As I have written before, I believe in memorization. It is an important skill, and while learning it, students learn a lot about themselves as learners. The first part of the process of teaching memorization is to introduce a variety of strategies for learning the required facts. I love teaching them to create songs, do a dance, write it in the air, whatever works for them. This year, when we got to the point where I focus on this, I had a completely different experience than I have had in the past. In other years, I had them read and annotate a text. We discussed it; they took notes. I taught them some strategies for learning the information and gave a quiz. It was pretty straight-forward “school,” usually a moment of simple success for the girls. There was no need to make judgments or defend their ideas. They simply memorized and showed control over the information, an important History skill.
Now, enter the world of No Grades. The beginning was similar to past year’s, but then it all began to shift. It was the first “quiz” of the year, where there were true Right and Wrong answers. They were clearly agitated by the very fact of the quiz. “This class doesn’t get grades. How can you give us a quiz?” I explained to them that the quiz was a first step in working with the information, but that until they had learned it and memorized it, they couldn’t move onto the next step. The quiz was simply to show them if they, in fact, knew the facts.
I set the quiz up online and allowed each student to take it 4 times if necessary to get it all correct. They took it and the first time, many of them got fewer than 50% correct. The online quiz told them that and suddenly they were furious, at me.
“We aren’t supposed to be graded! It’s not fair!”
When I probed a bit, I discovered that because they weren’t getting a grade, they felt comfortable reading over their notes a couple of times as a way to study. Without the pressure of a grade, they didn’t feel the need to verify that they actually had learned it well enough to demonstrate control over the facts. It wasn’t really that they were being lazy; they just had a situation that wasn’t following the rules as they knew them. As the only ungraded class that they have, it is natural that if they have to make a choice between the graded quiz in one class and the ungraded work in mine, they would choose to put their attention towards the graded one. That is how they have been taught.
Their work for me felt comfortable and safe, and therefore studying by reading their notes over a few times seems like enough. No pressure, no panic to succeed.
Suddenly they were faced with a percentage that they could easily translate into a grade, and they were angry and felt betrayed, in some way.
“I thought you said we weren’t getting a grade.”
It took some hard conversations to work through to a place where together we began to create an understanding that there can be safety while there is learning, that the work of learning, ongoing and daily, still needs to happen. Some of the work will be fun and feel easy, and some of the work will be challenging and call for real effort. Unfortunately, memorization and having control over a body of information is the latter.
I gave them a week to take the quiz again; most of them had it memorized and completed within another day.