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It’s that time of the term …

14 October, 2005

It’s that time of the term …

Since GZombie asked, and because this is something like work, in that it’s working out pedagogical ideas, I thought I might write a general, semi-comprehensive answer. Otherwise, this will just be a meme 😉

The questions:

  1. How long does it take you to read and comment on an essay?
  2. What kind of comments do you make on your students’ essays?
  3. What are the goals of your comments on your students’ essays?
  4. Can one write too many comments on a student paper? How do you identify for yourself the point of diminishing returns?
  5. How do you calibrate (if that’s the right word) your expectations for first-year students, sophomores, juniors, seniors, and grad students?
  6. How do you decide what grade to assign to a paper?

Grading is probably one of the least-liked parts of our jobs. We all whinge about it. It takes time, it’s draining, and it’s very hard to know how to walk the line between what we see as constructive criticism and what many of our students see as personal attacks. The hardest kind of grading is the essay, I think. Most of us (all of us in the Humanities and most of the Social Sciences, at least) assign some kind of essay writing. We all seem to have an idea of what we’re looking for, and are thoroughly depressed when our students fall short of our expectations. And we grade.

The questions GZombie poses are pretty basic, and very important. But I think one of the things the questions bypass is something I’ve been working on for the last couple of years, something that strikes revulsion and occasional terror — and sometimes just plain orneriness — in the hearts of academics everywhere: Outcomes and Assessment. Outcomes and Assessment are the Pain and Panic of Bad Administrators. They are often trotted out as part of the accreditation process, thrown at overworked faculty as “something we have to get on top of” by people who really know nothing but the jargon. Or so it often seems.

But when it comes down to it, GZombie’s questions really are primarily assessment-focused. And for those of us who have been fortunate enough to work in places where assessment work is faculty-driven, they are natural. In fact, they are natural questions for any of us who love to teach — the difference is that many of us have never properly learned to articulate the questions, let alone the answers, in a useful way. I think most good teachers know the answers, but I also know that asking the questions has helped me to be a better teacher. At least, I hope it has.

So, to answer those questions. Grading is always different — it all depends on the kind of essay. But it takes me roughly 20-30 minutes to read a 5-page paper and comment on it. I can do it in less, but if I want to write substantive comments, it’s longer. Except …

You see, I started using a grading rubric — a matrix, actually — a couple of years ago. Every assignment has some things in common, mostly the mechanics. Is there a thesis statement? Is it clearly stated? Is there an appropriate use of supporting arguments and evidence? Beyond that, assignments vary, but it’s still reasonably easy to come up with criteria. Criteria can be outcome oriented or not. Since I figured out what outcomes were, I’ve started thinking about them and how to articulate them much more. In some ways, it’s really changed my teaching, and I worry sometimes that I’ve changed too much. Outcomes as I understand them tend to be organized around broader transferable skills than around the mere acquisition of information. So, for example, I want my students to be able to differentiate between primary and secondary sources, and to understand how to read each one critically. I want students to be able to use historical evidence to construct a well-argued narrative. What I don’t articulate as well is what most of us historians grew up with — which content is important. I worry about that. Where is the line between helping students learn information and a generally accepted historical picture and teaching them to do history? If anyone has an answer to that one, I’d like to hear it!

But back to the rubric. Now that I use them, I spend far less time on my comments. I don’t feel that I have to explain every little thing, which sometimes becomes an exercise in justifying to the student the grade she earned. Now, I circle problems and check the appropriate box on the rubric. The comments I write have become much more formative, which is what I like. They aren’t always positive — in fact, I do have to remind myself to write something useful for good papers, too. But they can be more specific, because the overall picture is clearer for the student. She can check the rubric and then come argue if she wants.

I don’t get as many student arguments over grades any more, though. Part of it may be the fact that students can really see what I’m looking for in advance (I put the matrices out on Blackboard so the students can check them out), but I think it’s because the students have a graphic representation that, although it’s not quantitative, makes the assessment process seem more transparent and fair. It may be because the process is more transparent and fair, too. I am pretty sure that I am more consistent when I use a matrix, because I remind myself of the standards I’ve set with almost every paper.

I’m not sure I’ve adequately explained this in terms of Outcomes and Assessment, though. Weariness sets in early these days. But in an ADM-sized nutshell, in order to create a matrix, I have to articulate for myself what I want the students to have learned in a particular exercise. Articulating the outcomes makes it possible for me to assess them. It also makes me much more careful in creating assignments. Most of my assignments are much clearer now than they were a few years ago. Before, I was likely to assign a book review by saying, “Write a book review.” Now I look to what I want the student to learn and include those things on the assignment sheet. Instead of thinking, “The student should critically assess a scholarly monograph,” for example, I must now ask myself what I mean by ‘critically assess.’ So I tell the students they need to identify the author’s thesis, evaluate the evidence the author uses and whether those uses are legitimate, identify the author and his possible biases, identify the audience and judge whether the book is appropriate …

By clarifying these things to myself, I find that my explanations of assignments (and sometime the explanations of their value) are much more cogent when I express them to my students. The grades I assign are largely based on where the marks fall on the matrix, so that pretty much narrows down the grade to a general area with about a 5-point spread. What I write in the comments helps to set the final grade, at the top of a range or the bottom. I don’t have grad students, but the basic method works across the undergrad board. It’s also particularly useful in showing students who have no experience with college or with writing (and there are many of them in my neck of the woods — I had to explain today what a bibliography was) what we are looking for.

At least it does in theory. For me, it works well. The students? Well, it works well for the ones who actually read the assignments carefully and give more than a cursory look to the materials they’ve been given … But that’s another post!

And by the way … I know I used the word ‘articulate’ far more than I should have. I’m sleepy and ill. Sue me!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 October, 2005 3:48 pm

    Very nice. Thanks for your response. Could you post a copy of your rubric so that others may see it?

  2. 14 October, 2005 3:55 pm

    I’m not sure if I have the technology with blogger. I’ll try. If not, I’ll be happy to e-mail a copy to anyone who asks!

  3. 14 October, 2005 5:58 pm

    Ooh, I’d *love* to see your matrix. The Boyfriend uses something similar in his social science courses, but I’d like to see yours, too. You have my email address.A great post, too. Grr – assessment. Isn’t grading already assessment? But I think you’re right (implicitly) that the movement towards outcomes and assessment has forced us to be more self-conscious about our grading practices. It’s something I’m still working on. Perhaps I’ll respond to GZombie’s query as well.Oh, and btw, thanks for adding me to your blogroll! 🙂

  4. 15 October, 2005 12:00 am

    I’ve recently been thinking about issues of outcomes and assessment in my (science) classes, hoping to improve/clarify my teaching. I have been struggling to develop outcome goals, and assessments that actually evaluate them. It’s easy in science to come up with objective assessments; much harder (for me, at least) to clearly state learning goals and come up with assignments/exams that assess them appropriately. Thanks for your thoughts here.

  5. 15 October, 2005 11:46 am

    I enjoyed reading about your take on assessment and how it impacted your teaching. I’m definitely going to try and use some type of rubric to assist my students … I’ll give them something ahead of time, with the project, and I think that will guide them a little better. Thanks. I’m also a professor, and I’m on the same college assessment committee as Girish … he’s on a link from the Chutry Experiment..garrity501.blogspot.comEd

  6. 20 October, 2005 5:02 am

    *raises hand belatedly*Me, me! I’d love to see your matrix. I’ve used a 5-item checklist for a couple of years, and it helps, but I’m not entirely happy with it.

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