Angela Wong
Visual & Media Arts Educator

Student Stress & Grades

Hi Everyone!

I teach students in grades 9 - 12 at a suburban high school outside of Boston. I'm in my 5th year teaching and my colleagues and I have been noticing what seems to be an emerging trend with our teen students. Many are under such intense stress while they try to achieve "perfect scores" because college competition is so high that their creativity is stifled. They are afraid to take risks and make mistakes because they see it as hurting their average and ruining their chance for an A. I consistently encourage my students to take risks and even demonstrate that making mistakes are OK and a part of the creative process, but the mindset they come into the classroom with seems so ingrained from school culture in general. I was wondering if anyone else was dealing with this and what you do to help your students?

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Edward P Jordan

Posted on 11/28/19 9:47:15 AM Permalink

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Lauren Petiti

Posted on 10/10/19 8:08:27 PM Permalink

​I wrote my thesis on this very subject last year. What I found is that it helps to give some restraints to the project but give them freedom to interpret the restraints/requirements as they see fit. Even at the end of the year, beginning students do not feel confident taking risks. It's only once they seem to get into the intermediate/advanced levels that I see them comfortable taking risks...HOWEVER, I think they also know that they are more likely to have the skills to get a grade they want. Interesting.

Jan Michael Garcia

Posted on 7/9/19 4:56:47 PM Permalink

It takes a collective effort to try and intervene on that problem. It's very hard to make a student feel that it is okay to make mistakes when some of our colleagues have an opposing view on the matter.​
​What I try to accomplish as an intervention is to make students see real-life applications of their studies. Every once in a while, I give them collaborative activities related to their future profession that make them realize that memorizing concepts is a far from being able to apply concepts in real-life. This is very common in education, however, adding actual experience in the field and facilitation of reflections in small groups makes all the difference. The only problem with this approach is it is very time consuming and risky.

In example, I once brought my 2nd year architecture and engineering students to a province and asked them to resolve the problem of limited farmlands in a farming community (I work for a service learning department in the university). While the idea of what they came up with was not new - vertical farms, they were able to see a potential application of the concepts they learned - something that is more important than the grades itself. This made it easier to explain why they should not be afraid of making mistakes as it leads to new ideas and possible solutions and that grades are a measure of what you know so that you can apply more in real-life.

This has a reciprocating effect for students who get it on a deep level, as they now study to understand rather than to memorize. They also enjoy the fact that they can impact a community once they graduate giving their studies purpose.

Dean Utian

Posted on 6/29/19 12:45:37 PM Permalink

​I teach in higher education so a bit different to school. However, even at this level students get stressed about grades. To encourage risk taking and making mistakes, students are told they will be credited for their process as well as their end product. I include critical reflection assessments which get students to evaluate what was learned, what could have been done better and what they would do in the future. Making mistakes and learning from them thereby helps them get better grades.

Angela Wong

Posted on 6/29/19 10:11:40 PM Permalink

I do this as well, but I have things like reflections separate from the main assignment rubric. I have found that students who aren't that interested in actually trying tend to state the obvious in a reflection where I ask them to reflect on the process they underwent, what they feel proud of and what they think could be reworked. ​How do you assess a genuine critical reflection from one that is just stating the obvious or telling us what students think we want to hear?

Dean Utian

Posted on 6/30/19 8:42:56 AM Permalink

Hi Angela.

I'd be interested in hearing more about what you do.​ I also keep the critical reflection as a separate assessment to the main project. The students are required to reflect on what they learned through the course and its various assignments.

I provide a lot of resources and talk to the students on what critical reflection is about. To organise it in here, I'll put info in separate posts.

To your main question of how to grade deep critical refection vs surface thinking (stating the obvious) - I give a rubric that gives descriptions of different levels of critical thinking (which is essentially a key aim of critical reflection). A lot of my students who are inexperienced with critical reflection just report what happened. I try show that they should go deeper in explaining and evaluating what happened. I show students taxonomies of learning including Biggs' SOLO taxonomy and Bloom's taxonomy.

Dean Utian

Posted on 6/30/19 8:52:03 AM Permalink

Here is a general description I provide students on what critical reflection is about.

Critical Reflection - what's it about?

Critical reflection is a powerful tool for self learning that is applicable to every subject. It is a way of consolidating knowledge and developing an understanding of how you learned. You are required to write a deep reflection and self evaluation of what you have gained from this course.

Reflection works best when it is personal and specific. When writing your reflection, you should give focus to a specific experience or episode (e.g. a particular innovation in your learning, a particular lecture, an incident that shocked or intrigued you). Often, the process of writing down your experiences brings aspects or relationships to light, of which you may have been unaware. A reflective approach usually leads to the formulation of plans for changing your practice to take account of your new insights.

Reflecting on our learning, what makes sense to us, what doesn’t , why, allows us to understand our learning and even come up with new insights into the subject. The process of coming up with new insights through reflection is called constructivist learning – you construct new knowledge and understanding for yourself, you become your own teacher.

Here’s a quote relating to critical reflection for learning:
"a reflection in a mirror is an exact replica of what is in front of it. Reflection in professional practice, however, gives back not what it is, but what might be, an improvement on the original.”
Biggs, J (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Open University, Buckingham

The link below from the UNSW Learning Centre gives more information and examples of critical reflection.

Dean Utian

Posted on 6/30/19 8:55:36 AM Permalink

Here is a general rubric I provide students.

Critical Reflection Rubric

Poor - Incomplete (Fail)
Is incomplete or misses the point. You are expected to discuss your learning and the meaning of your experiences. FL is a failure to do this sufficiently. It is below par representation of thinking about the subject and learning.

Basic (Pass)
Shows some thinking but more about what has happened (reporting style) rather than the meaning of the experiences.

Reasonable (Credit)
Good, varied discussions that are more considered reflections in that there is evidence of critical thinking.

Deep Thinking (Distinction)
Deeper thinking and greater degree of critical thinking. Learning is evaluated, pulled apart, questioned. It also involves making connections of ideas, relationship of what was learned to other experiences / learning outside of the course, and elaborating on topics raised. Even coming up with new questions is a form deep, critical thinking.

Insightful - Top Quality Critical Reflection (High Distinction)
Consistent and deep engagement with critical reflection. Not only makes connections to previous experiences but sees applications for the future in studies or profession. Discusses new insights that have been developed through the process of reflecting.

Dean Utian

Posted on 6/30/19 9:02:58 AM Permalink

​Here is another set of standards related to critical thinking.

Coherence & Quality of Argument
​Typically translates into coherent argument based on evidence, linking points to create a persuasive interpretation of material.

​FL – No coherence misses the point.
​PS – Lists points without making connections.
​CR – Makes connections between points but does not create an overall argument.
​DN – Synthesises points into coherent argument.
​HD – Highly coherent. Goes beyond synthesis to create a new, independent point of view.

​Here is a good resource on Synthesising evidence

Dean Utian

Posted on 6/30/19 9:15:53 AM Permalink

​I hope all the pieces I've given below are useful. Reading them has made me think I should possibly rework my rubric to communicate what's expected in a more concise way.

I do like Biggs SOLO Taxonomy, which you can see below:

Much of my descriptions are drawn from Biggs. His levels include:
​Incompetence - Missing the point.

One relevant aspect - identify, name...

Several relevant independent aspects - combine, describe, enumerate...

Integrated into a structure - analyse, apply, argue, compare/contrast, argue, justify...

Generalised to new domain - create, formulate, hypothesise...

Cheriss May

Posted on 5/24/19 6:10:40 PM Permalink

​I teach college students, undergraduate juniors, and seniors. Stress is at an all-time high with grades that will determine whether they graduate, so stress is understandable. I encourage creativity, as well. If my class seems "wound tight" and not opening up creatively, I have what they think are "silly" assignments that help them to think outside the normal solutions, most times they lighten up, which opens their creativity. I think I'll add one of the assignments to the exchange, hopefully it will help other educators.

William Cortez

Posted on 5/20/19 3:37:27 PM Permalink

​I am teaching college students and in my experience there are students who are grade conscious because they wanted to maintain their scholarships or pressure from peers and relatives. I encourage them not to get discouraged when they do not get high grades because it is not the end for them. Life is full of ups and downs. You cannot measure your character by high grades alone.

Dan Ross

Posted on 2/7/18 2:21:52 AM Permalink

I teach college level at a private school so sometimes getting them to show up is half the problem. Interesting that a lack of risks is the trend. I'm interested in checking back to read other thoughts. ​

Christine Layden

Posted on 8/18/17 5:46:02 PM Permalink

​I also teach high school art in a suburban area in upstate New York and have noticed the same thing. We art teachers are constantly trying to come up with new ways to get students to be more playful and less uptight as they learn, thereby more willing to take some creative risks. We have started to have more success when I create mini tasks and exercises (relatively easy) where students get comfortable with new media before assigning a graded project. In my computer based art classes for example, I will walk them through some technical aspects of Photoshop, learning a few tools then applying them to a somewhat silly image we build together. Keep it fun and light; a meme, design a donut, change a celebrity's image etc. Along the way students make their own choices for colors, text, sizes etc. Then at a point I let them finish it up on their own and embellish their own practice image. I supply them with a check list so they can check their work and ask for help if they need to fix something. The checklist and finished exercise are printed out and turned in for total of 20 points. In our non computer based art classes, we will have students do a few exercises to test out new applications of media, again for 10-20 points. or sometimes no points. Then we may have students work in a group of 4 to complete a creative task, each student choosing which task to complete. Larger projects require more planning, sketches, discussion etc. The students feel, by then, like they have the tools and know how to have success. Also give them some autonomy for the bigger project, to make more creative decisions as far as concept, which materials would work best, etc. Sometimes they will have an idea, but not sure of how to quite execute it. That's a great opportunity for brainstorming. By no means is this a quick solution, but a way for students to ease into taking creative risks with baby steps. All the while they will begin to realize what it means to be an artist - brainstorming, practicing, doing research, sharing then executing an idea with some bumps along the way.

Renee' Smith

Posted on 6/21/17 4:10:18 AM Permalink

​I teach college students and experiencing the same with my students. I'm searching for ways to ease this stressful issue as well.