Assessment of Student Work: It’s Not about You

This post is worth sharing again. I spent the weekend and part of last week reviewing and marking first year mid-terms. This post is worth sharing again and again. This morning I read some of this blog aloud to my first years. I even had the blog up on the screen for them to see. I do think it is important to remind students that the mark is not about you, but the work that was reviewed. We (me and the TAs) are not judging you as a person. I know that it might feel like it, but that is not the case.

If I could look into the eye of every student (undergrad and graduate) and say:

Your course grades do not reflect who you are as a person. The grade is only an assessment of your performance in this moment with these assignments–no more. You should not take the grades personally and wonder if this means that the person who assessed your work doesn’t like you. We are assessing so much work and it’s ultimately about the writing, analysis, presentation, ideas, grammar, spelling punctuation, directions, but not about you as a person. The assessment is about the performance of the assignment or the project and it is not personal. And, I also ask that you think about the assignment that you submitted. Was it your best work and did you follow the directions? Are you owning the grade and the comments? It is so to say that the Teaching Assistant or Professor has it in for you or does not understand you, but is there more there? A moment of introspection is needed so that you can think about the assignment and the expectations for your work.

I remember when I started teaching and I was more casual with the students. I would occasionally hear the following, “But I thought you liked me.” I conferred with my mentors and was told–you have to be more formal. Use your title and remind them that you are assessing their work and not them. Who they are has nothing to do with the grade. It’s about the writing and thinking. I re-worked my syllabi and did become more formal the following term and didn’t hear those personal statements again. March Madness on campus is really not just about basketball. It’s also about research, thinking, and writing. Mange your time well so that you do justice to your ideas. My purple pen is here to comment and tease out ideas. I pick up each paper and think~ what is here and how can I help? The assessment is really about the ideas. Please remember this.

A Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology

Love this!

Bryan Alexander

devil_gags9999In the dark and satirical spirit of Ambrose Bierce, I offer the first draft of a Devil’s Dictionary for educational technology terms.  May it entertain, and all be forgiven.

App, n.  An elegant way to avoid the World Wide Web.

Blended learning, n.  The practice of combining digital and analog teaching.  Also referred to as “teaching”, “learning”, and “the real world”.

Blogging, v.  The practice of writing to and interacting with an audience through an easy to use, automatically archiving tool.  A curiosity, which might be significant if every anyone used it.  Can be neatly buried by the LMS.

Competency-based education (CBE), n.  A tentative recognition that learning might occur outside of academia.  Obviously dangerous, and preferably reserved for the lower classes.

Digital native, n.  Student worker.

Engagement, n. That which everyone talks about but really does not know what it means. (thanks…

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Welcome to the New Term!

looking at a book

Today was one of those days. I saw two families driving on the wrong side of the road. I also saw lots of parents with their kids walking around the bookstore and other parts of campus. The families looked happy. And, if anything, the incoming student looked excited. I want to welcome all of us to a new term.

The new term means a fresh start for all of us. I am looking forward to meeting my new students and colleagues. I was lucky enough to meet lots of new faculty at a few events in August. The new term is the perfect time to move forward with good intentions. The new term is the start of something precious. Yes, it’s precious. The clean slate is a good time to start new habits and try to keep to them. I am thinking about what I want this term. What do you want for the new term?

Glass Shards and Mental Hygiene

Great post!

sasha gronsdahl

Last night, I wrapped up my first week in Toronto alone and in tears in my kitchen, plucking tiny slivers of glass from my fingers.

It had been a long day. I had made the trek out to IKEA in Etobicoke to pick up the essentials for my new place; since I took a bus to get there, I arranged to have my purchases delivered to my house later that day. After spending the rest of the day scrubbing and organizing the kitchen, I answered the door to two deliverymen, who dropped off my things and sped away to complete the rest of their route.

Once they had left, I picked up the package containing a side-table with a glass top, and it sounded like it was full of gravel. Not a good sign. Sure enough, as I opened the box, millions of glass shards spilled out–several lodging themselves into my fingers and palms…

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Teaching as Mentoring


prof a

Last week I blogged about Lessons Learned, when a class does not go well. This post picks up where I left off, but focuses on my best teaching experience to date. I love teaching. I view it as a form of mentoring and learning that works both ways. I learn from my students, and I have ample opportunity to work with them as they read and engage with the course materials, their peers, and me. Mentoring is important to me and this class offered lots of mentoring moments.

Last Fall I taught a new course for the Technology and Society Program, Digital Skills for Your Career and the course was amazing. I need to clarify, I co-taught with an awesome person and she helped make it successful. The students were also open to the material and learning. We also had colleagues from Career and Co-op  lecture about planning for your career trajectory, resume tips, and LinkedIn tips. The thing is that we had lots of exercises and group work for the class.

The students started off with putting together an page, where they could think about who they are and what they’d like to share. The course was also meant to have them think about being in control over their digital footprints. They also had to populate a LinkedIn profile well, blog, and then give a presentation about themselves and something that they’re interested in as their final project. There was also group work during class sessions.

We had a wide array of guest speakers from government, media, technology, non-profit, entrepreneurs, and other educators. Everything fit in well and our office hours were quite busy with the students. The student feedback unofficially and officially (student evaluations) was extremely positive. What worked well is that we allowed them to be vulnerable. We talked about vulnerability and we saw that thinking and planning was frightening, and they needed a space to do this. We graded them on their writing, depth of analysis, and public speaking. Overall, the course was awesome. Several of the students shared that they were recruited via their LinkedIn profile, and others used the class to think about what was next for them.

I am teaching the course again, and by myself this time. We are going to read Tom Rath’s Strength Finders and Sheryl Sandberg’s Leaning in For Graduates. I also have lots of articles about using social or digital tools wisely. Overall, I am looking forward to the class, and I hope that this next cohort of students are as excited as I am.

Lessons Learned

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I have had two outlier terms in my teaching career. And, one was in the last year. When things work well, you feel like every damn thing is in order, and you want to pinch yourself. In a similar way, when things begin to go wrong you want to stop and fix them, but they continue to slip out of your reach, it feels like a train wreck. Well, I had a term like this and I’m looking back, so that I can look forward.

I used some new materials, had some strong personalities, and did my best. Well, things did not go as planned, and I need to do a few things. I need to own it. I need to move on. But, right now I am reviewing things. What could I have done to make things better? I know it was not just the books, the students, and me. There are always more factors at play when a class is mediocre. I pride myself on how much I enjoy teaching, as I view it as a form of mentoring and I find teaching fulfilling. And, when things go offside, I feel responsible.

I chose a few new books in order to push my class to read about debates in the field. If I could go back, I would have chosen one new book. The material was provocative enough to cause uncomfortable feelings, debate, and a good measure of animosity between the students, and some directed at me. It is far easier to teach the usual suspects. So, there is a part of me that stubbornly thinks that I would not change the books. I did explain that the material would push the students and that they should feel uncomfortable, but it was not enough. From the papers, I could read that a handful of the students did not like the book or both books. Now, whether or not I had a deep reflection about the content is a different story, but I did hear about the materials vocally. “I want a different book suggestion, since I cannot relate to this one.” I did not give the student another book option.

Course materials are important and I reviewed several books and was really happy with the overall syllabus and assignment. I can reluctantly admit that I would not teach both new books again. One did not work. I won’t name it, as it will do a few things. It will make the students realize that I am talking about their class, and it’s likely better that they not know which of the courses I am referring to in this post! Well, on their own, both books are intellectually engaging or problematic. I do not want to teach perfect books, as that is too darn easy. What else would I have done differently? I think I would have noted that this course had fewer readings and pages of work due to me, than previous terms. From reviewing the evaluations, it is clear that some of the students thought that I was asking them to do too much work. I was not.

The good news here is that I take each class as a learning experience. While teaching feels like it comes easy to me, it is good to know that I will still have an off term. It is good for me to reflect on the course. And, I am not a rock star every term. I have been fortunate to have so many awesome courses and experiences–this year reminded me to be humble! And, the few unhelpful evaluations say more about the student, than they do about me. Thanks for reading the post. I’d appreciate any feedback you have about awesome or crappy terms. We all have them.


BlogHer Exercise: Letter to Younger Self

I attended an afternoon session at the Pathfinder event at #BlogHer 2011, ” My Blog as Life Changer.” One exercise was a letter to your younger self. (Now, this is a great book that I just read in Huntington Beach.) I did the exercise and this was my first stab. So many examples of passive voice, but this is unedited–my first draft. What a great exercise! I have three working topics. This letter refers to my work in higher education. I’ll post one of the other ones later this month.

Dear Janni:

You will be pleasantly surprised that you end up not only really enjoying teaching, but are pretty good at it. This teaching in the classroom will translate into your hands-on style of mentoring. Not all students will get it, so don’t be disappointed. And, not all of your colleagues will appreciate it, as for some of them their research agendas are more important. Don’t worry about what they think and continue to focus your energies on what you are good at in the classroom and during office hours.

Students need a fair advocate and at times some of them will bristle when they don’t get their way. Don’t be surprised. You are going to save your emails for a year after a class—do that. It will protect you and the student. And, always document any interesting situations for the same reason.

There are going to be hard times when you have to speak out to support a colleague or a student—don’t be scared to do so. You won’t lose your job over it. If anything, people will respect you for these efforts. There will be times when it will be hard to be in your 9th, 10th, 11th year of teaching full-time as a part-timer. You will get a full-time tenure track job in a city that you want to live in. So, don’t bother stressing about applying for jobs in places that you aren’t sure you would like to work at for whatever reason.

Also, no job is a sure thing—no matter what connections you have. When you are given special information about a job—don’t take it. It will backfire on you. And, if you do take it—note that the person who gave you information was a saboteur.  Move on with your chin up and don’t look back.

You are going to work with thousands of great, intelligent, caring students. You will become a mentor, friend, confident, and in some instances connector for many. Be prepared for office hours and to decompress afterwards, as they can be exhausting. You will find out things that will make you angry—so be prepared to send students to the appropriate offices for help. This really is part of your job description with the way you work.

You are going to use your dissertation research in different ways. Try to get chapters published, but please note that the entire process: research, writing, and networking will serve you well throughout your career. And, continue to go to meetings to network. These networks will prove invaluable and you will eventually have a leadership role in some of the Political Science associations and on campus. You will use your powers for good.

Don’t wait to get a smart phone, blog, or attend Tweet ups. You will expand your networking into the community that you call home.

Your research agenda will include all the things that you care about, so don’t leave Political Science. You will make Political Science work for you and you’ll be content.

2016 additions: You will find different opportunities that take you out of the classroom some. Do not be afraid. Take them. You can make a difference representing women on campus. And, when you are asked to think about a job in administration do not  pause. Say that you’re interested. You’ll make a good academic administrator. And, you’re going to meet Glenn Beck–hell doesn’t freeze, but believe his assistant when he calls.

Janni on the blaze_Beck