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.

Participation Ribbons: Show Up

At some point in the last decade or two participation ribbons became common at sports events. I have mixed feelings about this. While I understand the need to make every kid feel good about her or his participation in a cross country meet, there is another part of me that cringes with this practice. My mixed feelings stems from not wanting my kids to think that they have to win to be their best. Perhaps this is why they both like competitive swimming? While they swim against others, ultimately they are trying to lower their swim times and it becomes self-focused. 

I know that when I watch competitve sports events I am the one in our household who always comments that it is an honor for the athletes to compete. And, I think it is. Participation ribbons, though, have another part to them. Things get more complicated when I am in the classroom. Somehow this culture of rewarding people for showing up has bled into school work. There is this equation in some students’ minds: effort = A. And, this equation is a problem. 

Yes, it is important to participate. You need to show up to class. However, that is only one part of it. There are terabytes worth of research about the correlation between student attendance and success. Part of it is that students who attend class are more likely to be prepared and feel accountable, but the other part of it is that this same group is also likely to hear annoucements, do the reading, and possibly attend office hours for clarification about assignments. My issue is that I often have to explain to a student that their gauge for effort will vary, and that some students can whip an assignment together fast and do well and others will not. 

I do not believe in participation ribbons in the classroom. A solid blog post, research design, paper or vlog is going to take some effort, and merely doing the assignment is not enough. A stronger assignment is going to have to make me pause. The pause is one of excitement–this is great work. However, most of the students will do good to fair work and this is in the B to C range. And, nothing is wrong with this. What is the saying, “Bs and Cs earn degrees.” It’s true, but the learning experience is more than grades. A new term is right around the corner for our college students. My advice: show up. I hope that your instructors entice you to learn, think, and try. You do not have to do your best, but note that you’ll benefit based on the effort you put into the class. The benefits, though, are more tangible than a grade, and you might end up taking away more than the the ability to write better and think critically. You might be moved to change your major or take more classes with that instructor.


Reviewing Student Work: Teachable Moments

Reviewing graded work with students is not an easy task. This typically happens when a student wants to contest the mark, complain about the Teaching Assistant or about my assessment. Some students come in and they really want to learn from the assignment and do better the next time. Other students want to have an opportunity to complain. They merely want someone to listen to them. To be heard. I do not blame them–we all want someone to listen to us. It’s like Festivus–the airing of the grievances.

Educators need to remember that for so many of the students coming to office hours to chat with you is hard. Most students are a little nervous to come into the office and it’s best to immediately explain what the process is with the review. The student needs to know that you might lower or raise the grade. The student needs to know that they might have the option to revise and resubmit or contest the grade. The process will vary in different departments or different campuses.

All of this said, what I will do is re-grade the work and then review the graded work line by line or paragraph or by paragraph so that the student has a complete understanding of the grade. I also refer to the university grading system, so that the student understands that I am referring to the standards outlined by the institution. This is actually important as I feel it allows the student to understand that the grade is not personal–it is about the work and the guidelines for the assignment. This is also the appropriate time to review the assignment with the student.

Likewise, during the meeting in my office, I will allow the student to share her or his thoughts. This is the time to listen and to then respond as needed. I always end noting that the grade reflects the assessment of the assignment and not a judgement about the student as a person. I do think it’s important to add this last part, as many students really do think that the grade represents them and their effort. It does not.

Now, the last point that I want to speak to is effort and grade. I am hearing more students discuss how the grade does not reflect the effort that they put into the assignment. I listen to their explanation and think: I deserve to be paid more, but I am not. Effort does not entitlement to a better or strong grade. Some students will spend lots of time (revisions, office hour visits) and earn a B. Others will cram and pull an all nighter and earn an A-. It is not fair, but it happens. In my classes, the papers need to offer coherent analysis and follow directions. The assignment stipulates all the guidelines and some will not do well solely because they waited until the last minute or did not follow directions. Other papers will earn a weak grade due to the poor organization and writing.   Effort does not equal a strong grade.

Now there will be times when you review student work and you think that you might have been too hard. If so, admit it and raise the mark. My dad used to tell me, “I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect, nobody is perfect.” He’s right. Sometimes we make mistakes or are too harsh with a mark. Re-assess the work and move on. Explain why you are revising the mark and change the grade while the student is in your office, so that you don’t forget. Have fun grading and reviewing graded work!

Learning and Writing vs. Writing for the Instructor

There are always a few students in a class who are more concerned with writing for the instructor, than with writing something that they are keenly interested in or perhaps even believe. I feel a slight sense of frustration when I hear that they “just want a good grade.” This is a common lament among educators, so what do we do? Since the majority of the courses that I teach focus on gender, the students know that I am a feminist and hold feminist issues near and dear to my heart. Due to this, some of them sense that this bias is somehow more insidious than my Marxist’s colleagues beliefs.

What do I do? I tend to play devil’s advocate lots during lecture and try to push the students. Sometimes, gasp, I’ll even say things that I don’t necessarily believe, but I might want to instigate some discussion among the students. I hope that they leave the class with a better understanding of the concepts, yes. But, more so, I want them to leave better critical thinkers. And, this means that they don’t have to agree with me. Hopefully, some of the students working on their papers will read this and augment their papers accordingly. Don’t write for me. Write the for the argument–write the paper.