Assessment

New Endings and New Beginnings

For the most part, my Spring 2018 semester has ended. My students have a final paper due in a few days, but beyond that, it’s pretty much a wrap. We ended by reflecting on some of the material we’d covered throughout the semester, and we discussed how some of their feelings about writing had changed. I asked them some of the same questions that I’d asked them in the first week (What’s do you know about writing? How does writing feel?), and one thing that seemed pretty clear to me was that some of them saw a space for themselves in academic writing…perhaps for the first time.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had my students complete weekly Minute Papers throughout this semester. I found this activity to be quite useful in terms of making sure that we were all on the same page and helping me to determine where the class needed to go next. For our last class, I had them do an extended Minute Paper in which I asked them four questions:

  • Which reading/viewing, discussion, or activity impacted you the most? Why?
  • What are you most proud of having done/accomplished/achieved this semester?
  • What’s the most important thing you learned this semester?
  • How will you make use of what you learned beyond this semester?

I wanted them to respond to these questions, which I pulled from various evaluation tools I’ve seen, because they really get at some of the feedback I need in order to retool the class in the future, to effectively teach other classes, and to continue developing my own understandings about pedagogy. Though I will be receiving feedback from the departmental and university evaluations students completed (and I definitely appreciate that feedback), I often find that the ways in which those questions are worded don’t really allow for much reflection or specificity.

I won’t list out everything my students responded with here, but I do want to pull out some shared strands:

  • Peer Review!: This class really liked Peer Review. Color me shocked. It’s funny because I’ve tried so many different things over the years with respect to making Peer Review productive, and in some ways, what we did this semester was the most simple route I’ve taken. Who knew? (I think maybe this is also worked well in tandem with the general spirit of the class, which prioritized discussion and reflection).

 

  • Conferences: When I previously taught this class, we only had one writing conference in the schedule. This time, I conferenced with each student twice, and on top of that, one of their very first assignments was to come to office hours at least once within the first month of class. This worked really well in terms of allowing me to get to know them as individuals and discussing some of their individual anxieties about writing. On this final Minute Paper, one of the students wrote, “In a college this populated, it’s difficult to get one on one time with a teacher. These were super helpful because not only did you get feedback, you also got to have an in person conversation, which made the editing process easier.”

 

  • A Single Story: About a third or halfway through the semester, after we’d completed several readings and discussions about food, identity, and culture, I got a question on a Minute Paper that was something like “Do you think we can eliminate bias?” I had a lot of thoughts about that question, and I structured much of our next class session around trying to answer it. One of the things we did on that day was watch and discuss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” At the time, some of the students seemed impacted by the talk, but I’m not always sure how much this stuff sticks. However, multiple students mentioned this as the thing that impacted them the most this semester.

 

  • New Perspectives: It’s impossible to touch on every single element of food and culture in a given semester, but I really did try to introduce them to things that I thought they might not see elsewhere. One example of this is David Perry’s “Restaurants Haven’t Lived Up to the Promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” This also came multiple times as something that made an impact, and one student said, “The activity where we discussed disabled people being left out of the food culture impacted me the most. I had never really paid attention to places without access but it really does make a difference.”

 

  • The Writing Process: In some shape, form, or fashion, many students noted coming to appreciate the writing process (which I very intentionally slowed down this semester). Some wrote about seeing their skills develop through drafting and revision, some talked about procrastinating less because of the multiple steps in the process, some talked about realizing for the first time that a draft doesn’t have to be good and feeling less stressed because of that realization, and some described feeling very good about the work they turned in at the end of the process.

 

  • New Experiences: This class is primarily an analytical essay writing class, but I also had students write in some other forms, such as the memoir and the listicle, to give them different challenges and experiences. In this final Minute Paper, some students noted really appreciating that exposure. In response to the question about what they’re most proud of, one said, “Writing papers such as the food memoir and listicle that I have never done before. In high school, kids don’t get introduced to different types of writing, so I was proud of figuring out how to write these types of papers well.”

 

  • Core Principles: During the first week of class, we also watched Clint Smith III’s “The Danger of Silence.” I’d included his four Core Principles (“Read critically. Write consciously. Speak clearly. Tell your truth.”) on the syllabus, and I wanted them to understand where they came from. I tried to structure the class so that students had several opportunities grow in those areas, and we explicitly revisited the principles in the middle of the semester and at the end of the semester. Many of the comments on the final Minute Papers seemed to touch on these ideas (“I want to speak clearly and organize my thoughts as such”; “I am most proud of the progress I have made as a reader. Reading has never been my strong suit but the practice that I have had this semester made me a better reader”).

 

  • A Likable Theme/Focus: I figured a class about food might go over reasonably well, but I was kind of Trojan Horse-ing a bunch of other stuff in there, and also one of the things that I’ve seen sometimes, particularly as someone who primarily teaches Media Studies and Popular Culture, is that students can be reluctant to look beyond the surface level of pop culture artifacts. But here, a lot of them pointed to finding our investigation of things like commercials and music videos to both be fun and effective. They liked taking content that they were sometimes familiar with and breaking it down, and they liked hearing what their classmates thought about that content. And I know some of y’all really hate the word “relatable,” but…uh…they found all of this to be relatable 🙂

 

  • There are more things besides this, but wow, this post is already getting super long, so I’ll just have my last point here be my favorite comment out of all of them: “Writing doesn’t have to be grueling and adhere to strict rules. It can be so much more. I will remember this and take it with me.”

So as I said earlier in this tome, this semester is basically over, BUT that doesn’t mean I’m done with the academic life until August (hahahaha). First up, I’ll be working for the Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC) again in May. This time around, I’m in charge of all things social media, and I’m really looking forward to that. In June, I start teaching a 6-week online Introduction to Fiction class (this is a whole barrel of firsts, and you can expect to see a post or two or ten on this in the coming weeks). While I’m doing these things, I’ll also be working on my dissertation as per usual (look for a post on that next week), waiting for feedback on a publication submission, and drafting job market materials. ‘Tis the academic life, eh? In all honesty, though busy, I think this actually shaping up to be a summer that’s both productive *and* fun for me, which is pretty much all I want them to be (I mean, I’m also getting paid the whole time, which…WHEW).

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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.

Meta Meta Meta

When I last posted, my students were preparing to submit their podcasts. I’m happy to report that they did exceedingly well. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any concerns going into the assignment. This semester is the first time I’ve taught a digital media class as well as the first time I’ve taught a college level course that isn’t essay based. To that end, I’ve had to recalibrate the ways that I think about assessment in certain ways, which has been useful. I know that sometimes students can be somewhat resistant to doing assignments that are outside the norm, but I haven’t really felt that type of resistance in this class. Perhaps, since it’s specifically labeled as a digital media class, the buy in was there from the start. Though I could also see the projects we’ve worked on in this class being utilized in other non-digital media specific classes, and that’s definitely something I’ll be thinking about in the future.

Honestly, one of the most useful components to our class this semester (at least to me) has been the class blog. Each week, the students are required to write blog posts that reflect on/respond to/analyze the subject matter, class readings, discussions, and their experiences working on their projects. I know that blogs can garner somewhat tepid responses from both students and teachers for a variety of good reasons, but I think the class has grown into the blog for the most part. And I’ve especially enjoyed reading their thoughts about their experiences of composing podcasts. I’m fairly confident that I could never get them to say as much in class as what many of them wrote on the blog, which is fine, but because they did write about those experiences, I have a good sense of what worked well (and what didn’t) with the project as well as what they’re taking of away from it. And I just find that really valuable since it’s not always clear, despite our best intentions and objectives, what students are truly gaining from assignments. I think that I’ll likely tweak the blog assignment in future classes, but it’s definitely a component that I’ve found productive enough to be retained.

This week, we shifted our focus to transmedia and their final projects, which will be digital transmedia extensions. This final project will (ideally) synthesize everything they’ve learned about digital media composing in this class. And I’ve added a public showcase component to give them more presentation experience as well as a more concrete audience. This is my excited face  😛