Many Students Flourish under New Grading Systems in the Science Department

The science department has given teachers a lot of agency over how they asses their students’ performances – and it seems to be working.

Take, for example, The Athenian School’s Molly Gowen, chemistry and geology teacher, whose geology tests are always available to reassess.

“Basically, in my geology class, each test is not graded with points – an answer is either correct or incorrect,” Gowen said. “My students get participation grades in class by coming back if they got a question wrong and showing me they understand it. They can come back for a test at any point before the end of the semester.”

Gowen says that the point of this is to be able to asses how students are learning the material without stressing them out about scores.

“I am seeing the learning come through reassessing and note-taking—if you choke on a test, it’s not the end of the world,” Gowen said.

These test reassessments are worth 20 percent of each student’s grade, while labs are worth 35 percent.

“Labs are not set in stone as a grade,” Gowen said. “Students’ lab notebooks are a living document, so they can always get those points back.”

Gowen says that students seem to be responding very well to this format of grading and that she allows for a lot of feedback.

“I let them have a lot of input,” Gowen said. “It’s a work in progress so far.”

Gowen says she would like to integrate these methods of grading into her sophomore chemistry classes, but there is simply not enough time allotted in Athenian’s schedule.

“I just don’t think that we have the time,” Gowen said. “It’s difficult when kids are constantly coming back in to go over assignments and reassess and there are 50 of them.”

The Athenian School’s other sophomore chemistry teacher, Marielle Decker, has also been hesitant to make changes to the way this core curriculum course is assessed. She has, however, made changes in her Environmental Science class grading policies, putting a lot of grade weight in students’ notebooks.

“The notebook thing was student input,” Decker said. “We talked back and forth about what the different grade structure would be – it was basically their decision.”

While Gowen and Decker allowed for change in their grading policies throughout their courses with their older students, Will Kim, Conceptual Physics and Advanced Physics teacher, has presented his freshman classes with a predetermined element of his grading system that surprised a lot of them: homework is not graded.

“I do not check for homework assignments — I give them homework solutions, so they should be checking for themselves if its right or wrong,” Kim said. “I don’t give them any points for it, they don’t get any grade for it, and they don’t get reprimanded if it’s not done.”

Kim explained that this decision had a lot to do with the reputation homework has among students, especially the younger ones.

“There’s a really, really bad branding problem that we have with homework,” Kim said. “It’s not taken as helpful among students — it’s not viewed as a tool, but an obstacle. In order to shift that paradigm of how students view homework, I am trying to stop the coercion. My hope is that if you do your homework, and if no one’s telling you to do it, that you’ll begin to realize that you will learn through homework assignments.”

Kim says that transitioning from teacher check-ins each day to being responsible for one’s own learning is hard for a lot of freshmen at first.

“I’ve had a lot of freshman freak out, and I’ve had a lot of freshman parents email me asking why I don’t have any graded homework,” Kim said. “Around about the middle of the year, my students start wondering why they’re not doing well in my class and then it clicks for them that the reason is that they’re not doing their homework. This is when a lot of them realize that homework can be helpful for them, and it shifts for a lot of them.”

Kim says he believes that students should be able to decide whether or not an assignment is helpful to them.

“I’ve had students who have gone through my class and done very well and haven’t done a single homework assignment, which is okay because if it doesn’t benefit the kid, why are we forcing them to do it?”

All three teachers agree that they owe some of their success with students to Athenian, a school with high expectations but flexible policies.

“Because the science department allows for differences, the learning is really coming through,” Gowen said.