We often wonder what we can do to help students engage with the material so they can learn it at a deeper level. Students don’t make that an easy task. They arrive in class having not read the material or having not thought about it in meaningful ways, and that keeps them from being engaged in class. Several years ago, I read George Kuh’s article “What Student Engagement Data Tell Us about College Readiness,” in which he writes, “Students who talk about substantive matters with faculty and peers are challenged to perform at high levels, and receive frequent feedback on their performance typically get better grades, are more satisfied with college, and are more likely to persist” (Peer Review, January 1, 2007, p. 4; italics mine). Here are three ways I try to provide feedback that engages students and not overwhelm myself with grading tasks in the process.
It’s a conversation most faculty would rather not have. The student is unhappy about a grade on a paper, project, exam, or for the course itself. It’s also a conversation most students would rather not have. In the study referenced below, only 16.8 percent of students who reported they had received a grade other than what they thought their work deserved actually went to see the professor to discuss the grade.
We’ve all had conversations with students who want effort counted in their grade: “But I tried so hard … I studied for hours … I am really working in this course.” The question is, should effort count? Less commonly asked, however, is whether it should count in both directions. Students want effort to count when they try hard but their performance doesn’t show it. But what about when an excellent performance results without much effort? Should this lack of effort lower the grade? Beyond these theoretical questions are the pragmatic ones: Can effort be measured fairly, objectively? If so, what criteria are used to assess it?
Sometimes, in informal conversations with colleagues, I hear a statement like this, “Yeah, not a great semester, I doled out a lot of C’s.” I wonder, did this professor create learning goals that were unobtainable by most of the class or did this professor lack the skills to facilitate learning? I present this provocative lead-in as an invitation to reflect upon our presuppositions regarding grading.
Grading serves multiple purposes. While the most obvious purpose is to evaluate students’ work — as a measure of competency, achievement, and meeting the expectations of the course — grading can also be a key to communication, motivation, organization and faculty/student reflection. It’s for that reason that Virginia Johnson Anderson, EdD, calls grading “a context-dependent, complex process.”
Not so long ago in the blog we explored the weighting of course assignments. The more certain assignments count in the grading scheme, the more time students are likely to devote to them. That makes determining how much each assignments counts an important decision. Since then I’ve come across several reports and some research that suggest we should consider giving students a choice on assignment weightings. For example, if the course contains a number of quizzes and collectively they count for 20% of the grade, a student could decide at the beginning of the course to raise that percentage to 30 with the weight of the major exams decreased by a corresponding amount. Or, say there are three assignments in the course that equal 75% of the grade, the student could designate a weight for each assignment between 15% and 45% but the three must total 75%.
I hope you won’t stop reading once you find out the idea being proposed here involves automating the feedback provided students on papers, projects, and presentations. If you were to look at a graded set of papers and make a list of the comments offered as feedback, how many of those comments have you written more than once? Is the answer many? If so, you should read on.
In a recent study, a group of 120 undergraduates were asked what percentage of a grade should be based on performance and what percentage on effort. The students said that 61% of the grade should be based on performance and 39% on effort.
I started thinking about this when I wondered in a previous blog whether the 5 or 10% that many of us give for participation was enough to motivate students, or whether being such a small part of the grade, it actually devalued what students contribute in class. Since then I’ve been thinking more about how we decide on the allocation of points or percentages for the various assignments students complete in a course. For many of us (that includes me), it isn’t as thoughtful of a process as it should be. Rather, we do what we’ve done before, or we ask around, get a general sense of what everybody else is doing and follow suit.
The November issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter contains highlights from a speech given by Diane L. Pike at the 2010 Midwest Sociological Society meeting and subsequently published in the reference below. It’s a great speech that identifies three dead ideas in teaching and the tyranny that results from holding those beliefs.