I read this. It doesn’t guarantee retention. It doesn’t stop the point-chasing (it just changes the […]

    Pingback by SBG criticisms « Infinity Goes Up On Trial — 2010 October 21 @ 17:14 | Reply

  13. […] frequently bemoan the fact that students don’t seem to be interested in learning, but just in getting points. Teachers try to find ways to make grading schemes more meaningful, so that students will care more […]

    Pingback by Experience Points for classes « Gas station without pumps — 2010 October 23 @ 22:51 | Reply

  14. […] He wonders why a student wants to have perfect scores on all standards going into the test, particularly when the student express it as “I would like to enter the exam having showed understanding on absolutely everything.”  He doesn’t believe it is because the student really wants to understand everything, but relates it to “conceptual consumption” in which ideas are treated like things to be acquired as status symbols (like some bird watchers’ life lists of species sighted).  He also relates the idea to video game achievement lists as described in “Conceptual Consumption and Kicks to the Head” (see also my posts Experience points for classes and Just scoring points). […]

    Pingback by Recent posts on standards-based grading « Gas station without pumps — 2010 December 18 @ 17:20 | Reply

  15. […] Just scoring points […]

    Pingback by 2010 in review « Gas station without pumps — 2011 January 2 @ 12:52 | Reply

  16. […] professor, gasstationwithoutpumps presents Just scoring points at Gas station without pumps, saying, “I have several posts I could have submitted, but this […]

    Pingback by SBG Gala #5 « Quantum Progress — 2011 February 18 @ 18:13 | Reply

  17. […] Just scoring points […]

    Pingback by Blogoversary « Gas station without pumps — 2011 June 5 @ 10:51 | Reply

  18. […] of markers of learning, that is, points, grades, and test scores, with actual learning (see Just scoring points, or any of the dozens of major cheating scandals in the news over the last few years). Pretending […]

    Pingback by Don’t show me your badge « Gas station without pumps — 2012 November 10 @ 23:15 | Reply

  19. […] that I can convince more of the students to get out of answer-getting and point-scoring mode (see Just scoring points) on the quizzes and rework any problems they get wrong—I’m tired of asking essentially the […]

    Pingback by Starting new quarter | Gas station without pumps — 2018 April 1 @ 17:20 | Reply

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