Do Proficiencies Motivate Students?

Students are scattered around the science lab in small groups. In front of each lies a packet and a small plastic dish.  As the dishes are opened, students rush over to other groups, showing the bacteria-filled containers to their friends.  The excitement settles and the students look at the rubric on their lab and begin to answer the questions by following the guidelines.

This is biology, a class of sophomores with a few freshman students. This means all of the students are taught and graded by proficiency.

The transition from the old grading system to the new system has been challenging for both students and teachers, and has raised some important questions about students’ motivation.


Extrinsic & Intrinsic Motivation

The old grading system was based on extrinsic motivation. Students were motivated mostly by the grades they were receiving from teachers. If they were given a lower percentage, they could try to push it up by getting better grades later on.

Proficiency-based grading is intended to encourage intrinsic motivation. This means students should be motivated more from an awareness of the skills they are building and how to use them, as opposed to just being motivated by grades.  


A Unit of Assessment

The biology course is organized into units.  The most recent was the immune system and was taught in this order:

  • Learn basic information on what the immune system is.

(Ex. Students read from their textbooks and discussed how the immune system fights off diseases with the three lines of defense.)

  • Take a formative assessment where students can score a maximum score of a 2.

(Ex. A written quiz working from an illustration to describe a process happening in the immune system: a macrophage “eating” bacteria that is bad for the body.)

  • Begin a research paper the immune system’s response to a specific disease/illness

(Ex. Students work in class and for homework to find and defend reliable sources.)

  • Learn “level 3” and take the formative where the best score is a 3.

(Ex. A written test in which students describe the process of various cell cycles.)

  • Write a draft of your paper where you can receive a maximum score of a 3.

(Ex. Students use research to write about a disease and how it affects the immune system.)

  • Write a final draft of your paper where you can score up to a 4.

(Ex.  For a 4, students had to describe effects of a disease on multiple systems.  For example, how smallpox affects the immune and circulatory systems.)

Students are not allowed to retake formative assessments, but can retake the final summative to get better scores.


The Way Students See the grades

What freshmen students see when they look at Infinite Campus.

On infinite campus, students see a mix of numbers next to “learning targets”. Unlike the freshman, who’s quarter and final grades are proficiencies (ex. 3 or 4), sophomore grades are transferred into letter grades at the end of each quarter, and they don’t know their final grade until then.

Are Students Motivated?

In proficiency based grading, quarter 3 is not supposed to matter very much, as students are not supposed to be fully proficient in their learning halfway through the semester.

Nearing the end of quarter 3, most sophomores biology grades are B’s, C’s and D’s.

“In bio, I have had one or two times when I didn’t really understand the subject. It’s already challenging to get a good grade,” said Sophomore Justin Murray. “Adding proficiencies onto not knowing the subject made it really hard to succeed.”

Murray has half of his classes graded by proficiency, where the other half are graded by the old system.

“I felt that I understood it [the old grading system] more and actually knew what my grade was. Seeing that I had an 87%, then I knew “oh I have to work it up”, he said. Now all I see is 3’s & 4’s and I’m not really sure how I’m doing, whether I need to try harder, or do better.”

Murray sees the potential of how proficiency could be helpful for students, especially with guidelines he gets from the rubrics. Proficiency rubrics tell students what they need to do to achieve each level on the proficiency scale.

“It’s sort of nice knowing what they expect us to know, having the rubrics.” Murray said. “It’s nice to know what we are being graded on, but I don’t feel like it motivates me.”

“I feel like I am doing a lot worse in all of my proficiency classes,” Murray said. “Not necessarily because of my actual performance, but because I feel like it is a lot harder to do better in those classes.”

A Work in Progress

Miranda Redmond is a UVM student who has been interning with Annika Devries this year in advanced biology.   She taught the immune system unit. Like the sophomore students this is her first year working with proficiency grading.

“I think the first semester was a little rough. Overall I think it’s evened out and it’s the same kind of idea. The scale is different,” Redmond said. “Being evaluated on rubrics has made it a lot more clear for some students that now feel like they know exactly what to do.”

Redmond believes the students have come to understand the system, and will continue to benefit from proficiency grading.

“I think they will do better. It makes it more clear with what you’re trying to achieve with each assessment. It’s less about ‘did you hand it in and get 10 points for that?’ she said. “It’s more about if you are really able to explain these things.”

Does Proficiency Based Learning Motivate Students More or Less?

Sophomore Eli Oliver is a student in one of the advanced biology classes. Oliver explains that he struggles with how to reach a 4 in biology.

“I’m definitely less motivated because I feel like even when I do work hard I am not rewarded for that because I don’t get a good grade,” Oliver said. “Everytime I think I really understand it I still can’t get past a 2 or a 3.”

As U-32 gets more comfortable with proficiency grading, both students and teachers hope that it will get better. Infinite Campus especially is an area students hope will be improved in the future.

“I would also make it so you knew what your grade was with a percentage throughout the year. You don’t know until the very end.” Oliver said. “You’re like ‘oh it’s this’, but it’s too late.”

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