Memorization in an Ungraded Classroom

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.

5 responses to “Memorization in an Ungraded Classroom

  1. Being in an ungraded class (or more correctly, a class where the grades might not happen until a year or more later) in college allowed me to do the risk taking I needed to do. At the same time, the pressure of doing the work for others in my seminars forced me to raise my game and not be satisfied with my usual work (which was solid, but lacked the polish of great work). When I try to convey this to my Upper School students, they are so lost. I love the work that you are doing.

    Maybe I’ll start blogging next year as I try to launch my American Culture class whose goal is “rigor without homework.”

  2. Hello Ms. Hadley,
    I am an EDM 310 student at the University of South Alabama and you are very right about how memorization help students to learn about themselves. Memorization is an important skill, and helpful. From personal experience, I can say that memorizing has helped me in a lot of classes! Even though memorizing something seems so easy, there are still different techniques in memorizing, as you mentioned at the beginning of your post.For example, one of my top techniques in helping me memorize something, is using mnemonics. To me, using mnemonics makes the learning process of memorizing even more interesting and fun.

  3. Hi Ms. Hadley,
    This is Anna Shartzer, again. I want to start out by saying how excited and thankful I was about receiving a reply to my comment. I guess we do so many projects with blogs, sometimes I forget that we are dealing with real people.
    Anyways, about this blog post…I really think this “study” was extremely interesting! Being a student, all I wanted more than anything was making good grades! If my teachers would have had no grades I think I would have learned, but not as intensely as I could. Also, I know that memorization was and is still my way of staying alive during studying; however, I have realized that it is not the best way to obtain information.
    I am thinking the same thing as Western Dave…I am just have to create a blog once I become a teacher:) Thank you again!

    • Anna,
      My students struggle with the same aspect of having no grades. When you have learned all of your school life that it is about getting good grades, it is challenging to have them removed. They are still learning to trust the other forms of assessment and to also trust their own sense of their learning. It is very powerful, however, when they can name their successes themselves and own them, rather than having to wait for me to tell them they did well.
      Happy Spring, Hadley

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