February 6th, 2017

Assignment Helps Students Assess Their Progress


Professor helping his students

Midterm evaluations bring a host of institutional measures to reach out to underachieving students. However, what might make the most difference to students’ success in their courses is to enable them to assess their own performance and set goals as well as to ask questions of and provide feedback to the instructor. Instructors can give students this reflective opportunity through an online journal assignment in which students do the following:

  • Report their overall grade in the course
  • Report their attendance record (when attendance is required)
  • Reflect on their performance and whether it meets their expectations
  • Provide goals for the rest of the course (often in the form of a GPA, but can also be learning outcomes)
  • Provide feedback and ask questions

It is best to implement this progress report assignment about a third of the way through a course so that underperforming students can change trajectory before the midterm.

My experience with the assignment
Since I make all grades available on our university’s learning management system, students can always see their grades, but they often don’t check or acknowledge that these grades are available. Further, because not all professors provide grades automatically, students may not fully understand their progress even when grades are available.

Students take anywhere from 50 to 400 words to complete this journal assignment, based on their needs. Their posts range from brief conclusions that they are exactly where they want to be to detailed descriptions of all kinds of problems and questions about how to move forward. This process allows me to respond quickly to the positive reports (“Sounds great! Looking forward to the rest of the semester!”) and to dedicate more attention to those who are struggling. This journal assignment is not graded, but students are required to complete it before submitting any subsequent assignments.

Although I am always open to student feedback, students often interpret this assignment as their first opportunity to reflect on the course and ask questions. Some will provide context for their content knowledge and other school responsibilities, which is often very enlightening for me. Students generally express gratitude at the official opportunity to assess their progress in the course (even more so when they are doing poorly or not as well as they expected) because it is early enough in the semester to turn things around.

Even in the case of students who are negative and critical, the assignment provides an opportunity for me to show empathy and clear up any misunderstandings they may have about course procedures and requirements. That’s a much-preferred alternative to letting their discontent silently fester and then show up on end-of-semester evaluations. In some cases, it also uncovers opportunities to improve the course and correct mistakes. Colleagues from my discipline and others have received the same positive results I have and continue to use this assignment semester after semester.

Tips for getting started
Here’s what you need to know before you implement the progress report assignment in your courses.

  • The instructor requirements. There are two important requirements that make this activity possible: (1) Students must have already completed some graded assignments, and (2) students must be able to see the individual grades and understand how they contribute to the course grade. Both practices are important for student success. If you don’t yet incorporate these two practices, talk with teaching colleagues, instructional designers, or other faculty support personnel you may have on campus to consider methods to implement earlier assessments and transparent grading.
  • What about large classes? I implement this activity in a writing-intensive course that is capped at 22 students, so courses with more than 50 students may want to offer this as extra credit to control workload. Even for those larger classes, this activity would not take long for the tremendous benefit it provides to the class dynamic, student success, and your end-of-semester evaluations, because many reports do not require a lengthy response.
  • Non-tech version. Because all my assignments are submitted through the university’s learning management system and grades are housed there, it is easy for me to give students an online assignment for this progress report. If you prefer an offline version of this assignment, allow students to type or handwrite their progress reports and turn them in during class.

This small activity can have a big impact on students and on your teaching. It also builds strong rapport at critical points early in the semester.

Christina Moore is a special instructor of writing and rhetoric at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. She also works in OU’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

  • Laura S

    I like this idea and just may experiment with it this semester.
    I do have a question about timing it: my course does not have as many assignments as yours may. 1/3 of the way through the course may not be enough for the student to see how they are really doing as they will only have completed two introductory assignments and just be a day late with the third. Thus merely checking their grades thus far can be deceptive. I may wait until midterm or time it differently for different students (wait until each does become under achieving, even if later in the semester).
    I generally send out email reminders to students who have been falling behind. I might add a question to this assignment regarding any such warning emails they may have received from me. If they had not been checking their email, that will get them to do so!
    Do you have ALL students do this self-evaluation or only those who are under achieving? How do you keep students from submitting the next assignment if they do not complete this evaluation?

    • Christina Moore

      Hi, Laura. I have all students do this. For students who are doing very well, they might only respond in 1-2 sentences, and that’s fine by me. I prefer this so that students can define for themselves what is satisfactory and what isn’t. Some students need at least a B, a specific grade point, or whatever is passing at the institutions for many reasons (scholarship, program requirements, personal goals).

      To your second question, since I have students submit almost all assignments using our learning management system (Moodle at our institution, Blackboard and Canvas at others), I use a specific feature that makes students unable to submit future assignments until they have submitted something for this journal. There are many ways an instructor could do this in non-tech ways, such as telling students that they won’t receive their next grade or be able to take the next quiz until the journal is done. Even while using online tools, some students will still complete the journal far longer than I would expect, but these often are the students who are failing or close to it, so it is still an important opportunity for you and students to see that a student is not on the path to success.

      I understand the timing may not work for everyone based on assignments they have. I used to do this at the midterm, but then I realized it would be more beneficial if students got this warning a bit earlier, before the institution distributes the results of midterm evaluations. If you think that the midterm provides enough time for students to turn around their performance, then that would work fine. Instructors I have talked with in the past have reconsidered doing a couple of lower-stakes assignments earlier in the semester so that students and the instructor have a sense of how they are doing.

      Good luck to you! Hope this works for you, in whatever form it might take.

      • Laura Shulman

        I DID add this to my current semester online classes. I am most pleased with the sense I have of more personal communication with each student. I make sure to respond to every submitted self-assessment, even if it is simply to say I agree with what they have said. I can address their individual and specific concerns with practical resources for help (such as time management strategies or test prep and test taking strategies). Often I am able to point out the weakest area of their performance thus far – one place to focus on improving – even if they did not mention it. I also ask at the end for students to comment on their satisfaction with the amount of communication with me and any other feedback or questions they have for me.
        I plan to make this a regular feature of every class from this point out.

  • Jason

    Thanks Christina, an interesting idea you’ve provided here, and something I’m certainly going to employ. My institution also uses Moodle, and I believe this will be an easy task with high value. I’ve been looking for ways to help improve my students’ self-regulation, and specifically ownership of their performance. This assignment will certainly help accomplish that by providing a direct means of reflection.
    I think I will also add an inquiry as to how they plan on achieving their stated goals.
    Thanks again.

  • Kieran Mathieson

    Good idea, Christina. Couple of questions.

    1. When you read students’ comments on whether their performance meets their expectations, how many have actual expectations for grades? Or do they have expectations for other things, like behaviors? E.g., they expect themselves to turn up to class, hand things in on time, etc.

    2. When students give goals for the rest of the course, how many are grades, and how many are behaviors? Or attitudes, or something else?


    • Christina Moore

      Hi, Kieran –
      Grades are the most common way students articulate their expectations and goals. They will often discuss behaviors when they make a plan for reaching their expectations and goals (e.g. “I started off dedicating more time to the course, but I know I have placed more attention on my other classes lately.”). Quite a lot of students communicate grade expectations, which is likely because I ask students if they have specific grade expectations. Those expectations are anywhere from a passing grade to as close to a 4.0 as possible, with many answers in between for intrinsic purposes (“I expect myself to get a B or higher in all class.”) or extrinsic purposes (“I need at least a 3.0 to get into my program.”).