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.

Welcome to the New Term!

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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?

Teaching as Mentoring

 

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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 About.me 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.

 

Professing: Mediocre Terms

I had the opportunity to chat with some other professors about their courses, and we ended up chatting about the occasional course “do over.” If you poll professors, there will always be a class or term where things just did not go as planned. In some instances it was out of your control. You might have been under tight deadlines for projects or you were teaching 4 courses with new preparations for each course.

One thing that we agreed upon was the need to reflect and then move on from that course or term. I have been thinking about this conversation some. I haven’t had a bad term, but I have had a course go off the rails. I have had a Teaching Assistant abandon the job, and I had to do all of that person’s marking. (And, the Teaching Assistant was still paid! But, that is another post.) The other graduate students in the department were not aware of the entire story and made that term terrible by blocking my door, standing outside of my office talking loudly during my office hours, and other bullying up behavior that was appalling. But, the term ended well and I have since supported many of those grad students with mentoring as they go onto the job market.

Many years ago a student threatened me via email repeatedly and the campus was great with the swift response, and I know that I never want that to happen again. The reality is, though, that I will have another interesting course. I will have a student say terrible things in class, in an email or in my office hours. I might have a student ask to see other graded work or make demands of me that I do not appreciate. And, I’ll have to respond thoughtfully or disengage accordingly. I am fine with that. This is part of my job, and honestly, these interactions are small. But, from talking with other professors, we wear this. We remember these moments. We can reflect, but we have to forget and move on to the next term.

I talk about teachable moments and I will have them. This can vary from the moment in class, office hours or after class. Teaching and mentoring is not easy. As the new school year looms for those teaching Summer session or continues for those who never great a break, hang in there! Raising my cup of coffee to all of the professors!

Some of You Will Like Me

Another term is ending for me and one theme that stands out for me is part of a lecture that I gave my students in my American Politics class. (The department renamed the course United States Politics, but my default over twenty years is American Politics. I know, I’m exercising American exceptionalism here or you can accuse me of that). The lecture was a primer one on how to do well on the assignments and I spoke to critical thinking and need for a higher level of analysis. I also advised them to come see me in my office hours. Then, I did something that I do not normally do. I referred to that site that allows people to rate instructors. You know which one that I am referring to–don’t you? It is like Voldemo…you cannot say the name!

The reason I referred to the site, as I explained to my students was that the last time I had quickly reviewed my ratings, I noted one person say that it is important to get me to like you. I recall having a quick laugh and smiling for the next twenty minutes, as this is not true. I told the students in my class, “I like all of you. The difference is that some of you will like me back.” I explained that my life is quite full and I am content. I also shared with them that my teaching philosophy statement notes that I am not in the habit of chasing the 5, which is the perfect score on our teaching evaluations. Yes, I had included this sentence in my dossier for a teaching award, the Faculty of Social Sciences Excellence in Teaching. I was honored to get the award! Back to my comments to my students, I was extremely honest with this group and later left the classroom feeling satisfied with this moment of brutal honesty.

The fact that a person or some people would think that instructors only “give” good marks to students that they like is false. Trust me, I have run the Excel equation and said, “Oh, no.” This is that moment when you really want a student to do well, but one assignment or two assignments sealed their mark with a C or worse. You feel for the student, but there is nothing you can do. Ultimately, what I told my students is that I try to have an open mind and that many of them come from various places across the province and some out of province. Regardless of where they are from there is a whole host of different views and more importantly different abilities with writing, thinking, and success with the work of being a student. I also explained to them that they will perform better in courses that they are interested in and should try to take courses that appeal to them. Then, they need to show up. Go to class, go to office hours, and get to know their instructors or Teaching Assistants. I even referrred to Wil Wheaton’s comments in a high school yearbook and he said the same thing: go to class, go to office hours. I agree with him. (Hey, follow him @wilw). In my opinion, it is not a matter of my liking you. No, it is about my assessment of the work and hopefully seeing an improvement through the term. This puts a smile on my face. It is great to write on the assignment: your work has improved, bravo!

The students who I mentor or coach I get to know better and subsequently do like them in a different way. I have had more opportunities to get to know them. And, I must say here that I have mentored more students who hold political opinions that are quite different than my own. My mentoring or teaching does not take this into consideration. Most years, I find that I am mentoring an equal number of women and men students; even though our campus is 60% women and 40% men. Overall, I would be hard pressed to say that I dislike a student. No, I am more apt to feel a negative thought about a colleague in another unit, who pontificates about how teaching is beneath us or questioning my presence on Senate as a teaching focused professor. These sort of statements rub me the wrong way.

I have a special place in students’ lives. I am part of their college experience. I can be a mentor or coach. I get to work with them and I think that is an honor. I do, but today I have 70 items to mark so it feels somewhat burdensome, but overall I think that I am in a great place. I was reminded of this last night when I attended a former student’s wedding. I had met her parents before, but to hear that to this day she still talks about my classes–I was touched. Over the course of my career, I have met many siblings and have taught all the siblings in several families and have had coffees to meet my students’ babies. Like I said, I am lucky and know that some of my students will like me. The tumbler below is from a former student. She has also worked with my kids–it is a small community. I wish her luck with what is next!

It’s interesting to see that being liked by students is often viewed as a negative thing by some colleagues. One of the things that I have now resolved to not do is apply for teaching awards. I have won one and I have been nominated for another on more than one occasion. I am done. I know that I am an effective professor, and love teaching and working with my students. And, that is all that I need. The force is strong in this academic administrator!

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Managing People

Occasionally in higher education faculty will manage or supervise undergraduates or graduate students. Particular to my position, I am pretty darn lucky to have a team of Teaching Assistants reporting to me. I also have two undergraduates doing work for me, as well. Today’s Friday Fun Facts are about things I have learned about managing or supervising people.

For the last three years I have had ample opportunity to manage more than one dozen people and this short list is a start.

1. Clarity. Make sure that your directions are painfully clear. I provide the Teaching Assistants with a dossier that includes a one page statement and copies of graded work from the previous term.

2. Deadlines. This is related to the above point. You must make sure that you give clear deadlines for graded work or deliverables. If they are not met, then you can deal with it effectively.

3. Communication. I have found that the best thing that I can do is chat periodically via email or face to face and check in with the student. Likewise, the check in can prevent any issues.

4. Transparency. I find that occasionally a Teaching Assistant will not understand the logic behind an assignment or opportunity. And, I remember that this person is learning and I am mentoring him/her. For instance, I had an extra credit opportunity two weeks ago and one Teaching Assistant felt that awarding of 1-5 points was arbitrary. I explained that students who submitted strong work on time would beg to differ. You have to explain your reasoning and most times you’ll hear, “Oh, I didn’t think about that.” And, that is when you smile.

5. Professionalism. Establish the boundaries to the working relationship. Some will not understand that they can pop by for non-office hour consultations. If you have an open door policy with the students who are working with you–you need to tell them.

6. Mentor. Remember that for all intents and purposes what you are doing really comes down to mentoring. Mentoring undergraduates with how to plan events, do research, and more (just some of the tasks that the two students are currently undertaking). While the graduate students are facilitating discussion, grading, meeting with students, coming to class, and learning their own pedagogical strategies.

7. Supervising. Another important aspect of managing people is also dealing with any problems. In terms of the graduate students, it’s rather easy. You speak to the student and if you must make sure that the Graduate Advisor is in the loop. We have mid-term evaluations of our Teaching Assistants and this is the perfect time to share concerns or progress with the students, as well as with the Graduate Advisor. I have had no problem writing an unsatisfactory evaluation of a Teaching Assistant. You will save the next instructor the headache. However, I do suggest that you let the Teaching Assistant know that you have given an honest assessment.

Overall, these points are a start to the list and certainly not exhaustive. I would like to add that it’s extremely important to keep to performance reviews and give constructive feedback. One question that I have often asked is, “How can I help you be successful with your position?” This question is a simple one and more useful than, “What can I do for you?” My point is that you have to ask questions. What sort of questions do you ask?

 

Thinking about Learning Spaces

Almost one year ago, I attended the National Forum on Active Learning Classroom conference held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. It was a truly amazing conference! Between the Society for College and University Planning and this conference, my head is going to explode with all the great information that I heard. The good news is that I feel validated. Validated for my teaching style and the disruption that I cause in the classroom and with my educational technology use.

I understand from my friends and colleagues in many departments that their classroom is everywhere. They teach online and I tend to veer toward a blended or flexible format. I might have two sessions of lecture/discussion style, lab time or online/group learning time. The reality is that learning spaces exist in and outside of the traditional classroom and we need to make sure that we are supportive of the variety of teaching modalities. Likewise, our students are used to making virtually any space a learning space and we need to remember this as we plan space on campus.

One little takeaway was the artful way that the facilities office has suggested that students clean up after themselves. This is the way to encourage students and does not rant or nag at them, which they dislike. And, I cannot blame that. Many colleges are moving to recycling centers outside of classrooms to encourage sorting your garbage and recycling. I took lots of photos at the conference and there are some other great posters in the rooms. 

 

U of MN classroom

The conference was small with about 250 attendees and the group was mixed in terms of facilities staff, administrators, and faculty.  However, based on my interactions, it seemed like there were more faculty at this conference. The faculty shared a common interest–dedication to teaching and learning. It is refreshing to interact with large groups of people dedicated to teaching and learning. We talked lots about flipping the classroom and the importance of active learning spaces. The photos below are from the conference sessions. All of the sessions were held in active learning spaces. I have more to say, and this is just one post. Look for more about this topic, and I have more below the photos!

  

A year later I can say that I have learned lots about learning spaces that are planned and found. The first thing is that students will help you “break” a classroom in ways that you may not have thought of during the planning. For instance, we have writable wall space, but did not make every last inch writable. Guess what? Some creative students assumed that every last inch was writable. Yup. If some of the space is writable, you need to make it all writable or have those fancy stickers or posters on the wall noting it’s writable space.

Another thing that I have learned is that a flexible classroom space will not work for every instructor. I fielded requests for four different lecterns. The rooms had one lectern, but there are “favorite” types of lecterns. In short, once a space is remodeled you must expect a year or two of testing, breaking, and consultations in order to assess what worked well or what needs improvement. Overall, working on a committee that is trying to make the face to face classroom space better is a rewarding work.

Energy Focus

It’s that time of the year when you have to reframe requests. I was chatting with some faculty colleagues about student work, and noted that I do not accept late work. The truth is that I do with qualifiers. I have a sentence or two in my syllabi that notes that students need to contact me before an assignment is due if they are deathly ill or an emergency has come up for them. I find it easier to specifically state my expectations. But, I also know that I have to be flexible. Life happens. 

I do not have enough mental energy to stress about late work. I was more rigid about deadlines, and then moved to rolling deadlines. And, an amazing thing happened, the percentage of students with excuses dropped. They knew that the first deadline meant more comments, and the last deadline was not late. This works well for my students. But, overall, my opinion with late work is one with less frustration. In some of my classes there are no rolling deadlines and just the policy–no late work is accepted. 

I have to choose what is my biggest concern. I want my students to be successful in the course. I do not want to hound them. I will not. They need my energies focused in the classroom and office hours. 

The photo below is the flip side of my Social Media name tag. My name is on the other side, but this side works. 

Why I Run Review Sessions

I am revisiting this idea. While I am not teaching a large first year course anymore, this post is relevant. I started this post a few years ago and saved it as a draft. Now, I am finishing it and mindful that it is a good reminder for my teaching and learning. I am an advocate of review sessions and workshops for students. We want students to think about how their professor is helpful. I include a screen grab from a search for “my professor is.”

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I am co-teaching a first year level course with three other faculty and one of the things that I take on as the professor of record is offering review sessions for the exams and other major assignments. I have taught first year courses for most of my academic career and the review sessions are important to helping my students with their learning. Review sessions or re-visiting “how to be successful” is not pandering to our students. It is an important part of active teaching.

Now that I have started my 19th year of teaching, I have come to realize several things. My students want more guidance about assignments. For an array of reasons, when I first started teaching the typical student would come to office hours or ask a question about an assignment in class. Now a majority of them want me to give them more information about the major assignments during class time. They likely feel that the stakes are higher for them and they want to fully understand my expectations.

I have also found that when we are blogging, uploading to Wikipedia or using any educational technology platforms in the classroom they need more than one workshop session to learn the technology. Some colleagues are surprised to hear this, “but they are the digital generation.” Yes, we can refer to our students as such, but when marks are involved it is a different story. This is not an exhaustive list of what I have learned over the years. I will certainly add to this post, as I ruminate why I am fine with clarifying, review sessions or otherwise digging deeper.