Letter Grades vs Performance Reviews

Image result for letter grades

I tend to be out of date when it comes to local news. I also do not have kids, so please don’t judge if I’m late to the party on this debate!

I recently found out that there is a huge push to ditch letter grades in BC schools from K-9. Here’s a recent article outlining this movement:


When I think about this movement, immediately the teacher inside of me says YES! Learning should be about learning. The anxiety and focus on assessment in schools often detracts from learning so this is a great idea. The problem becomes what replaces grades.

When I was in K-4 my school was running a similar pilot program. Instead of traditional letter grades, we received a “G” (good), “S” (satisfactory), or “N” (needs improvement). Along with the “new” letter grade, there would be feedback. The feedback was of the sort that I’m pretty sure they were canned responses from an approved list. I can understand why this system failed. The letter grade system was ditched for another letter grade system with less options.

The proposed replacement in this new movement is a meeting between the teacher, parent, and child. I think this is great. It turns evaluation from a system of grading into one of continuous conversation. One of the core objectives I see in my own practise is to foster self-directed and self-regulating learners. In these meetings assessment is modeled to the learner, so that they can better apply these skills in the future.

While these assessment meetings are great–in theory–do they not resemble the dreaded annual performance review? Similar to the movement to ditch letter grades, many corporations are moving to ditch the annual performance review. Here’s a great Harvard Business Review article on this phenomena:


I think this put us–and our children–in an interesting position. While these meetings are a great idea, I can envision many a parent bringing in their own anxieties of evaluation via performance evaluation to the school meetings. Children may then learn to fear these, much like the letter grade system.

Ultimately, in the real world, there are no letter grades. If our objective is to prepare learners to thrive “out there” self-regulating skills are a must. This may not be the end answer, but we’re moving in the right direction.












Say What Now? Directed Paraphrasing

It’s probably no surprise to anyone, but I read every page of every book I start. This includes a tragic discovery of exact how bad James Patterson mysteries are.

Recently, I was reading a textbook on classroom assessment techniques. It was an interesting timing as I was working on a communication challenge at work where there was some frustration at the level of technical information our support team was sending to customers. And then the perfect technique came before my eyes: directed paraphrasing.

Instead of writing about this one, I made a video. Enjoy!

Knowledge Assessment Instruments and Table of Specifications

I’ve  written a good number of tests in my years. In my years of management and training development, I have also had the opportunity to see how others approach assessment. While I would not say I write the best tests, I always thought I did a pretty good job producing balanced and representative assessment tools. I even took a research methodology course in University that taught the art of writing unbiased questions–skills I’ve held close throughout the years.

And then I discovered this thing called “Table of Specifications” (http://www.slideshare.net/davejaymanriquez/table-of-specifications-assesment-of-learning).

This changed my way of writing testing instruments.

By using a table of specification you can ensure you are making a test that is representative of the instructional time spent on outcomes.

I used this to create a test on a topic for which I have previously created tests. Immediately I could see that the number and variety of questions I was choosing did not align with the instructional time spent on some outcomes. This was particularly true for easier learning items, such as terminology. Often times, I would skip over testing these items as I considered them necessary for more advanced items, but too easy to be tested directly. To accomplish a similar end, I instead altered the value of question types. This meant I could test for easier items, like terminology, but these items would be worth only 1 mark each. A more complicated problem solving question would then be worth 5 or more marks.

While I am happy to have discovered this method, I can see some potential limitations in our technology driven world. I try to do almost everything paperless, so I generally leverage our Learning Management Systems testing features. While there are features for building questions pools (which is way easier than if you were doing this by paper), other items, such as question types or changing question value may be more difficult. For an example, my LMS does not support short answer or essay type questions.

In the over all scheme of curriculum development, I do think the table of specification has a special place. While creating course outcomes, lesson plans, and assessment it is important to keep in mind that the instructional time devoted to outcomes aligns with the value–both in assessment and goal setting. This is definitely a tool that is staying in my repertoire.

Traps of Evaluation: Education and Management Intersect

I have been reading “The Art of Evaluation” by Fenwick and Parsons.

Amongst many different topics on evaluation, they introduce 4 traps of Evaluation

  1. Evaluating what’s easiest to measure
  2. Underestimating the learning embedded in evaluation
  3. Unexamined Power
  4. Reductionism

Upon reflecting on these ‘traps’, I realized that these are very similar to some of the difficulties in goal setting and performance evaluation.

Take good old customer service as an example. It is often very easy to report on how many phone calls or customer contacts a representative has. However, it is way more complex to measure the quality of those interactions or customer satisfaction.

In goal setting with employees, all too often we select goals that are easy to measure, rather than what is important or has value. I think this brings in reductionism too. By limiting the goals to what we can measure, we are reducing development to a tiny box. Not only will this lead to missing opportunities, but it can also affect employee engagement. Limiting the options could lead to easy or repetitive tasks and not valuing development in other areas. I’ve worked in these circumstances—it is very demotivating!

Another aspect is the learning in evaluation. All too often training in corporate environment lacks evaluation. This is a missed opportunity. It is an important tool for educators to develop better programs. Also, evaluation is valuable to learnings, as it gives them insight into the direction where they should apply more effort. Without this, it is like working in the blind, which again can be demotivating. One might argue that training is evaluated through work performance, which is fine. But all too often feedback in the workplace is scarce. Lack of feedback without fail is one of the main reasons employees look for other jobs.

Finally, power. Power is becoming one of my favourite topics in education, as you saw in my examination of “Whole Brain Teaching”. There is an inherent power authority in evaluation. Most people have some form of anxiety surrounding evaluation already, but with adults it can be all the more as they may be uncomfortable submitting to the criticism of others. Team this with other factors, such as coercive management or an authoritarian teaching style and you could have some really stressed out learners! With adults, as educators we need to look for ways to limit this unequal power. Transparency in the evaluation is a good first step.

Evaluation, whether employee performance or learning, is an important tool. Personally, I see it as a tool for growth and development. Avoiding these traps is important to keep with that philosophy.

One of my professors sent me a link in relation to this topic. Growth mindset–check it out!



Needs Analysis: Dead ends become forks

I had an interesting experience recently. I was asked to look into an issue that may lead to either a coaching or training need. The subject matter was in my area of expertise, so as I began my needs analysis, I was finding much of what I expected. Some job aids and a refresher and all should be good.

But then I was chasing what normally should be a dead end. Instead of getting my quick fix like I expected, I discovered that there were actually more stakeholders that should be involved in this project.

We often take fore granted how intertwined departments are within an organization. This is why need analysis is important. Without it, you could be only addresses part of the issue. You could also unintentionally create issues elsewhere in the organization. And worse of all–you could end up creating training that is not valuable or needed.


Informal Assessment Strategy

Please check out a colleague’s digital project on Informal Assessment Strategy:

This project gives a very thorough outline of Informal Assessment Strategy. It’s very well put together and researched.

It kind of reminds me of one of my early ideas for this digital project. I wrote about Formative Assessment in a previous blog and because of it’s value and the general neglect of it’s practise in the workplace, it was one of my top choices for a topic. In the end “Frames” won, but oh well!

While I was watching this project, it reminded me so much of the call audit/monitoring processes most call centres have in place. Call monitoring is so fundamental to employee training in call centres. Often times, there will be a structured checklist which peers or managers will fill out while listening to calls. This checklist structures the coaching and feedback that typically following a call monitoring session. One trick I used to like to do when I was managing call centres was not only assess the call myself, but then have the employee listen to their own call, following the checklist and assess themselves. We would then meet and discuss how we rated the call and why. As a manager that was development focused, these were some of the most memorable and satisfying moments in my career, as this was a partnership in learning and improving.

Another interesting call centre application is what I like to call “coaching ops”. It’s very common that more than one employee may talk to a customer or work on a particular issue. This means they are often more aware of the performance of their peers than the superiors. Encouraging this feedback can provide great opportunities for learning. If the group of employees is not comfortable providing feedback to each other, management can be used as a buffer by having employees inform a manager. The manager can then provide feedback or coaching to the employee anonymously.

Great topic!


Is Formative Assessment Workplace Friendly?

Sometimes it can be difficult to apply teaching concepts to the workplace. Training in an organization is different that traditional institutions like schools. Learners are often employees (or customers) who need to quickly learn to perform their daily tasks. The training environment is often rushed and filled with learnings just wanting to get back to their job, as they imagine their inboxes just piling up.

Assessment is one of those neglected items. For my most recent reflective writing assignment, I focused in on the concept of formative assessment. With its strong connection to motivation, it’s a hard concept to ignore. Without formative assessment, learners may not be able to gauge how well they are learning and what items they should focus on.

I wanted to delve into this topic a little more and look for other ways to apply this to the workplace. In my search, I found this video:

What I really like about this video are tips 2 and 3. Step two has students discuss what they found challenging about a particular quiz. By having students do this you are promoting self-assessment. Step 3 has students respond to prompts regarding the future, such as what they still need to learn. This can help students reflect and look for applications of material beyond the classroom.

In the workplace, a certain amount of autonomy is required. Some degree of self-assessment and regulation is required. Formative assessment in the workplace has a place as it helps learners hone these skills.