Outcomes that Matter…to Students

November 15, 2016

by Jeff de Varona and Drew Schrader

NTN used its annual conference in 2016 to direct schools’ creative energy towards the field-wide conversation about personalizing the educational experience. The personalization movement has a lot in common with the goals and values NTN schools are premised on. Key to NTN’s own thesis about personalization is that PBL in general, and the NTN model in particular, form an ideal platform for taking aspirations around personalization and putting them into practice. Equally important, advancements in policy and technology are providing an exciting array of opportunities for NTN schools to continue to transform the student experience and bring it increasingly close to our ideal for all students.

Chief among the common values NTN has with personalization is that the measure of a school is how students experience learning and how that experience creates powerful outcomes for them.

At the conference, we explored the idea of personalization through the lens of each of the 4 NTN Design Pillars: Teaching that Engages, Technology that Enables, Culture that Empowers, and Outcomes that Matter.  

The driving insight behind the Outcomes that Matter session was that each of the 4 pillars has an implied  “students” at the end of it, but that it felt less clear for the outcomes pillar. While the adults in NTN schools can easily recognize the importance of the NTN Outcomes for students future success, making the outcomes our schools are designed to produce truly matter to students presents an opportunity for continued improvement.

This quote from Ron Berger served as our entry into the discussion:

“The most important assessments that take place in any school building are seen by no one. They take place inside the heads of students, all day long. Students assess what they do, say, and produce, and decide what is good enough. These internal assessments govern how much they care, how hard they work, and how much they learn…All other assessments are in service of this goal – to get inside students’ heads and raise the bar for effort and quality.” — Berger, 2014

Making outcomes matter to students seems to hinge on motivation. When outcomes matter to students, we’ve successfully gotten in their heads and moved that bar for quality. We’ve made assessment motivating. But how do you do it?

To make sense of that exciting, but tricky question, we turned to our old friend Dan Pink and his work on motivation. Pink’s assertion is that motivation is cultivated through 3 key drivers:

Autonomy – a sense of control and an ability to make meaningful decisions

Mastery – a sense of getting better at something and developing skill and expertise

Purpose – a sense of connecting to something meaningful and larger than yourself

To be sure, assessment as a means of gathering data to inform instruction and to communicate to the outside world has its place. Perhaps, however, not enough attention is paid to motivation as an outcome of assessment. That is why the bulk of our session was a time for collaborative exploration of two promising ideas for cultivating true motivation through assessment.

Grading Practices

One example emerged from Compass Academy in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Two teachers in an integrated American Studies classroom recognized the challenges to motivation that traditional grading practices can have, and decided to run an experiment. They devised a grading approach that pushes for learning and growth, rather than “playing for points.” This approach is described in a letter they sent home to parents.

The approach zeros in on the mistaken assumption traditional grading makes by attempting motivation through “carrots and sticks,” which Pink notes is not only ineffective, but actually counterproductive. The teachers at Compass Academy transformed grades from the motivation to earn points, to a situation in which students are motivated by the potential to learn and grow – hitting on the “mastery” element described by Pink.

Portfolio Defenses

A second example came from the Los Angeles School of Global Studies, who has developed a Senior Portfolio Defense over the course of several years of experimentation. What started as a “College and Career Night” eventually morphed into a graduation requirement where students chose three “artifacts” to defend to a panel. The process is described in a slide deck intended for students.

This approach aims at the “autonomy” and “purpose” pieces, giving students choice and ownership, as well as a larger purpose when defending to a public audience

Your Turn

How are your assessment practices affecting student motivation?

Do they take advantage of the opportunities to tap into Autonomy, Mastery, or Purpose?

Which of your assessments raise that internal bar students have for the quality of their own work?

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