Understanding grading helps students plan ahead
When RuTC Music teacher Jamie Taylor decided to dedicate his spare time to developing a comprehensive, simplified BTEC grade calculator, his main motivation was to improve student understanding and performance.
He had a hunch that the complexity of the grading system made it almost impossible for students to independently and strategically improve their grades and that simplifying it would not only help the students plan, but be a strong motivational tool.
‘Students think they go to college to be tested on how good they are at doing things. This is not true,’ says Jamie. ‘At college our aim is to develop their ability to do things better. [This BTEC grade calculator] gives them a really clear understanding of how they could get better.’
Calculating a BTEC predicted grade usually involves use of an extensive spread sheet listing all assessments done throughout the year broken down further into which units are covered in those assessments. As the minimum number of units to be covered in a BTEC is eight/nine, the number of possible columns in this spread sheet could surpass 50. A pass, merit and distinction (denoted P, M and D) are all allocated a number of points. In order to calculate overall predicted grades from this daunting spread sheet, a student has to memorise the numerical value of each grade and do tedious additions and comparisons to come to a conclusion. As a result, many BTEC students feel confused, in the dark and rely heavily on the teacher to predict their grade and essentially lose control over their future success.
Jamie’s grade calculator is also a spread sheet but is split into boxes for each unit, prepopulated with formulae for automatic calculation when a P, M or D is inputted and colour-coded by unit grade. Students can easily see which units turn green (for distinction) or blue (for pass) when they input all of their individual grades for a unit and how the P, M and Ds combine to produce the resulting grade e.g. DDM or DMM. It is a visual representation of their strengths and weaknesses, making it possible for them to target specific units and skills in order to improve their grades.
‘We run a session where the students pitch their predicted grades to us,’ says Jamie. ‘It’s brilliant how aspirational they have been in their approach.’ In cases where students are being unrealistic, Jamie is honest with them about what’s working against them. One particular student, who predicted a distinction in a particular unit, had very poor attendance in the relevant classes. When Jamie made it clear that a distinction would only be realistic if he turned up to class consistently, the student’s attendance improved drastically, as well as his grade.
‘Many students don’t understand the connection between their approach to learning and their results,’ says Jamie. ‘The grade calculator has been fantastic at making that clearer to them. It makes them realise why we nag them about things like attendance.’ The BTEC final grades of music students at RuTC have improved greatly since the introduction of the calculator, evidencing that students do far better when they are given the tools to plan their study strategically and independently.