December 7th, 2015

Built-in Self-Assessment: A Case for Annotation

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online student on laptop

If we want students to be critical thinkers, we must routinely and explicitly give them structured practice opportunities to critically examine their own thinking. Squeezing two or three metacognitive activities into a hectic semester teaches students that such reflection is only for special occasions. Rather, student self-evaluation should be a daily course routine.

As an alternative to time-consuming, discrete, self-reflective assignments, we’ve turned to annotation as a built-in flexible routine to bolster any stage of the learning process. Used as a companion to new skills or assignments, annotation helps students see how they are meeting assignment goals, make plans for improvement, and create a narrative of growth. The results of annotation as a classroom routine are students with self-evaluative habits that reach beyond our courses and assignments.

Here are a few of the reasons that annotation as a built-in flexible routine helps shift the ways students think and behave:

Annotation clarifies grading criteria

Faculty all wish that students read their assignments more carefully, but sometimes students flounder with how to clarify murky expectations. We routinely ask our students to annotate with structural markings how their work measures up to the grading checklist or learning objectives. On rough drafts, our students might underline, for example, the parts of the thesis that give a sense of organization or bracket where they’ve signaled another author’s ideas. As they toggle back and forth between the assignment’s expectations and the places they annotate their work, they find specific areas of misunderstanding. The primary goal of annotation is to improve self-regulation and reflection, but grading criteria become more accessible as students reconcile their work with teacher expectations.

Annotation positions students as choice makers

Too often, our students freeze in the face of revision, but an annotation-supported comparison between the draft and grading checklist jump-starts their thinking. To push our students to reflect on themselves as choice makers and to begin revision from a proactive stance, we require students to explain in marginal comments or correspondingly numbered endnotes why they included a specific idea or how examples match up with the assignment’s overall focus. Cheryl Hogue Smith argues that such endnotes lead students to “learn for themselves” as they reflect and assess their choices (2010). By going through the effort of explaining why they use a particular phrase or word, students clarify their intentions and consider options they otherwise might not.

For example, when a student marks up and comments on three required evidence examples for an op-ed assignment on light pollution, she realizes all three examples involve risks for animals and insects, which doesn’t match her thesis. Her numbered end comment explains her plan to include in the next draft the impact of light pollution on the human psyche. Without annotation as a decision-making lens, such self-awareness might have been glossed over and the “three pieces of evidence” requirement might have been checked off prematurely. Instead, with built-in self-assessment, she generates an improvement plan. By annotating, students notice the areas that still need work, consider options, and develop a revision plan.

Annotation reinforces course ideas

An emphasis on self-evaluation enhances course content. Whether students are developing opinions about a topic for the first time or grappling to explain a contradiction in their thinking, annotation offers sideline commentary clarifying student understanding of course goals. Our students will often refer to past assignments or lectures to make the case for choices as they annotate.

Annotation practice keeps students thinking about course goals. In a class session focused on audience awareness, the author of the light pollution op-ed combs her draft for specific places where she invokes audience concerns and realizes through annotation that she appeals only to city dwellers. In a corresponding endnote, she identifies a specific course text she will use to invoke a rural audience’s concerns as well.

Rather than forging blindly on to the next declaration, students are held accountable for their learning by routine annotation. They must explain how and why their work meets course goals. When a sociology student makes the case that an advertising image challenges sexist norms but can’t explain why, she is forced to reflect on her learning needs. For teacher and student alike, annotation serves as a pause button to celebrate and deepen learning.

Annotation incites growth mindset narratives

Prepared with annotation-driven reflection, students who previously waited passively to be judged learn instead to present themselves as experts on their own decision-making and effort. Students become their own advocates because they know what they were trying to do even when they fail to do it successfully.

As students annotate what they’ve learned, they tell their own stories of learning as a process. Attention turns from fear of failure to communicating incremental progress toward intended rhetorical moves. While extensive annotations do not necessarily mean students get the grades they hope for, the conversations they start at least remove the mystery of inaccessible grading standards, place the focus on student effort, and position students in a growth mindset.

Reference: Hogue Smith, C. (2010) “Diving in Deeper”: Bringing basic writers’ thinking to the surface. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(8), 668-676.

Karen Sheriff LeVan and Marissa King teach and wonder at Hesston College (Hesston, Kansas) as faculty members in the English and education departments and as directors of First-Year Experience.