April 26th, 2013

The Final (Office) Hours

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The final portfolio of student work (be it writings, drawings, or a collection of different kinds of work) presents the instructor with a conundrum. As the culmination of student work, it needs to be submitted at the end of the course, but feedback opportunities then are severely limited. Those of us who use portfolio assignments do provide feedback at multiple points throughout the semester, but when the portfolio is completed, the course has ended and this final version cannot be discussed with students. Worse than that, for years, I cringed as I saw the graded portfolios accumulate outside my office. Some were never picked up.

Interested in a better alternative, I initiated “the final hour,” an open office hour for any student interested in conversing about his/her graded portfolio. The procedure is straightforward. As with my previous practice, students have until Monday noon during final examination week to submit their portfolios. I’ve seen the original and revised pieces in the portfolios throughout the semester and during a “trial run” conference where I give them a ballpark grade of where the portfolio is presently situated. This enables me to read the final product quickly, usually finishing by Tuesday evening, after which I send out an e-mail with a grade report. In the e-mail header, I announce first: “Questions? Discussion? Complaints? FINAL OPEN OFFICE HOURS, Wednesday 10-12.” The e-mail note contains all the details and the final grade, although I typically don’t submit final grades to the registrar until after that conference time; I’m open to students’ input.

Final conference attendance varies, and so do the reasons why students decide to drop by. Some want to chat, just like they do with me before class starts. Some others want to see what I liked, delighted that their final grade is higher than they expected. Still others solicit empathy; I listen to them reason through their disappointment, which helps me to understand the decisions they made—or did not make—in revision. They tell me this time is comforting to them too. One student just wanted to tell me “how hard it was to even earn a D.” I find there are learning opportunities during this last conference as students and I make our way through their portfolios and I share my reactions to them.

The final conference also helps me. It makes me a more careful final grader because, whether a student attends the final office hour or not, I may have to face him or her and defend my decision. That influence is not debilitating; rather, it is mightily persuasive in keeping me centered on making my evaluation “honest.” As Peter Elbow notes in his book Everyone Can Write (p. 357), the high-stakes response is a “critical” one that “is more likely to misfire or do harm because of how it is received—even if it is sound…” The final office hour gives me an opportunity to listen and to see how that graded message is received—a rare opportunity to hear a student’s side after the final portfolio is graded. The student controls the final hour with questions and complaints, all of which I respond to. I discover, however, that I do far more listening than talking.

The final hour also provides a space for quick resolution. Without it, grade debate can linger on. One semester I had a student and his father debating whether to appeal the final portfolio grade, which for the student meant the final course grade; the e-mail discussions went back and forth between the freshman dean and the student’s parent, with me as the bystander, supplying information and commentary along the way only to the dean. It was a bizarre way to look at my own grading, defending it in the role of a third party. Since implementing the final hour, I’ve avoided such scenarios.

Although I’m responsible for the academic integrity of the course, I also understand that I need to keep communication open, even after students have finished the course. Therefore, I’m not averse to changing a grade as a result of the final conference. Yet, I never have and no student has asked me to do so. Instead, that final hour provides something different: an exchange and a shared understanding that can come only after a final piece of work is discussed. The worst that has ever come out of the final hour is to have students agree to disagree, parting without acrimony. The stack of unclaimed portfolios outside my office is significantly smaller now. That reason alone justifies the final hour opportunity.

Dr. Gary R. Hafer is an associate professor of English at Lycoming College.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.3(2012): 1,3.