Assessment and Learning with a minimum of distraction from grades and grading

Assessment of a student’s work need not be equated with grading it, even when a final course grade must be assigned. My students receive an automatic B+ for satisfactory completion of 80% of the assignments and participation items. Written assignments in my courses are generally steps in the development of their major project; participation items include prepared attendance at each class, two office hour meetings, maintaining a Personal/Professional Development workbook (see below), peer review of drafts, etc.

For written assignments, “satisfactory” means no further revision and resubmission are requested (see Dialogue Around Written Work). I make clear that my goal is to work with everyone to achieve the 80% level. Students who progress steadily towards that level during the semester usually end up producing work that meets criteria for a higher grade (criteria that are simple and students may assess themselves). Students who do not reach the 80% level are pro-rated from B+ down to the minimum passing grade for 50% of assignments and participation items satisfactorily completed. (I once crosschecked the pro-rating procedure by grading individual assignments for these students—the results were the same.)

Commenting on each assignment during the semester without attaching grades helps to keep teaching/learning interactions focused on the student’s process of developing through the semester and creates more space for appreciating and learning from what each other is saying and thinking. I keep a “portfolio” for each student, containing copies of their previous submissions, my comments, and revisions, so my comments on any assignment can take account of what each student has and has not responded to. The required office hour meetings are also important to ensure timely resolution of misunderstandings, and a chance to open up significant issues about one’s relationship to audience and influencing others. To avoid spending time reminding students of overdue submissions or being placed in the role of grade monitor, I ask students to use an assignment checklist and keep track of their own progress. The 20% slack also means that students don’t have to consult with me when they have to put competing priorities in their work, lives, and other courses before their work for my course.

Just as I keep a portfolio of each student’s submissions so I can always look over their development as a whole, I ask students to compile many different items and organize them into a Personal and Professional Development Workbook so they can look over their development during the course. I also want them to be able to return to the material a year or few later and readily re-engage with their own thinking and processes of development. The items in the workbooks can include notes on readings and other preparation for class; handouts and notes from class activities; assignments, comments, and revisions; weekly journal-like reflections that explore the relationship between, on one hand, student interests and projects, and, on the other hands, the readings, activities, and tools from the course; annotated clippings from print and internet sources (to keep up with current developments and develop good habits for life-long learning); a mid-project (mid-semester) self-assessment (including a report on the gap between where the student is and where they’d like to be in relation to research organization—both on paper and on their computer—and research and study competencies; and an end-of-semester Process Review.

(Extracted from “Teaching/Learning for Reflective Practice,” a section of a book manuscript, Taking Yourself Seriously: A Fieldbook of Processes of Research and Engagement, also on the web.)


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