Ideas on Grading and Assessment

The past couple of weeks we’ve been looking at assessment. In the wake of last night’s election, I’m a little distracted and frustrated, but I’ll do my best to discuss here without getting too negative. We’ve talked a lot about contract grading, a method in which students help to negotiate the standards to which they are held for the semester. How specifically this is implemented varies. There are a few standard models, and as always, teachers are free to decide whether to use another model, combine models, or use some combination of contract grading and standard grading. I’m still trying to wrap my head around each of the example models we’ve discussed, but I have noticed that many of the models take a lot of work up front for the teacher and the students. They also offload a lot of the responsibility from the teacher to the student, and I think this is my favorite part about contract grading. While standard methods allow a student to calculate what s/he needs to do to get by, contract grading gives the student the opportunity to design (to a limited extent) reasonable self-expectations. This encourages a sort of intrinsic motivation that is very hard to foster.

The problem that I have with contract grading–and I’m going to sound pretty old-school here–is that much of the proposed system seems to enable students to do work that is less than satisfactory while still doing well in the class. Some have argued that this doesn’t matter because assessment and grading only exist within the academic setting. I find this argument completely false. Though careers don’t all have common standards and units of measure, most jobs involve performance evaluation. Even for independent contractors, there are now sites like Angie’s list. Now more than ever before the quality of our work is quantified and uploaded to the cloud for all to see. Students can rate their professors online. Everyone is assessed and turned into a data point. Although I believe this permeation of capitalism is detrimental to the education system and fails to quantify the student as a whole person, this is the world in which we live, and I cannot with a clear conscience send students into a world with a false sense of hope and confidence.

For this reason and many others, I would be willing to consider using a moderate adaptation of a contract grading method in which the expectations for A, B, and C grades are clearly outlined. This isn’t too far from the standard system in which a student is handed a syllabus and given the work for the entire semester. Not only does this allow students to receive grades that they deserve, it also allows them to focus on more important classes if necessary. I once read in Einstein’s Autobiographical Notes that he would often skip class to spend time in the physics lab and later review notes from classmates. He would show up only for tests. Though not many students have the intrinsic motivation to be as autodidactic as the greatest mind of the 20th century, I do think that there is value in allowing those with the appropriate amount of self-discipline the freedom to choose when and how to do their work while also providing a more scaffolded structure for those who feel they need the external motivation.


On Evaluation

As much as I enjoyed the readings for this week, I feel that they can be easily summed up by saying that we ought to enter into evaluation with a positive framework and give our students positive and actionable feedback. The old system of ranking is comparative and inaccurate in that it oversimplifies the process in a comparative manner and leaves the lower-ranked students in doubt of their ability and the higher-ranked students in doubt of their authenticity. I can remember a few occasions, especially in my undergrad, when I suspected that I had received an A simply because in one way or another I had guilted the teacher into giving me a higher grade. Although I am ultimately grateful for the benefits that good grades have afforded me, such interactions demonstrate that the ranking system sets up situations that can be demoralizing for all parties involved. Furthermore, these systems are subject to inconsistent evaluation.

Although I agree with the ideas that feedback should be positively actionable, that we should foster an atmosphere of trust through praise of what is good in our students’ writing, and that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, I find the proposition of restructuring the grading system highly problematic. It’s completely Utopian. Sure, the grading system is flawed, but ultimately it’s so built into the education system and ultimately the job market that I don’t think it’s possible to change this while teaching at the level of an introductory composition teacher. So my response to this week’s readings is a question: what alternative do these writers propose? I understand that the consistent thread is evaluation, but we ultimately have to give these students grades. In the world in which we live where everything is built on ones and zeros, we have to have access to transcript data that allows us to quickly and efficiently place these students in the classes in which they belong and push them towards careers in which they will function at their highest level and hopefully at their happiest, although this happiness often overlooked in favor of utility.

Writing is important for educational, professional, and personal life, but for many students in introductory courses, a composition course checks off a box on the list of requirements. Although I believe in teaching writing as though it is the most important thing in the world, I also realize that we ultimately have to end a semester by quantifying student progress in data points. It is here where the philosophical approach to teaching composition for the promotion of holistic mental health of students and the evaluation seem to diverge completely. The oversimplification of this divergence in this week’s readings is frustrating to me. This is a problem that takes more than a six page article to address. This is a problem that takes an entire book that ends in the proposition of an impossible and possibly global social revolution.

On Research Papers

In the article for today’s class, I didn’t see much about research papers. Rather, this article seems to be a rehash of the piece on boundary guarding v. boundary crossing and the relationship to knowledge transfer. I am familiar with the conversation around knowledge transfer, but more in context of how it applies to the current trend of brain training games. From what I’ve heard on the subject, it sounds like brain training games in particular tend to make one better at the games, but not much else. I didn’t see much similarity between this conversation and the conversation over first year writing students. This article seems to be more focused on the forward application of knowledge. This study showed boundary guarders as having a tendency to graft new knowledge onto old knowledge while boundary crossers tend to reconsider their current knowledge in light of new knowledge.

I have some issues with this view of students in general. It seems like this view of boundary crossers and guarders leads us to favor boundary crossers while trying to change the ways in which boundary guarders naturally think. Today’s article hints at this issue, but it still seems largely ignored in the literature. I’d like to see more work suggesting ways in which we might rethink these teaching biases.

As for the research paper, I agree that many students see it as an information dump and fail to engage with the material in a critical manner. This makes the research useless and trivial. Page length requirements and source number requirements seem to add to this problem, but without strict rubrics, our students might not know where to go. Looser structures with a range of sources and page length requirements might help, but I don’t feel like this is the ultimate answer. It seems like this problem can ultimately be solved only by continuing to push our students to engage with material. One way we can do this is to push the students to feel some way about the subject. If they have chosen the subject, this push should be easy. Beyond this, I still feel pretty lost as to what we should do to better teach research. I honestly don’t remember my first college research project, and I still get nervous around the word. I feel like there are a lot of ambiguous expectations around research. As much as I love gathering the information and coming up with a finished product, I really can’t give a systematic breakdown of my process, so I don’t know how to teach it at this time.

Delivering the Mass-age

I find it appropriately intriguing that the readings for Monday and the readings for Wednesday both cited Marshall McCluhan as a source when discussing writing in the digital age. For those of you who are not familiar with his work, McCluhan was very influential in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the midst of the youth movement. His most influential piece is called The Medium is the Massage (pronounced “mass-idge,” as a sort of beatnik pun combining the words “mass” and “message”). The book is a very short and easy read filled with pictures that communicate just as much as the words. It details the ways in which our thought processes have changed and continue to change due to the evolution of mass media. If I remember correctly, McLuhan talks about the printing press and how increased literacy turned Western culture into linear thinkers because the written word is a linear form. He moves to today and notes that because we are surrounded by media, we are learning to think in all new ways. We are immersed in media. We wear our messages in ways that we never did before. The book is definitely worth the read, and the images are beautiful. I highly recommend it not only as a supplement to this lesson but also for pure enjoyment and self-edification.

As far as the article goes, Trimbur made me think a lot about the issues of teaching pure writing in this era. We are now taught through social media, casual text messages, and emails to create short and concise messages that combine text with images, emojis (which function more like iconography than like photographs), videos, sounds, and other media that help us to express our points in clearer ways. Although I believe that the immediate nature of this multimedia experience can help communication become clearer, the trending change also makes me question the value of classical rhetoric in the classroom. While traditional methods have historical relevance, they are now becoming antiquated as a means of teaching students relevant life skills. As a result of the change in communication strategies, students often struggle to meet page-length requirements, and those who do manage to meet them often deliberately or accidentally fill their pages with fluff. I think that we should learn to adjust our page length expectations and the nature of our assignments to better accommodate the current student population. I think that assignments that integrate the use of photographs, icons, infographics, and other visual elements combined with shorter commentary on the relevance of these images to the point of the “essay” can function as one solution to the problems we face. I also like some of the assignments that we’ve looked at in class such as making infographics and analyzing differences between social networks and the ways in which profiles work. These kinds of assignments work with skills that students either have already or will need in the workplace and in personal life. They also increase student awareness of the ways in which the current world functions. This awareness ultimately will help the students to become better members of the global community by aiding in their interaction.

Students and Teachers from Diverse Populations

It’s much easier to go into the classroom with a set plan, have common standards for everybody, and expect students to sink or swim. While this is efficient for the teacher, this approach is likely to leave students feeling like they are drones in a classroom. This approach is especially problematic when it comes to students in diverse populations. Though a common goal and standard is valuable, students with disabilities and students who know English as a second language may need to take a different approach to reaching that goal. We may even need to adjust goals so that they are easier for the students to reach. Herein lies another catch-22. When we adjust goals for students who have trouble reaching them, does that make things unfair for our “normal” students? We are bound to encounter students who try to manipulate us into thinking so. How should we address these manipulations, and when do we start asking for evidence of extenuating circumstance? What do we qualify as an extenuating circumstance?

Lockhart and Roberge do a good job of helping us to anticipate the types of outliers we can expect in the classroom. But they fail to directly address the issue of potential manipulation. Though we are bound to have one or two students over the years who succeed in pulling the wool over our eyes, I think that much of this manipulation can be avoided by maintaining confidentiality between teacher and student. This eliminates a part of the problem, but there’s still the issue of student-to-student relationship. We want students to help one another because conversation with peers is a huge part of the learning process, but peer-to-peer learning puts the confidentiality of adaptations at risk. Lockhart and Roberge suggest community building, and I think this solves the most of the problem. While working in communities may cause adaptations to surface, it also promotes bonds between students and hopefully creates a better understanding of the necessity of certain adaptations.

Gibson brings up another important point, that it may not be the students who are “strange,” but the teacher may also be strange. As instructors, we must always consider the ways in which our identities interact with the demographic of the school in which we are working. I must admit that the demographic of the University of Idaho makes me a little nervous about working as an aide next year. I anticipate that there will be a large number of students from small, rural, conservative farming communities. At this point, I’m mostly comfortable interacting with this population in a diplomatic manner, I’ve had these interactions go awry a few times, and I want to avoid that as much as possible in the classroom.

Lesson Plans and Teacher Comments

Last week’s reading focused on getting students to start writing. This week’s first readings (excluding “Rigid Rules”) were more geared towards interactions with students. The introduction and first two chapters of Informed Choices focused on making constructive comments and building a good rapport. One rapport-building exercise that I found interesting was the development of a common language. Sommers mentions one teacher who used the term “spice” with his students. I think that this common language can be a fun and useful tool for developing a sense of group identity between students and their peers as well as the teachers. Coming up with a few simple words here and there to condense an idea gives a group a sort of iconography that makes learning more efficient and lessons more permanent.

Sommers also discusses the importance of making efficient comments that help students to advance without feeling discouraged. Too much red ink can overwhelm some students, and for most people, one discouraging remark can outweigh a million praises. What I like to do with students to keep them from feeling discouraged is to tell them how they can improve rather than what they did wrong. I tend to think that goal-oriented teaching keeps students moving forward while pointing out flaws tends to cause self-destructive obsession. That’s not to undermine the occasional necessity of “tough love,” but generally speaking, goals seem to keep people happier and more productive.

“Choices about Day-to-Day Planning” was more about scheduling, and I was not as interested in this article. I thought that it offered some great theoretical guidelines about class flow, but in my experience, nothing ever goes according to plan. Of course, it would be ridiculous to walk into every class and treat it like playing along with a jazz standard, but I’m also wary of over-composing. I further found this article difficult because I’m not teaching this semester and can’t think of practical applications. I’ll have to come back to it later and adapt the ideas that I like best during a semester when I’m actually teaching a course.

Finally, Rose’s “Rigid Rules” discusses writer’s block, the reasons this might occur, and how to help students who struggle with this problem. While reading this piece, I was reminded of a nonfiction course I took in my undergrad in which we had a guest lecturer who suggested that in order to overcome writer’s block, he would first divide a piece of paper into two columns. In one column, he would start writing. The next column was reserved for recording speed bumps. Every time he felt like he shouldn’t write something, he would write it anyway, and in the next column say why he felt like he shouldn’t write it. I may have tried this exercise once or twice myself, but hearing of the concept was enough for me to realize that I similarly have many “voices” in my head telling me what I can and cannot say or how I can or cannot say it. When these voices become stumbling blocks rather than aides, I think of that two-column sheet of paper and ask myself why they are trying to block me. If I can’t think of a good reason, I run them right over and move on. Like we learned when we contemplated “Ignoring Audience,” a paper can always be revised. The first priority is to record the thinking process.

First Week: Addressing Freshman Stage Fright

This week for pedagogy, we were assigned four articles. Though they cumulatively seemed to give a basic overview of what should be expected of an English 101 class, I found a few points that grabbed my attention in each article.

“Closing My Eyes as I Speak” by Peter Elbow was my favorite piece. In the article, Elbow discusses the possible stumbling blocks of considering an audience. This was a refreshing perspective. During my own 101 and 102 courses, I remember teachers constantly talking about knowing the audience, and when this became my first priority, I would often become overwhelmed and unable to write. What Elbow proposes is not that we encourage students to completely ignore the audience, but that we encourage them to first write for themselves and then modify the piece to speak to a larger group. This relieves so much of the pressure for freshmen who often feel intimidated by the prospect of speaking as experts when they are only beginning to learn about their field. This process of freewriting and revising is one that I had to discover on my own, and I would strongly encourage others to teach. It would have saved me a lot of time and work when I was an undergraduate if I had known that I could first write something that made sense to me and then change it so that it made sense to the rest of the world.

“The Novice as Expert” and “Inventing the University” also seem to speak to this feeling anxieties prevalent in many freshman English classes. I would guess that one of the hardest things about teaching an introductory course is that so many students are only there for a grade. For most students, English 101 and 102 are boxes on a checklist of prerequisites, so engagement can be difficult. What the students fail to realize is that engagement in introductory English courses will further help them to engage with their peers in their given fields. All disciplines require conversation in order to advance, and intro English courses give people the skills they need to converse successfully. It was encouraging for me to read in “The Novice as Expert” that many students seem to learn this lesson over the course of their freshman year, but I’m still not convinced that the majority of freshmen understand the importance of their introductory work.