Adventures in Assessment

Throughout the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve taken various approaches to assessing student work. I’ve used really rigid numeric rubrics, single point rubrics, and no rubrics at all, depending on the class/assignment/my general pedagogical perspective at the time. On a somewhat related note, one thing I’ve been trying to do more of this semester is provide my students with more opportunities to steer the class in several areas, including assessment.

Here’s the truth: I hate grades. I love giving feedback, but I hate assigning letter/number grades. I have a much longer spiel about this than I want to go into in this particular post, but I think grades really do a great job of ripping the joy and appreciation out of learning. And I say this as a (mostly) reformed overachiever. I’ve worked really hard to structure my class this semester in such a way that grades are deemphasized. Instead, we’re focusing on process and feedback.

(FWIW several of my students have commented that this approach has made the class a more enjoyable experience than they’d anticipated having in First Year Writing, and I consider that to be a win)

But since I’m not able to go gradeless (yet), I still have to figure out how assess student work and assign grades. For the first writing assignment of the semester, a creative writing piece, I asked a simple assessment question that I picked up from John Warner: Is it interesting to read?

I think this was a great entry point for the semester, and it really took some of the pressure off while also avoiding that pesky hyperfocus on “correctness.”

Their first analytical essay is due this week, and when we first went over the prompt weeks ago, I told them we’d talk about assessment criteria later. What I was trying to avoid here was them writing their way into a “meets expectations.” I wanted them to build off the notion that the thing should be interesting to read, to grapple with analysis, and to buy into the process of drafting, feedback, and revision, without focusing entirely on the finish line.

This is a hard thing to make happen because the education system is not really set up for this, and even if I’m going mildly rogue, that doesn’t mean the other classes my students are taking are. I think this requires some trust, which we’ve been building since the semester started. If my students didn’t have some faith that I wouldn’t leave them hanging, I don’t think any of this would work.

At any rate, I always intended to provide them with assessment criteria when we got closer to the due date but then I wondered why **I** needed to be the one providing it at all. I didn’t get here on my own. I was inspired by this post and this post, amongst many others. See we’ve spent several weeks talking about analysis, analyzing media in class, writing together, discussing, looking at samples, etc. I think they actually know quite a lot about analysis, and rather than me saying, “This is what your essay should be,” I knew they could come up with their own criteria that would more than fit the bill.

So this is what we did (pulling primarily from that second post): I, first, asked them to tell me what the class is asking them to learn. Then, I asked them what they needed to do in the class to meet those goals. I took notes on a projected Google doc at both of these steps. Once we’d discussed both, I asked them what their essays needed to do and/or look like in order to meet the goals. Here’s what they said the essay should do:

  • Should have analysis that goes beyond surface level/explicit meaning
  • Essay should have some sense of structure
  • Should demonstrate awareness of how primary source can influence consumers
  • Should be aware of context in such a way that analysis makes sense
  • Should have a short summary/description of artifact
  • Good, clear transitions
  • Should demonstrate audience awareness
  • Should indicate having gone through various revisions

I told them that they’d identified the criteria that I’d be using to assess their essays. And I had them each vote for the top three points that they think are most important for this analytical essay. The order above reflects those preferences. Indeed, the top three points got many more votes the other points.

Here’s the thing: I think the criteria I would have given would have been somewhat similar to what they came up with here. But I think it’s important that this didn’t come from me. This is what they think strong analysis should look like based on the work we’ve done together throughout the first half of the semester, and this is what they’re choosing to hold themselves accountable for.

My favorite part? They didn’t say a thing about grammar or spelling or punctuation, which is where students often get hung up in the quest for “correct.” I love that they’re paying more attention to the ideas and how those ideas get conveyed.

This particular choice doesn’t solve all of my grading woes (though it’s also not the only thing I’m trying this semester 😉 ), but I like it thus far. I wouldn’t necessarily do it for every assignment, but I definitely see it having space in my ongoing pedagogical toolkit.

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7 comments

  1. Jacinta;
    Over the years I thought of assessment and validity through different aspects and your described assessment seems to hit them all right in the center. Very well done!
    First, Samuel Messick’s provides 6 points for his validity analysis, but I believe there are two that are especially dear to his heart: the values that are revealed by the assessment and the consequences of the assessment process. I think it’s clear you and your students value ownership of a deeply reflective process of writing and that is a consequence that that reflects deep learning and would be beyond any single assessment of technical production.
    Second, I favor pragmatism as the philosophical backbone to my view of education and CS Peirce’s refers to pragmatism as “a method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear”. Indeed I think assessment is primarily a method of reflection and I think this assessment really clarifies the ideas of the process and production of creative writing.
    Lastly, assessment done well and pedagogy are two sides of the same coin linking teachers students and expectations. I wrote this a few years ago:
    “This 3 fold understanding of educational assessment includes developing an ontology where assessment practices recognize a full account of the being and becoming of students. It does not restrict our view to what is easily measured, but essentially meaningless in the bigger picture or final analysis. Secondly, it is responsible in that assessment is linked to an expectation for engagement that goes beyond behavioral description to fully recognize the full complexity of that student engagement as a dialogic and networked individual. And finally, it does not use data in a mechanistic fashion, but uses construct measurement to make their joint responsibilities and ontologies visible to teachers and students in everyday educational practice.”
    In short, I don’t think the real issue is grades but rather, is your assessment ontologically responsible to who your students are and who they are becoming.

    References
    Messick: http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1996-10004-001
    The Pragmatic Maxim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pragmatic_maxim
    My Blog: http://howardjohnson.edublogs.org/2014/03/28/unpacking-ontologically-responsible-assessment/

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Howard!

      And this looks great. I’m definitely going to give these resources a read. I also think this is a great point: “In short, I don’t think the real issue is grades but rather, is your assessment ontologically responsible to who your students are and who they are becoming.”

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  2. Love your ideas to get students to engage with assessment criteria.
    Your use of these for formative purposes is great but you seem confused about what grades are.
    Grades are summitive descrptions that provide a common ways of descibing the standard of students work. An A grade in your class needs to describe the same standard of work as an A grade in every other English teachers class in your school. If this is not the case then the grades have no shared meaning and are actually of no use.
    It is for this reason that student produced assessment criteria may be great for formative assessment but will not be useful for grading.

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    1. Hi!

      Thanks for the feedback. I wouldn’t say that I’m confused, but rather that grades function a bit differently in this environment. Admittedly, I can’t speak for every American institution of higher learning, but at the three I’ve attended and the two I’ve taught at, there aren’t really shared grading criteria. Professors tend to have a wide range of personal preferences (for example, some professors are more interested in assessing mechanical components of writing than I am). Furthermore, a wide range of assessment methods are deployed, including but not limited to, what we might consider “regular” grading, contract grading, rubrics, end-of-the semester portfolio assessment, etc.

      What we do have that is somewhat standardized is a set of core objectives that classes fulfilling the students’ core requirements are geared toward. In this particular class, the university-established objectives are that “students communicate using the conventions of academic discourse” and that “students can read critically and analytically.” Though the class that I’m teaching now is one in which professors tend use similar larger assignments, ultimately how individual professors choose to work toward and assess students grasp on those goals varies from class to class. Students know that different profs have different expectations, both within single departments, but also from department to department across campus.

      I have a lot of faith in my students and their ability to understand what the end product should ideally look like, even if their application varies. I’ve done this twice now, and they’ve not yet let me down.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Rob;
      I would only push back in this way. To have grades function as a standard like you describe would require them to be operationalized for clarity across classes and teachers. And we know that the closer the curriculum and classroom activities match the operationalized standard, the better and more efficiently the students will be able to perform. But at this point we have already reduced mental activity to a response function that acts more like a machine and less like the biological organisms that we are when we’re trying to meet core objectives in an ever changing environment. We are already subject to the reductionist criticisms of WVO Quine when he presaged Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm problems by writing this in his 1951 paper, Two Dogmas of Empiricism:
      “The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. Truth values have to be redistributed over some of our statements. Re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others, because of their logical interconnections — the logical laws being in turn simply certain further statements of the system, certain further elements of the field. Having re-evaluated one statement we must re-evaluate some others, whether they be statements logically connected with the first or whether they be the statements of logical connections themselves. But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.”
      The point i’m trying to make is not that standards and standardized measures are not useful in some circumstances, but our overriding objective must be to create meaningful experiences that impact student’s cognitive development that is more reflective than just a behavioral response, even if a behavioral response is easier when rank ordering is desired. At some point we must judge people by their artistry rather than the technicalities of meeting an operationalized standard.

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