show your workA couple of weeks ago, some teaching friends and I were having a conversation about this topic: should students lose marks on a test for not showing their work or for missing a question? Or should you allow them to try again or explain their thinking? Understandably, the answers from teachers were all over the board. Some thought that yes, students should absolutely lose marks for not showing their work or for missing a question. After all, students need to learn responsibility and the consequences of not following directions! Others said that it would depend on the situation. And still others thought that no, students should not lose marks for not showing work or for missing a question; instead they should get another chance to do it. No matter what you believe is right, I do think that it is important to hear other perspectives and to consider why you are doing what you are doing. Does it really make sense? Does it adhere to your philosophy of teaching? Is it what you would consider a best practice for your teaching? Is it facilitating learning?

In my own opinion, I DO NOT think that students should lose marks on a test for missing a question or not showing their work. I DO think that they should get a chance to re-do or to explain verbally how they got their answer. Here’s why:

1. Taking marks off for these reasons will skew your assessment results.  You need to think about what you are assessing and what you are using these results for. Suppose you give students a test on addition with regrouping, and ask students to show their work for full marks. Johnny got all the answers right, but did not show his work on 3 of the questions so he gets 85% on the test. The 85% is not representative of Johnny’s knowledge of addition with regrouping. All that it shows is that he either forgot to show his work, or he is using alternative methods to solve the equations, which leads me to my next point…..

2. Showing your work does not always take mental math into consideration. I am a verbal-linguistic learner. I like to show my thinking on paper, because it helps me understand. But not all students are like this, nor should they be! After teaching mental math to elementary students for several years, I came to the shocking realization that my way was not even close to the best way! Maybe it was the best way for me, but not for all of my students. I had students who could solve a difficult equation in mere seconds, totally in their heads. They couldn’t tell you how they could do it, and they sure couldn’t write it down, but they could solve it. Should we really penalize students for not being able to write down their exact thinking process? What if their way is more effective and efficient than our way?

**I should clarify here – I do think that showing work is important in many cases, in order to see what and how students are thinking. My question here however, is, it is absolutely necessary on a summative assessment such as a test? Is it right to take marks off when work is not shown? Does that mean that students don’t know how to perform the skill?**

3. Test-taking appeals to a small fraction of students. I hate tests. I think they are ineffective for the most part, and really don’t make a whole lot of sense in most cases. The ONLY reason that I gave tests as a teacher was because I wanted my students to be prepared for the older grades. Other than that, tests are useless in my opinion. Tests are easy for teachers to give, and I believe that that is why we use them as a “go-to” assessment. When we have a “mark” to write down in our book we feel like we have succeeded, in some odd way. Anyhow, this is a whole other blog post!! Getting back to my original point, your verbal-linguistic learners will excel on a test. They will show you what you want to be shown, and tell you what you want to be told. All of the other types of learners, however, will risk making a {gasp} silly mistake! The logical-mathematical thinkers may not show all of their work because they might be doing it in their heads. The kinesthetic learners may not be able to sit and focus on a written test for more than 5 minutes, resulting in missed questions or silly errors. Is it fair that these students get marked down because we are not assessing based on their needs? Is the mark really representative of their math abilities, or is it more representative of their learning style? WHAT are we assessing??

Now, as you are reading this you probably fit into one of three groups. One group is sitting at their computer screens nodding in agreement. “Yes,” they say, “this is exactly right.” The second group is shaking their heads in disagreement: “But how do you teach them to be responsible students if you don’t take off marks for missing work?! How is it manageable for teachers? This is all wrong!” The third group is undecided. Perhaps you know how you feel but don’t know how to properly implement it, while still providing the all-important “marks” requested by your school.

All that I am asking is that you take a long, hard look at how and what you are assessing. Are you assessing addition with re-grouping, or are you assessing test-taking skills? Because THAT is what your results should reflect.

I will be writing more blog posts about assessment in the near future, but here are a couple of things to think about as you reflect on your own assessment practices:

– How often do I rely on a traditional test for reporting purposes?
– Do my tests appeal to only the verbal-linguistic learners, or to a more broad spectrum of learners?
– How will I make sure that my assessments reflect ONLY the skill being assessed, not general test-taking skills or organization skills?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this! Please feel free to comment in the section below to tell me what you think.

Have a great day and thanks for reading,