Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On Being Ungraded

As regular readers know, in February 2016, I started violin lessons.  One of the cool byproducts is that it's got me thinking about being a learner in a big way again, because I'm not just learning little extra stuff here and there from reading, but I'm learning whole new skills and vocabulary and concepts. 

In light of our recent discussion about grade information, I was thinking about being ungraded in violin. 

At one point, I did ask Strings, my teacher, if I were progressing okay.  I worried about it when I started.  But once she reassured me when I asked, I really haven't worried about it.  I think two things have happened.  One is that she reassured me.  And the other is that I'm pretty much at the limits of useful challenge in my violin playing, so it really doesn't matter if someone else progresses faster or not, because the only way I'm going to progress faster is to add a whole lot more time to my practice sessions, and I accept that I'm probably not doing that.

In private lessons, it doesn't matter how fast I progress.  I'm not holding anyone back, or being frustrated by someone else not keeping up.  And that's very, very different from being in a larger class.  Of course, in a large enough class, I wouldn't be aware of how others were doing, mostly, whether they were more or less lost in the material than I was.* 

At this point, I can pretty much tell how I'm progressing because when I'm playing my current piece well enough, Strings starts me on the next one.  And if I'm not playing it well enough, she helps me figure out my difficulties and helps me with strategies to work through them.

In my last lesson, for example, I was having difficulty with some areas of the Becker Gavotte.  So she had me trying playing a couple section without fingering, just playing the open strings.  (It's weird to do that, too.)  In another spot, she showed me how to use one finger that was already down to place a finger on a different string, but nearby.  And in another spot, she helped me realize that I had to lift my third finger quickly to be ready to put it down somewhere else after a different note.  And so on.

Even though I hadn't practiced as much as I might have in the preceding period (I skipped a lesson for SAA and didn't practice while traveling), she was able to find really specific ways to help me, all while being encouraging.

And this week, I'm back practicing the Becker.  (And technical stuff, of course.)

So how does it work without grades?  There's basically a sort of pass/fail, with opportunities to go work on doing better when I don't pass a given piece.  And encouragement. 

If I were being graded at the end of the semester, then it would probably feel different.  I'd probably ask, or want to ask, how I was doing in terms of a grade, because if you're in a system where grades matter (and they do for music majors, and for people getting financial aid, and for people who want to go to grad/professional school, and at some level, for people who want to graduate), you pretty much have to care about grades.

And there's the passing on to a new piece thing.  I'm pretty sure that doesn't mean I've earned the equivalent of an A at playing a given piece, even for my level.  I think it's more that I've demonstrated that I can play it acceptably at my level, and that the Suzuki system/teachers think I'll gain more by focusing on a new piece with new skills challenges than by continuing to focus primarily on that piece.  (With the reminder that in general, Suzuki students are expected to practice all the pieces they've learned previously with fair regularity, like once a week, for a long time.  With Strings permission, I don't do that.)

So if I were in a sort of portfolio system, how would I feel about moving on?  Me, I want to learn to play the violin, so I practice stuff that Strings doesn't check me on, scales, technique books, in hopes that those skills will help me as I progress.  But I don't keep working hard on pieces I've passed, mostly. 

What about students in a writing class?  Given that time is always tight, should a student keep working on revising a piece if they don't know the grade, just in hopes that they really need to?

There are times when I look at a paper, and it's very B land.  Minor, little things could make it B+ land, but to seriously improve it, the student would have to rethink the paper completely, pretty much.  Is it worth asking the student to take time to do that?  (My students are all pretty busy, with most working a lot of hours in addition to their courses and family responsibilities.)

*I remember when I went back to school, I was in this Shakespeare class, and just really enjoying it, but also not feeling super confident about my skills in lit.  At the beginning of the semester, I'd been in a long line on campus, and made friends with another student who also ended up in the Shakespeare class.  So we went along in class; this friend and I'd say hello and such, but didn't talk between classes about the class.  And then when the midterm came back, I was happy to feel good about my A, and totally shocked that my friend earned a D.  I was totally unaware that he wasn't getting stuff or writing well or whatever.

1 comment:

  1. That's an interesting question, and one I'm of two minds about.

    My first mind says students are in the class to learn to write. The grade is a distraction from that, and I'd like them to forget about it, and concentrate their efforts on learning to write as well as they personally can. (Or learn Shakespeare as well as they personally can, or calculus as well as they personally can, or whatever.)

    My other mind notes that yes, many of them do have to make parents or financial aid officers happy. Or maybe they need to put more time into another class, sure. (A class more important than mine? Unpossible!) Because of this, I usually give them some idea of where the paper is in every conference. For instance, I'll say, "This is in the low B range now, but with these changes, I think we can get it up to an A. And that's our goal! Everybody makes an A!"

    (That's something I tell them on the first day of class, that I want everyone in class to be writing A papers by the end of class.)

    As I noted in my comments to the last post, some of them will happily take the low B at that point, and or the C, or whatever. But most will work on, improving their writing. I *like* to believe they are moved by the Platonic call to excellence, but I suspect it's the carrot of that A I've waved in front of them.