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.


Incorporating Student Feedback from the Start

The new semester started at my university this week, and I’m teaching First Year Writing for the first time in a couple of years. Our First Year Writing classes are themed, and they focus on analytical writing. I decided to have my section be themed “Representations of Food in Culture” because I’ve been wanting to teach a class about food for a long time and because I knew it’d be fairly accessible to the entire class.

This is my second time teaching First Year Writing here. As I prepared for the new semester, I found that I really wanted to slow down the process, and I wanted to make sure there was some solid foundation before we get to working on the bigger assignments.

As such, we’ve spent most of this week on topics like using your voice, how to read for college, how to take notes, what we know about writing, etc. We’ve had one reading related to the theme, and we talked about their first essay today, but beyond that, we’ve been taking our time to get established. Thus far, I’m enjoying this approach. I’m one of those people who gets REALLY into course prep, and I’m susceptible to the impulse to DO ALL THE THINGS. But I think that sometimes less really is more. There’s more breathing room and more time for things to marinate.

Over the years, I’ve done various things to get feedback from students, such as mid-semester evaluations and course blogs. I don’t generally like to wait until end-of-semester evaluations comes because (a) we should all know by now that those evals can be #problematic and (b) while that feedback is useful for future classes, getting feedback earlier is more useful to the current students.

Thus, I’ve decided to incorporate various reflective and metacognitive activities into the course this semester. One such activity is the Minute Paper. I’m sure a fair amount of you are familiar with the activity (or something similar). Essentially, at the end of class, you have students turn in a short response noting something they learned and a question they have. You could do this at the end of every class session, but I’m having my students submit it once a week.

What I like about this, besides the fact that it allows me to make changes/tailor future sessions as needed, is that students will write things they would probably never say to me directly. This opens up a line of communication between me and them that might not exist otherwise. It also allows me to check and make sure that the messages I’m trying to convey are coming across clearly. Here are some things they found important this week:

  • “The most important thing I learned is that you value the writing portion of the class more than the grades, which I appreciate”
  • “The most important thing I’ve learned this week is that writing doesn’t have to be so structured and put-together, which basically throws everything I’ve ever learned about writing out the window”
  • “The most important thing I learned this week is that you are encouraged to tell your own story and not simply conform to ‘normal English rules.'”
  • “Most important: speak truthfully and with purpose. Write the same way.”
  • “The most important thing I learned all week was how to approach academic readings. The excerpt we read the first night was very helpful.”
  • “I learned that there are not as many limitations to writing. It’s just how, when, and where these limitations can be applied. Writing can be whatever the writer wants it to be.”

When I look at these I responses, I feel reasonably confident that they got what I wanted them to get out of this first week. When we have class again next week, I’ll respond to some of their questions. All in all, I think this is turning out to be a much appreciated addition to my teaching repertoire.

About Classroom Participation…

I have a problem with classroom participation.


I have a problem with grading classroom participation.

This problem has been brewing for a long time. Even back when I was in undergrad, I found it a bit strange to be graded on participation. And once I began teaching (first at the secondary level and then the college level), I incorporated participation into the assessment because it was something I believed I was supposed to do, not because it was something I actually knew I wanted to do.

To me, it’s always seemed bit fuzzy (even when you provide specific things you’re looking for), and I have a hard time making it fit in my head next to student work when I think about the learning that takes place in the classroom. I also know that my perception of what “good” participation looks like is somewhat colored by my own behavior as a student as well as the types of student behaviors typically privileged by the educational system.

(Sup, fellow extroverts?)

In the past few semesters, I’ve actively started to pull away from more traditional methods of assessing participation. Last fall, I had my students complete participation logs, which I mostly liked because they allowed students to take the opportunity to be thoughtful about their experiences. And they gave me an insight into things I may not have recognized. In the spring semester of this year, I didn’t grade participation at all, and in case anybody is wonder, I didn’t notice any discernible difference in how much students participated (lol) in the class.

This semester, I taught Intro to Film, which is a big lecture class here. The lecture meets twice a week, and then recitations (discussion sections) are taught by grad students on Fridays. This was my second time teaching the class, and one of the things I knew going in this time is that it can be quite difficult to foster community when you only see each other for 55 minutes per week. And without that community foundation, typically important elements that folks designate to participation, like discussion, become even more challenging.

The course’s professor included participation in the assessment, and so I spent some time thinking about what I could do with that this semester. Of course, I’m always observing them throughout the class, but I wanted to hear more from them about participation. But I knew that our recitation meetings wouldn’t necessarily afford the same level of detail as what students pulled out in the course in which I used that method. So this time, I decided I’d just have students complete a relatively simple form at the end of the semester that would give me a sense of how they understand “participation” and how they saw themselves participating in the class. Here’s what I asked them to respond to:

  1. Describe what “participation” means to you within the context of the class.
  2. Describe how you participated in lecture throughout the course of the semester.
  3. Describe how you participated in recitation throughout the semester.
  4. Describe ways that you think you could have participated more effectively in the course throughout the semester.
  5. Are there any other factors or details related to your ability to participate in the class that you think I should know?
  6. If you were responsible for giving yourself a letter grade for your participation in this course, what would it be and why?

While these produced an assortment of interesting responses, I think the most useful to me came in response to #1 and #5. Regardless of what we might perceive, students know what participation is generally expected to look like. Responses to #1 included points such as, read/watch the material before class, answer questions, pay attention (which is a whole other soapbox I have, but I’ll leave that one for another day), complete work on time, etc. I don’t think any of these responses are bad, but when I read them together, they make me feel pretty…blah.

Now there were some responses to that question that I thought hit on really important points like developing your understanding, knowing that your answer doesn’t have to be “good” or “correct,” being generous while listening to other people sharing, and thinking critically. Some of these items are not the easiest to measure, but if I think about why participation might be important, these are things I care more about.

For #5, students often to took the opportunity to explain why they might not have participated much (in the conventional sense). Many students expressed shyness and anxiety, some noted depression, some pointed out that sometimes they literally just didn’t have anything to say, some felt more inclined to discuss material they felt strongly connected to, some felt that my choice to ask specific questions made them more likely to speak up, and some noted that since this was their first film class, they would much rather listen to what others had to say.

There’s a lot going on here, but my key takeaway is that there are several factors intersecting with a student’s participation. And if participation doesn’t look the way you think it should, maybe it’d be worthwhile to think about some of those factors and ways to work with them. I didn’t do a midterm eval for this class (that’s my bad), but if I did, I think I could have addressed some of these issues earlier.

But do you want to know what at least half of the students noted as something that made them more likely to participate?

Small group work.

I think a lot of us already believed this, but it was nice to hear it from the students. I often incorporate such work into my teaching, and I will continue to do so going forward.

(even when I fully stop grading participation :D)

Dispatches from the Dissertation, Part 4

Just a few moments ago, I sent my advisor my first full chapter draft (along w/ a message containing several concerns that I have about it haha). Remember how I was talking about my ever-changing deadline before? Well, this last go-’round, I set it for the end of Fall Break, and I actually made it this time. Huzzah! I know that there’s still a long road ahead with this, but I’m glad to have gotten past one particular hurdle, and I’m (almost) ready to start tackling the next one.

In other news, it’s approximately the middle of the semester. My students had midterms/essays due last week, which means I have a nice chunk of grading on my desk. Part of why I really wanted to get this draft done is so I can focus on that. I hate feeling like I’m shortchanging students, and I always want to try to get work back to them as soon as possible, especially if they have more things to turn in.

(Because what’s the point of feedback if a person doesn’t have it in enough time to actually use it?)

This balancing act is tricky, but I think my already embedded practice of scheduling my life in grad school helps. Back when I taught middle school, there were definitely times where I let the prep and grading bowl me over. There are so many ways in which, even with a degree in English Ed, I wasn’t ready yet. I was exhausted on the daily and not making the progress I wanted/needed to make. I’m better equipped now, thankfully. I just wish I could go back in time and help out 24 year old Jacinta.

(Though that’d likely throw off the time-space continuum, which is probably not a good idea)

A picture of the doctor from Back to the Future


Dispatches from the Dissertation, Part 2

It’s been a little bit over a month since my last update, and where am I now?

Well, I’m inching closer to being able to have a full first draft of Chapter One, but I’m not there yet. When I first charted out my schedule for the summer a few months ago, I’d hoped to have the draft done by August 1st. I realized about halfway through the summer that that probably wouldn’t happen, so I’ve recaliberated the schedule accordingly. On one hand, I’m a little bit annoyed about not having met the goal I set, but on the other, I’m not really trying to dwell on that. I just want to keep it moving. I do think I’ll have a draft in a few weeks, which will dovetail into the beginning of the school year (more on that momentarily).

Remember how I was researching Beauty and the Beast(s) before? Now I’m on Battlestar Galactica(s). I’d never watched them previously (I know, I know), but I’m a big ol’ nerd (I think I’m actually becoming more nerdy as I get older haha), so this is right in my wheelhouse.

Incidentally, now that folks know I’m working on remakes, I get tags from friends every time there’s new articles about them (#MyBrand). Shout out to y’all for helping with my research!

(I’m not adding anymore shows than what I already have allotted though. Because if I did, at the rate remakes are being churned out, I’d never finish.)

As the semester looms closer, I’ve been thinking more about how I’ll try to stay productive at this stage. I’m completely done with course work, and I’m past all of the various checkboxes except the dissertation itself. There are things that I’ve been doing for years now, such as scheduling everything on my Google Calendar, that I think will continue to be helpful going forward. And I’ve been setting goals for daily writing that I’ve been able to meet fairly well. But I also wanted to see if adding something else into the mix would be helpful. So I got a Passion Planner. It’s been years since I’ve had a real planner, but I used them all throughout high school and undergrad. Though I do rely heavily on GCal, I think that using both will both help to remind of what’s coming up as well as force me to be intentional in thinking about and planning for the tasks that are ahead. I looked at a lot of different planners before I made my purchase, but I really like how the Passion Planner encourages you to identify goals, break them up into smaller tasks, and embed those tasks into your schedule.

Speaking of schedules, I found out I’m teaching Intro to Film this fall. At my university, the way this works is there’s a prof who does the lecture two days a week, and the grad students teach discussion sections one day a week. I’ve taught this class before, and I’m looking forward to doing it again with some definite tweaks to what I did previously. It’s a little bit wild to think about since it hasn’t been that long since I last taught the class, but I know my pedagogical beliefs and goals have changed significantly since then. I do find it a bit strange to teach this way though because I’ve almost always been the Instructor of Record. One perk with this arrangement is that I have to do a lot less planning, and I grade less often, which should be a good thing as I continue to work on the dissertation. But when I do have to grade, it’s a lot more papers because we’re given more students in this arrangement, and I never feel like I have enough time with the students since I only get them once a week. Tradeoffs. Nevertheless, it’s a film class, and there are few things I enjoy more than being able to talk to students about film, TV, and pop culture, so it should be a good time 🙂

Dissertation Baby Steps

Thus far, I’ve primarily used this space for writing about my teaching, and while that’s likely to remain the overall focus, the semester ended a few weeks ago. I’m not currently teaching. Rather than let the blog languish for the summer (which is a sure recipe for forgetting about it entirely haha), I’m instead going to try to write at least a few blog posts about what I’m working on this summer, which is, of course, the dissertation.

Corey Matthews, running and screaming, as he was often prone to doing.

Boy Meets World is a gift.

My prospectus for my dissertation was actually approved just before Spring Break, but I knew myself well enough to know that diving into the project at the end of the semester was probably not the best life choice. So I waited until I was done with all of the end of semester tasks as well as done with an institute that I worked for after the semester was over.

And now, here I am. I started working at the beginning of this week. I’d spent a lot of time prior to this week reading through various blogs, books, and social media posts that provide guidance on the dissertation process. I’ve never been a scout, but I’m nothing if not one who attempts to be prepared. As is always the case, some of the advice is in conflict, not only with my personal style, but also with other existing advice. But I’m often still willing to give things a shot, such as when I spent the first part of this year getting up earlier, so that I could get into writing, more or less as the first thing in my day (I maintained this for a while, and the logic of it is very clear, but I don’t think I’m well-suited to sustain it).

So here are the main things I’ve been doing thus far:

  • I made a general timeline for how long it’ll take me to complete the dissertation, broken down by how long I intend to spend on each section. Once I started doing this, I realized that it’s more complicated than I had expected, but I tried to account for as much as I could, and I made sure there was plenty of leeway time for when I presumably get burned out and for revisions and such. My goal is to finish before (*DJ Khaled voice*) THEY stop giving me money, so ya know, planning ahead is important.
  • I made a schedule for the summer with planned viewing/writing/research times. This is something that I’ve been doing for a couple of years now, but I think it’s even more crucial this summer, so that I actually stay on task.
  • I’ve been starting each day before I begin work with a short freewrite on my plans for the day, how I’m progressing, how I’m feeling, etc. I believe this was a tip I picked up from Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. So far, I like this because it makes me pause and think, and I also return and add more after I’m finished for the day because, ya know, reflection is useful.
  • I’ve been “writing the dissertation” every day. For approximately 30 mins-1 hour. With no editing or revision, and with minimal sense of organization. I know that a lot of what I’m writing right now will probably not be usable in the final chapter draft (or even the first real draft), but it’s been useful to get things written down.

I’ve already tweaked some of the details a few times this week. For example, I modified the time I allotted to writing once I got a sense of how that was working for me after a few days. I made changes to some of the questions I was trying to answer in my research when I realized that some of them are unanswerable at this point in the process. I believe in flexibility, especially in a process like this. If something’s not working for you, and it’s something you can reasonably change, then I say, “change it.”

So that’s the gist of where I am right now. Mostly (extremely cautiously) optimistic. Ultimately, I’m getting to research and write about a topic that I really enjoy, which is pretty awesome.

(The topic is TV remakes)

(No, I did not watch that Dirty Dancing remake because I’m not *that* much of a glutton for punishment)

Image is a picture of Linda Hamilton & Ron Pearlman from the 1987 version of Beauty and the Beast

Though I’m currently spending a lot of time watching this, so I’m not quite sure if you should trust my judgment 🙂

Another Ending (…almost)

Today was the last official class meeting for the documentary class I’ve been teaching this semester. My students have a final paper and project due within the coming days, but beyond that, we’re pretty much done. In recent semesters, I’ve always tried to find interesting ways to wrap up the semester, and this time, I went with what I called the Takeaway Tweet. Essentially, I asked the students to write on blank slips of paper one idea/concept/skill/etc that they’d be taking away from the class. And they had to do so in 140 characters or less. This, of course, is building off of other assignments I’ve seen online in which educators ask students to make headlines or bumper stickers on the last day except I wanted to make it ~millennial~.

(shout out to all of my fellow 80s/90s kids)

But seriously, end of semester evaluations are what they are, and while I do find them somewhat useful (depending on the specific evaluation), I also find that the ways that they’re structured often don’t give me the information I need. But this particular task not only allows students to reflect on their experiences in the class but also allows me to see if what I was attempting to convey actually made its way through.

Anyways, here’s what they’re taking away (p.s. I did not actually count their characters so don’t @ me 😛 :

  • “I will pay more attention to the small choices made (lighting, sound) in the films that I watch”
  • “Don’t do crime #youaintslick” (I will relevantly point out here that the class’ theme was Crime, Power, and Justice haha)
  • “Systematic injustices occur across the country. Despite the media coverage, these instances are not isolated”
  • “The main thing I took away from this class is that there sometimes is no such thing as the real truth, or at least sometimes it’s impossible to know what is and isn’t true”
  • “Truth is subjective and all people deserve justice”
  • “Things are not always what they seem & truth is a construct that can be bent & shaped in many different ways”
  • “I have a more profound understanding of the power of media in society”
  • “The directory decides their truth in documentary film #stress #fun”
  • “U.S. Film & Documentary opened my eyes to who has power within society and how they use that power #Corruption #GetOutofTheNorms”
  • “In this class, I watched a lot of interesting documentaries that were very thought provoking, and my analysis skills also improved”
  • “Always question the presentation of “truth” and “fact” “
  • “Documentary film is not always the truth. Consider who has power and why”
  • “I learned about how hard it is to make a documentary. I’ve learned to respect the process”
  • “I enjoyed watching documentaries in this class. Many documentaries are thought-provoking and mind-blowing. I’m glad that I learned these events/social issues.”
  • “Truth is subjective. Documentaries bias. Always consider the author’s intention.”
  • “Power and justice are generally relegated to the “haves” of society while the “have nots” live without it”
  • “I learned that the world is unfair”

Me after reading these:


Fat Joe & Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up” is a good representation of my feelings in this moment. (I still don’t know what a French Montana is though)

I think this final day activity is a keeper ✌🏾