We’ve reached November, which means assignments to grade are starting to pile up higher and higher. It also means some students’ anxieties about their grades are increasing and some students are just starting to pay attention to the work they need to accomplish by the end of the semester. I keep my grading pile pretty small by scaffolding my deadlines very carefully (a practice I’ll write about more soon, but for now, you can check out my major assignment designs by checking out the pages linked here). While this practice keeps me from feeling too overwhelmed and keeps my students informed on how they are doing in class from a grade perspective, in this post, I’d like to focus on the more important element of grading assignments: the feedback that goes along with it. I use a lot of different approaches when providing students with individual feedback on their work. I believe this variety helps students actually absorb at least a basic understanding of what they are doing well, what still needs some work, and how an outside observer perceives their work differently than they do. If you still have room in your lesson plans to add in some new forms of assessment, or are looking for ideas for next semester, then you can read all about my strategies in the rest of this post.
I don’t just assess my students’ work. My students assess their own work. Their peers access their work. And, my students assess me and the course (in more ways than just the student evals at semester’s end). Click To Tweet
Instructor Assessing Students
Does the above section title seem strange to you? Are you thinking, ‘Erika, you already mentioned in your intro what this post is about. You don’t need to restate it one line later.’ If so, I’d like to clarify right now: I don’t just assess my students’ work. My students assess their own work. Their peers access their work. And, my students assess me and the course (in more ways than just the student evals at semester’s end). So, I start with the most common type of assessment, the instructor’s, but then I move on to other strategies that you might not already use in your own classrooms (and should be).
- Post-Text Written Feedback: I respond individually to every major assignment my students turn in. Usually, I read through what they’ve written/created, then type out my feedback on areas of strength and areas that need improvement. I try to use at least one specific example from their work, and when multiple elements have gone wrong, I’ll include multiple examples (though perhaps not all of them). Admittedly, I tend to focus on constructive criticism in my individual feedback, pointing out the elements that needed more detail, haven’t been considered fully, or that are incorrect. [I don’t just point them out. I explain what the issue is and at times offer suggestions on how to revise/improve it.] My grades, though, take into account effort put in by students to complete the activity fully, on time, and to the best of their ability. I can point out multiple issues with a student’s work, for example, but that work might still earn them a B or B+. I’m well aware of how much pressure some students put on themselves and how much they often need a high GPA in order to receive financial or emotional support. By using this form of feedback, students can get a chunk of feedback (a paragraph or two) all in one place to read and apply to their future work. As most of my assignments are turned in digitally, I type out my feedback and upload it to their personal Drop Box folders on our class LMS website.
- In-Text Written Feedback: To give my students some variety, I periodically write/type feedback directly into their texts’ margins. The first time my students completed a literary analysis writing activity, I collected them and wrote my feedback in the margins. When my students turn in their concept maps, I offer feedback next to various bubbles on the map. A sentence or two of feedback might be added to the bottom of the page, but I like to use this type of feedback so that students can directly see what elements of their work I focused on when assessing it.
- In-Class Verbal Feedback: Speaking individually to students and providing feedback on their in-class work most often happens when I teach first year writing. I walk around the room, seeing if anyone has questions. It seems students often don’t have questions when I ask the class as a whole, but when I pass by them, they happen to have a question or three for me. If no questions pop up, and it’s an assignment drafting day, I’ll walk around and ask my students to share a portion of what they’ve written or will read it myself from their notebook/desk. In this way, I can immediately inform students about something that might be going wrong in their work before we reach the end of the unit. Formative assessment is key in a first year writing class. I might also ask them to draft something for homework and let them know that I’ll be looking over it and providing feedback during the next class period. Forewarned is forearmed.
- One-on-One Conferences: I don’t do this strategy every semester, and it’s not always with every student. In my ENG 101.10 class this semester, I did cancel a class period so I could meet with each student individually about their second unit. In this meeting, they could ask me any clarifying questions about the course material, I could ask them questions to make sure they were actually understanding the material, and I could go over the work they had so far and offer verbal feedback on what they could focus on next. For my ENG 170 class, I collected a practice literary analysis post and provided written feedback for each of them. A few posts made clear that some students were not understanding the concept of close reading and analysis. That’s to be expected in an intro course for non-majors, so I requested those few students meet me one-on-one to go over their posts and any questions they had about literary analysis. This strategy is definitely the most time-consuming, but it also tends to have the best results. A student might decide to not bother reading my written feedback, but if they are right in front of me in my office, I can at least ensure they actually experience receiving my feedback.
Students Assessing Themselves
In general, my literature students’ favorite class assignment involves them leading class discussions and activities themselves. They like to be the ones teaching a portion of the class period, because they have the power to design how we approach analyzing the texts we’re reading/watching. Unfortunately, taking on the instructor task of assessing student work doesn’t tend to be as beloved. Self and peer assessment are both tied to one of ISU’s Writing Program’s curricular learning outcomes; as such, both strategies are used in all my first year writing classes.
- Self-Assessment: The week before a major assignment is due, my FYW students bring everything they’ve done for the unit to class and they fill out a self-assessment questionnaire. A few questions just ask the students to double-check that they’ve completed all that’s required of them for the unit. Others will ask students to articulate their learning during that unit by answering questions tied to their research and their writing. Finally, the last questions will ask them to describe what they’ve learned from the unit as a whole and how they can transfer that knowledge to the next unit or elsewhere. Students have the whole class period to complete this activity, though most end up finishing it for homework. For me, I want to ensure that my students take at least 75 minutes to assess their own work and their learning so that they can revise their work before it’s submitted for my assessment and a grade.
- Peer-Assessment: After the self-assessment day, the next class period requires students to partner up and assess one of their peer’s work. Sometimes I assign partners; sometimes they can pick their partner. It depends on the class dynamic and the number of students. I provide a questionnaire for this activity as well, so that students can be reminded of all the elements that need to be in their peers’ work (and their own). I’m currently on a TR schedule, so students have from Thursday to the following Tuesday to revise their work and submit it to me. Note: I’ve included peer review activities in my literature courses, but I don’t always make room for them in my lesson plans. It depends on the course and on the students at large.
Students Assessing the Instructor/Course
Of course, students assess me and the course at the end of the semester when they fill out their course evaluation sheets. I don’t often get much written feedback from them at this point, though I always check for it the next semester. I don’t want this last class period activity to be the only time they get to express their thoughts on the class though. If they’re having an issue with something that’s happening in class, I want to know before the class ends and nothing can be done. I also want to know more than what the student evals ask for, as I feel those questions aren’t very helpful for improving future courses.
- Midterm Chat: I’ve mentioned this assessment activity in other posts. Basically, a CTLT staff member facilitates a midterm chat. As I’m not in the room while it occurs, I can receive anonymous feedback from my students about what’s working for them, what’s not working for them, what I can do to help, and what they can do to help themselves. After I meet with the facilitator and discuss the feedback with them, I make changes to my future lessons and activities and discuss with my students what changes can be made and which ones cannot (and why). As the title suggests, the chat occurs sometime between weeks 6-9, so I can make sure we have plenty of time to improve the class before we’re too far in to make beneficial changes.
- Course Assessment: In addition to the course evals, I write up my own lists of questions for students to answer about the course as a whole. Students answer them on the last day of class, so all but the last assignment or so has been assessed, graded, and returned to students. I ask questions about the required course texts (which did they learn from the most/least and which did they enjoy the most/least), about the major assignments (which did they learn most from, would they change any assignment designs, etc.), about my feedback (what was most helpful, what did they want but not get, etc.), and more. The details that I receive in their anonymous answers helps me to improve future versions of the course. I also feel this activity gives students the chance to remember just what they have accomplished over the semester.
These are the various ways I approach assessment in my courses. The variety matches well with my course design in other ways, as well, as my teaching philosophy is strongly influenced by my belief in the value of student agency and voice. I hope this post has given you some ideas for diversifying your own assessment practices this semester or in ones to come. Students often dread waiting for their assignment grades to arrive. Providing different avenues for receiving feedback and different types of feedback can help students appreciate or at least acknowledge the work you put into helping them succeed in your classroom and beyond. And the activities and written feedback can provide concrete information for them to look back on when they decide they are ready to improve the work they do inside and outside the classroom.
What is your preferred method of assessing your students’ work? Why? Let me know in the comments section!
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