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Our podcast today features Dr. Astrid Poorthuis, an assistant professor at the developmental psychology program at Utrecht University, Netherlands, whose work focuses on performance, school, and its relationship to social/emotional learning. Dr. Poorthuis has researched and published a variety of works concerning grades, student/teacher emotional well-being, student/teacher relationships, and peer relationships.
Dr. Poorthuis and I talk about her research and its applications for the classroom, notably how ungrading and its benefits of engagement, well-being, and participation are backed by substantial amounts of research - referencing a variety of studies. It's incredibly interesting how universal these results are and the commonalities that US and Netherlands schools share. Attached in the show notes are the studies that Dr. Poorthuis has been involved with, as well as recommendations she makes during this episode.
Dr. Astrid Poorthuis, a leader in researching practices that demonstrate the importance and implementation of practices that bolster student social and emotional well-being, who serves as an assistant professor in the developmental psychology program at Utrecht University, Netherlands
Christ McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast are available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Diana Koretsky, Casey Nedry, and Shannon Schenkel. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to episode 74 of our podcast at Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Our podcast today features Dr. Astrid Poorthuis, an assistant professor at the Developmental Psychology Program at Utrecht University, Netherlands, whose work focuses on performance, school, and its relationship to social-emotional learning. Dr. Poorthuis has researched and published a variety of works concerning grades, student-teacher emotional well-being, student-teacher relationships, and peer relationships. Dr. Poorthuis and I talk about her research and its applications to the classroom, notably how on grading and its benefits of engagement, well-being, and participation are backed by substantial amounts of research, referencing a variety of studies. Attached in the show notes are the studies that Dr. Poorthuis has been involved in, as well as recommendations that she makes during this episode.
Astrid Poorthus: So my interests lie in what is the impact of grades that students receive, but also social dynamics in the school, in the classroom. How do they impact students' life and their well-being, the way they approach school, how engaged they are during classes? So the social-emotional aspects and not so much the cognitive or learning, the actual learning, but all that's surrounding that.
CM: Yeah, and I came across your work because I was reading some research that you had surrounding report cards and the effect that has on students and their well-being. Do you want to talk briefly about what you found?
AP: We studied a population that just transitioned into secondary school, and we know that this is a moment, and we see that in the Netherlands but also in the U.S., that student engagement declines. And I wondered, why is that? And could one factor be that there's so much more emphasis on grades that students receive? It's getting more important, grading is more strict. So this was the reason I started the investigation, and I looked at how students responded to their first report card in secondary school. And at least in the Netherlands, this is an important or significant event for students because the card they receive, they take it home, parents look at it, so they get responses. And what we found is that the height of the grades impacted how they emotionally responded to those grades. So when they received higher grades, they would report more positive feelings, less negative feelings, and this in turn predicted how engaged they were in the class, so during classroom activities. And we saw that the higher the grades, the more positive the feelings, and higher the school engagement. But you would hope, as a teacher, that when you give a low grade, that students may think oh, I need to work harder, but I found the opposite. So I found that for students who receive lower grades on their first report card, they actually declined in their school engagement across the year. So I think this may be a sad negative spiral emotion, like that they get negative performance feedback, feel less engaged, less effort in their schoolwork, and this could then lead to lower, even lower performance. Yeah, this could be one of the mechanisms where you see that a certain subset of students get more and more disengaged from school or less engaged in classroom activities. And then in the end, maybe people will say yeah, but he's not engaged at all, so it makes sense that he, yeah, so that's what we found.
CM: It's interesting because, as you stated, it seems like when you then assign a low grade, it's not fulfilling any of the purpose that, hypothetically, it's supposed to do, which makes me question, well then, why give a grade at all? Because if it's only going to hurt rather than help, because even then, like I would imagine, those students who were receiving high grades are probably terrified whenever they receive a low grade. I mean, I was that way when I was in school. I was not an all-A student, but if I got like a D, I was floored, like that was terrifying. So what is your opinion based off of that research when it comes to assigning a grade at all?
AP: So there's a lot of research showing that giving grades is detrimental for both motivation of students and performance. This is in experimental research, so classroom experiments where they compared students who received a grade, a group of students who received a grade versus no feedback or a grade versus written comments, and over and over, this research shows that written comments where there's actually feedback where students can work with or they can improve their work, it's much better for their motivation, for their performance, and grades. There's also an interesting study in real life, a Swedish study, where they changed the school system, and this was, so half of the schools decided to stop giving grades and the other half didn't, and they compared the students, so those two groups of students over several years, and they found that those students who were in a non-graded primary school, so primary school where no grades were given, they would perform better in secondary school and had a higher chance of finishing secondary school, and this was especially pronounced for those students who were low ability. So again, those students you really want to keep in and you hope that they can improve, it helps them a lot if there are no grades given.
CM: I think that builds into then the larger narrative of the research that you've done surrounding social-emotional well-being. I've been reading through your various different studies, there's everything like narcissism and popularity, and there's all these different things. If you were to talk to teachers about the research that you found surrounding social-emotional well-being, what suggestions would you have for them to improve upon their practice and do better?
AP: With regard to performance, I think if a teacher has the possibility to reduce the number of grades that they give, I think that would be a good idea. And also separating feedback from grades, because we know from the literature that when you give an assignment back with a grade and with comments, that students won't process those comments, they will just focus on the grade because it impacts on their self and on their ego and how they think about themselves. And they're so involved with that, that they don't even have the chance or the resources to really focus on the content of the comments. But I think also creating a secure classroom where there's not lots of competitiveness, that people or students are really focused on improving their own ability and their own performance and not so much comparing themselves to others, that really helps to be an inclusive classroom for everybody. Also the students that are struggling more academically. So I think that's, in many of the articles that I, or the work that I've done, over and over it, it's about being supportive, also the peer, so that the students within a classroom, that they are supportive to each other and not so much in competition. That really helps well-being, students' well-being in school.
CM: I would imagine that when we spend so much time focusing on the individual in this competitive nature of school, when our society is growing up and this next generation of people comes to power, you're going to see that manifest itself as this ultra competitive, I don't care about other people, I just want to get ahead style of society, where we kind of rationalize inequity or we rationalize that it's okay to beat others down or be better than others, not in a friendly, competitive kind of way, but more of like a deadly kind of way, honestly.
AP: Also, I deserve it, or the idea that you deserve it. I think that it's an important role for schools and for teachers, not only to focus on the content of what they want to teach, but also these kinds of socializing or being a citizen or being someone who contributes to the society and to the well-being of others. I think a classroom is a really good environment to practice that in a safe space where you can make mistakes or where you can say something wrong. This is something that teachers could really contribute to, especially in adolescence where students are also really trying to find their identity, like who they are, who they want to be, where they want to go, what's something for them and what's not. It would be really nice if teachers have the opportunity to design their classes in such a way that students can also relate the content to those questions.
CM: Right, right. It's kind of odd in a sense because I also read a lot of research and see researchers from cognitive science talk about and prop up the opposite, as in we need grades to increase test scores. We need these competitive classrooms because in a lab environment students are showing increases, quote unquote, in their learning. I've seen this movement of research surrounding a more, I guess, conservative or traditional view of education. I'm curious, in the research world, do you see two different wings of people in the education sphere?
AP: I think if it's really the research focused on the effect of grades, that it's quite consistent, that the findings are that grades versus written comments, that it's clear that the written comments improve learning more than grades. But I can understand why it's really hard to change because grades do have information in it that's not in the written comments because they help select or order students. You see who's the best, who's not. So it has a function in selection, for example, or also whether students get to a certain or fail or not. So of course it is important in school to see whether or to really focus on, do my students reach the goals that we have for them? And we also get a bit addicted to grades because they can be really rewarding as long as they're good grades. And students that are used to grades and usually get good grades, they will have the problems motivating themselves, is suddenly in the same environment that the teacher says, from now on I won't give any grades anymore. So it's really hard to change that if your environment where they're all over and where you get rewarded for good performance for years. So then it's really hard to suddenly say, okay, I won't give grades anymore and then I'm sure the students will protest because they also got used to that, especially when you receive a good grade, it's also a reward. So it feels good and you're happy and you work even harder.
CM: Definitely true. Speaking as someone that has essentially a grade-less classroom, my students don't get a grade until the very end of the year and it's like negotiated upon. The students who struggle the most are the students that traditionally would get all A's. It's not the students that are C, D. Those students tend to do really well, tend to end the year. I mean, barely anyone fails. A lot of it comes down to what I would call deprogramming, having a lot of discussions about basically what we're talking about right now, being very transparent about what we're trying to do and what impact this has and ultimately convincing parents, guardians, and students that it isn't just something random that I want kids to feel good. There's legitimate studies that showcase why it's important and also even if you cared about the standardized test portion of it, as far as I know, not giving grades also helps with traditional academics. Students actually do better on tests. It isn't just they feel better, which is in my opinion, the most important thing, but they also do well academically.
AP: Yeah, I think that grades are not only used to signal performance, but sometimes also as a way to try to change the behavior of students. They will ask, is it for a grade? Will I receive a grade? Only then they take it seriously. I don't know about the US context, but in Netherlands, sometimes teachers give a very low grade if someone cheated, so that's more like a punishment, I would say. Grades are also something that a teacher can provide and gives the teacher certain authority. It might also be hard to just let go of that because it gives you something to help you let the students behave the way that you want.
CM: I hope you're enjoying our podcast so far. If you like what you hear and want to dive deeper into progressive education, I highly encourage you to visit us at humanrestorationproject.org. There you'll find a range of free materials, research, writings, and more to help transform schools towards human centered practices. Plus you'll find ways to support us through donations, a Patreon subscription, and merchandise. We appreciate your support. Now back to the podcast. Something that you said, maybe think about this idea of it's all about systems. It's all about changing different systems, not necessarily about us walking into the room and saying, I'm not going to give grades anymore because it's not going to work. As you just said, it doesn't work like that in practice because so many other systems are held up by the fact that we're giving grades. Like you brought up the fact that there's a power differential. If I stopped giving grades, how am I going to quote-unquote get students to learn? Because the only reason why they may or may not be doing my assignment is because it's for a grade. If the assignments are not rooted, you know, in a student's purpose or in something that matters to them or is meant to matter to them, they're not going to have any reason to go about doing it in the same exact way that, you know, if it's not interesting or if you're using it as a disciplinary tool, as you said, does that mean I'm going to have students like cheating left and right or doing weird stuff because I'm not giving them grades anymore? So there's a lot of other systems in terms of how we teach that have to change as well. Based off of your research with social emotional wellbeing, do you see linkages to practices beyond grades that improve how students act and feel and, you know, relate to the world around them?
AP: So I recently conducted a review study with two colleagues, Monique Verhoeve and Monique Follman on how schools can contribute to the identity development of adolescents. And what particularly strike me from this review is it's really important to make, to teach or in a meaningful way. And with meaningful, I mean that students themselves can relate what they learn in your class to their own lives or to the life beyond the school. And I think if we would emphasize that, then we don't need grades or because it will be induced their intrinsic motivation to want to know more because it will then be important for themselves. So yeah, if we could develop assignments, et cetera, where they can also put in their own ideas or choice or relate it to things they know from out of school, then I think adolescents will be really motivated to work on those assignments. I think we could also give them more control over their learning process. What do they want to learn? What are their own goals? And these things will, of course, they will mean a change in the school, but you could also do that in your own classroom. Try to start with that. You don't need a whole system to do that in your own classroom.
CM: I think what you're saying makes perfect rational sense even when you don't look at it as a study. I mean, you could walk into any primary school and for the most part, kids are asking questions. They're super involved. I think of myself when I was in elementary school, I was like ready to go and learn about space and dinosaurs and stuff that kids do. They would go to the library and they're excited. But by the time they get to secondary school, especially if they're getting near graduation, that is basically gone, I would say for at least the majority of students. And part of that is just because there's a rebellious phase and things like that. But also if you see students who are homeschooled or maybe grew up in more progressive environments, they seem like they're still actively exploring and figuring out what's going on because they're in the environment that allows them to do so and it was never really taken away from them. And all these things that you're bringing up, they're different roadblocks that they've hit along the way where they've started to associate learning with boredom or with hate or judgment even. It feels bad to learn. So as kind of a final point, how do you suggest teachers, assuming that their district or school is not actively doing this, not actively making these changes, how do you suggest that they in their classroom inch toward a more holistic or student-friendly environment?
AP: With regard to the assignments, you could wonder for each assignment, how could students relate this to their own life or you could even ask them to reflect on that. With regards to performance, reduce the number of grades to the minimum, I would say. And also I think it's also important how you communicate about those grades. It helps if it's something private for the students, not called out loud in the classroom. If students receive a low grade, talk to them about why they think that this grade was lower than expected. Also really communicate high expectations of that particular student so that they keep confidence that they can improve next time. Focus also on the norms in the group. Is it cool to be disengaged? This is what we see, what I also see in my research, that in some peer groups in adolescence, it's actually cool and you get more popular if you don't work for school. So it might be hard for a teacher to change that, but especially when a group is just formed. So in the first weeks, you can probably try to influence that. And you can communicate norms about how students respond to each other and whether they laugh or not when someone makes a mistake or you could certainly communicate norms. So that may help as well.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Project's podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org. See you next time.