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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