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.

Thinking More about Evaluating Student Work

This is timely for me, as I have been marking lots. The first part of any assignment is to read the syllabus or perhaps to read the assignment. Right?

My blog post on Equality 101 about Student Evaluation  got me thinking about grading this past weekend. I was in the midst of marking quizzes for Gender and International Relations and had just marked more than one dozen papers for The Worlds of Politics. One of the things that I was first struck with for the latter class was how some students refuse to read the assignment directions. This term I also provided a paper checklist, which I borrowed from one of my Teaching Assistants.

Some students attached the checklist and checked off the points that they had followed, but then left other requirements blank or unchecked. This baffles me. If an assignment states that you must cite 5 sources; why cite 3? I dedicated an entire class period to this large paper assignment, made my lecture available as a podcast, and posted my PowerPoint presentation on Moodle, for the students’ review. I also sent a few Moodle (CourseSpaces) messages to the class reminding them about the assignment. Even by doing this, though, I know better than to be too surprised when I start marking. I have done my part. My point here~ follow directions!

Thinking of the upper division course, Gender and International Relations, I was also noticing a pattern of merely restating the question and reviewing the material, but not offering any analysis. I did something different this term in the class and I did not require student attendance. I did not take roll and now into Week 11 of the 13 week term, I realize that I will not do this again. Several students are not coming to class and I think that they would have been persuaded to do so if class attendance influenced their course grade.

What I am getting at here–there is a correlation between attendance and overall course grade for some students. Come to class!

Grading and Offering Helpful Advice

I have large classes and this means lots of grading for me and my team of Teaching Assistants. I do not have Teaching Assistants for all of my courses, though. What I will say is that grading offers an interesting moment. That moment when you can assess if a student has: followed directions, read the material, organized her/his ideas well, and attempted to do the assignment in a timely fashion. Grading, though, is not about the student. It is about the work. And, this is where things get complicated.

Most of us take issue with people evaluating our work. It’s tough. The evaluation can make you squirm or sit taller in your chair. I’m cognizant of this, when I mark papers. There are moments, when I want to say: you totally kicked ass with this assignment. But, alas, that is not appropriate or even helpful. I might offer something like, it’s obvious that you have spent time thinking about the materials and have successfully articulated your analysis. Then, there are those moments, when you just know that a student did not have enough time to complete the assignment or did not manage his/her time well and you weigh what you need to say. I take no pleasure in offering critical commentary about student work. In most instances, I will offer that the assignment or paper did not meet the requirements. I try to avoid using the word: you. You is personal. The student reads it in a different way.

I have witnessed many students turn the to the last page for the grade. I was the type of student who read page by page the comments and if the grade was on the first or last page it did not matter. I wanted to get the feedback. I tweeted the other day that I was marking and was attempting to balance three things.

1. Firm    2. Fair    3. Compassion

These three things are important to me. The mark can influence a student’s assessment of their work, but also of the class, and the department. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this. But, I really do think that the feedback is important. Even if the assignment is just terrible–feedback is important. When the assignment is a failure, I do ask the student to come see me. I want to know what happened and if I can help. No student wants to earn the F. Usually there are extenuating circumstances and this is when I can offer guidance and compassion. Grading is not easy. I provide my first year students with a paper checklist, so that they can remind themselves of each component. This is a useful exercise for them, but even so it will not translate into 100% of the students using it or using the checklist properly. I continue to mark and think about the marking or grading process.

For my Teaching Assistants, the grading process is similar. I know from talking to them that some take the grading personally. They only want the students to succeed and feel a sense of frustration, when the students do not do well. They say, “I reminded them of this in tutorial. Why aren’t they following directions.” And, then, they are very proud when a student does well. Grading can seem so subjective at times, but ultimately it is not. We have our grading rubric and the grade categorization and explanation from the university. We know what we are looking for and we hope to find as many strong assignments as possible. In the interim, we plug away at the grading and offering useful commentary to our students.

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Fri Fun Facts: Following Directions

My Friday Fun Facts for today are about following directions. How many times have you looked at some directions and then realized that you read too much into them? I attended a lunch meeting the other day and wondered why they weren’t providing lunch. I showed up with my own bag lunch and lo and behold lunch was served. I verified the email and the email was clear. I just missed it.

I have been marking blogs and paper proposals this week and I am finding that the first error or misstep that many students hit against is following directions. Directions stated in the syllabus and announced in class. Now, there is a marked difference between the stakes involved with my attendance at a meeting on campus and lunch versus students’ marks. Clearly marks are more important. But, this grading experience is making me listen and read more closely than usual!

I have found a few things work best:

1. The directions need to be clear.

2. Include an example of a good or strong assignment. However, do not expect that is a fool-proof solution.

3. Be patient. Some will argue that they were~ being more thorough, did not understand, never read the syllabus, wanted to do the assignment their own way, etc.

4. Learn from each section of the class and augment as needed the next time around!

5. I want to emphasize patience. As some students do not realize that the assignment guidelines apply to them. This can include the topics and due dates.

Directions and marking offer me teachable moments. Back to grading…

Fri Fun Facts: Thinking about First Year Exams

Today’s Friday Fun Facts is about mid-terms and Teaching Assistants.

I have previously blogged about the importance of letting go and giving the Teaching Assistants more autonomy combined with guidance. This last week I facilitated a review session for the large first year class. This is the one thing that I have not let go of in the team-taught course–a sense of going that extra mile for the large first year class.

To be clear, if the course was not team taught with three other faculty, the review session would take place during class time. But the review session I offer is after class. This does add to my workload and I’m fine with this. I am thinking about how I prepare them for the mid-term and the process of working with the Teaching Assistants like a team. My role is to mentor the Teaching Students in this process of assessing student work.

1. I think that first year students need more guidance with their first mid-term. I understand that during the Fall term that the mid-term in my class might be their first mid-term ever.

2. I provide a list of possible exam questions so that they can study during the three to five days before the exam.

3. The exam will pull from the array, but not require them to write on all of them.

4. I grade about 10-20% of the exams in order to provide the Teaching Assistants with some sample marked exams and I also provide them a working key. I say working key since the students might offer us a different point on a question.

5. I view the Teaching Assistants’ work and have any D or F exams include a note that they must visit me during my office hours. I feel that these students should chat with me about their exam. I need to know what happened. And honestly in 14 years of working with first year students those that come to my office generally own their poor grade—didn’t study, didn’t come to class or similar point.

Overall, I do feel that teaching first year requires a more hands on approach. The jump to university work is harder for some students. And each year my students remind me of this. Good luck to all of us writing and marking exams!