What STEM Marking Can Learn From English Class

Co-written by Charles Zhang and Miasya Bulger

Lisgar is a fantastic school with amazing teachers, student support, and positive community impact. However, many courses desperately need to be updated in order to keep Lisgar’s reputation strong. Specifically, the math and science departments need to change their assessment plan to the one that English teachers use. The current evaluation system fails again and again to accurately indicate the ability level of its students for the following reasons:

1. Too many assessments

Currently, math and science teachers have on average seven tests per course – one per topic. While this can vary between courses, every assignment or test never makes up more than one-fifth of your course mark, or 14% of your final mark. This allows students too much room for improvement over time. This forgiving assessment style is known to have a detrimental impact on student’s learning, as students begin to understand that one bad mark is not the end of the world, while in reality, students deserve to undergo feelings of depression and self-hatred as a punishment for their failure to achieve as an individual.

However, in English classes, the vast majority of a student’s grade is determined by two essays and maybe a test. In addition, the final exam is an essay or contains an essay. Therefore, every essay is usually worth almost 30% of your final mark, more than double the MAXIMUM weight of a test in a math or science class. The importance of each assessment forces students to write stellar essays throughout the semester, and punishes students for failing to meet provincial standards on the first attempt. Therefore, the English department’s assessment plan provides a more insightful look at a student’s ability to learn.

2. Not enough emphasis on pre-acquired skills

Every science and math course is about learning new content, and reasonable amounts of practice questions are assigned for skill building. Teachers carefully and methodically take you through the material, making sure that everybody is on the same page. This is the real fault in the curriculum; by helping them get a firm grasp of the new subject and skills, math and science courses hold the hand of the student too much. Such mollycoddling is simply unheard of. Overall, math and science courses’ biggest downfall is that they adequately prepare you for assessments, while in the real world, perseverance and effort rarely translate into success.

In contrast, essays allow the student to explore their own capabilities. An essay is always about reading and writing. Let the student read the book on his or her own, but when it comes to writing, it’s good to let the student discover their own style without outside influence. Constructive criticism is key; tell students what’s wrong, but let them figure out how to improve.

Just remember: It’s good for students to bumble around in the dark for a while – character-building, you know. Essays also serve as a strong indicator of the student’s full potential. When you only have two or three hours, there’s no way you are going to rewrite anything, especially with 30% of your mark on the line. By forcing students to get things right the first time, English classes are able to teach the most important lesson of all: Don’t ever make mistakes. Clearly, math and science courses should really take a page out of the English department’s books. English assigns you a grade based on skills you already had before you started the course, and shows an indication of the student’s innate intelligence level. The department knows better than to dabble in foolishness like guided learning and improvement.

3. Marks lack subjectivity and bias

In math and science class, demonstrating understanding in an answer gives students points that make up a total grade. If you get a question right, there are no questions asked – it’s correct. What kind of a system is that? Assessments are supposed to discourage students for their little mistakes, not reward them for their hard work. Even the way they mark tests are wrong. When a student gets something wrong, they give the correct solution and steps, making sure the student knows exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it!

In English class, the marking system relies on a skill set that reflects the reality of our society’s culture. Rubrics are intentionally created in order to assess students on ill-defined expectations, which reflect how in a traditional workplace, the success of an individual relies not on their ability to apply their knowledge, but on their ability to please their superiors. In STEM subjects, where anyone can demonstrate their quantifiable understanding of the course material, as opposed to subjective standards and interpretations and their associated biases, the objective nature of the marking system fails to prepare students for the modern workforce.

With vague rubrics, teachers are also able to assign marks to students without providing a rationalization, thereby giving unclear instructions to the student as to how they can make improvements. Penalized students will thus be unable to ameliorate their skills as assessments become progressively more and more demanding, while successful students will feel insecure with their standings and hence will avoid taking academic risks in the future. Therefore, the student’s final grades will reflect their true, fixed ability level in that course.

In Closing,

While math and science classes are dear to many of us, they undoubtedly have many fundamental structural issues. From assessments to teaching style, both are plagued with too many logical decisions, severely undermining the basic principles to which all classes should adhere. Luckily, English classes present a perfect example for math and science classes to follow. Not only do they contain fewer assessments, each containing a large portion of the overall mark, but the core of every class, the essay, promotes a fear of mistakes and risk-taking, relying on the student’s innate or pre-acquired writing skills. Instead of promoting learning and evolution, essays allow the students to find their own path. Furthermore, the marking structure is vague and subjective, with rubrics appearing as “cookie cutter” general statements, which makes it hard for the student to know exactly what the teacher wants or how to do better. There is undoubtedly plenty of room for improvement in the STEM class marking system, and we can only hope that one day these classes will follow the path the English department has beaten for them, one student’s self-esteem at a time. ​♦