Every step you take …MATTERS

Ever since I was a school student, I can only remember tests with questions that had one correct answer. One got marks for the correct answer and no marks for the wrong answer. As a student, I have barely encountered the concept of open ended questions where there could be more than one correct answers (other than creative writing in languages).

During Graduate School in Michigan Tech, I spent five years as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for First Year Chemistry Lab courses. It was here that I was introduced to this entirely un-heard of (for me) practice of giving marks for the wrong answer.

Let me elaborate. The worksheets for each experiment in the lab were divided into three parts – the pre-lab, the experiment observations, and the post-lab. The students were expected to read the experiment description and solve the pre-lab questions before coming into the lab. They conducted the experiment in the lab, recorded their observations, answered the post-lab questions and put all of it together as their lab report. I was responsible for grading these reports every week, based on the grading guidelines.

These grading guidelines instructed us TAs that the pre-lab should be graded solely on effort and not on the result. For example – if there were 3 questions in the worksheet, and the student had attempted to solve them, irrespective of the answers being correct or not they got 3 marks. This was so counter-intuitive to me that I remember arguing with my lab supervisor for the better part of two semesters about this practice. Bless her soul, she understood where I came from and very patiently explained to me that before conducting the experiment the student is not expected to know the right answers, however is expected to make an effort in reading and preparing for the experiment.  That effort is the differentiator between the student who got credit and the student who didn’t. I eventually got used to the practice of grading on effort, but have to admit that subconsciously I wasn’t convinced on the idea.

It has only been in recent years as a professional, that I have truly understood the meaning and impact of effort. Projects that don’t see the light of day even after putting one’s heart and soul into them, orders that don’t get signed up even after multiple teams’ sincere efforts going into the whole process –these are some standing testimonies to the power of effort. I should thank my lab supervisor to have designed the course to make students understand the importance of effort.

In a recent project I’m working on, my team and I are consciously trying to ask open ended questions, questions with more than one correct answers, questions that can have personally contextualised answers, to students as young as 6 years in age. It has certainly been a revelation to us – the range of creative thoughts that emerge from the minds of young learners when given an opportunity.

So, let us go ahead and allow children to express themselves. Let us encourage them to hone their divergent thinking skills all through their education. More importantly, as teachers, let us be open to learning, unlearning and relearning; because the day we stop learning is the day we die.

-Dr. Soumyashree S., Co-Founder, President-Research & Development  BRAINSTARS

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