Tag Archives: assessment

How do I distribute my time between Giving, Guiding and Grading?

I am revisiting the book entitled Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment (Walvoord and Anderson, 1998). In it, the authors have an illustration (Figure 8.1, p. 127) that looks something like this:

Emphasis on Grading

G   i   v   i   n   g   / Guiding /    G        R        A        D        I        N        G

– Most time spent on grading and the least amount of time spent on guiding students to deeper understandings.

Emphasis on Guiding

G   i   v   i   n   g  /   G        U        I        D         I        N        G       / Grading

– Most time spent on guiding with the least time spent on grading.

I began to think about my distribution in these three categories. I would like to say that most of my time is spent with an emphasis on guiding, but if I hold myself accountable I have to ask: What does that look like? What is the evidence? What do I do?

Linda Nilson wrote an article early this year in Inside Higher Ed entitled: “Yes, Virginia, there is a better way to grade.” In it, she provides very practical approaches to rethink our “broken” grading system. Although I don’t think Nilson offers any new or novel methods, particularly after re-reading Walvoord and Anderson (1998), I think she helps us remember that we, as instructors, have options; that our primary purpose as educators is to help guide students toward deeper learning; that our assessment options are often limited by our own limited knowledge and creativity.

In earlier posts, I discuss ways I experiment with methods for making my grading load lighter while challenging students to do more and deeper thinking. To paraphrase John Bean, design assignments that require a lot of thinking that is followed by a little bit of writing. Assignment design is ONE key factor in reducing my grading load and shifting my focus to guiding student learning. Another factor is in how we grade.

Nislon (2016) and Walvoord and Anderson (1998) both argue that it is often acceptable and productive to give students all or nothing grades. I have taken this to heart for years now, and I have found it rewarding for both me and my students. I outline one approach here.

Walvoord and Anderson (1998) provide another example that I want to present here (with a few edits). Their key point is this: “Do Not Waste Time on Careless Student Work” (p.128). They suggest a check list that accompanies student work that will not be accepted if not present.

  • I read the assigned work at least twice.
  • I significantly revised my paper (assignment) at least once.
  • I spent at least five hours on this paper (assignment).
  • I started work on this assignment at least five days ago.
  • I have tried hard to do my best work.
  • I proofread my work at least twice for grammar and punctuation.
  • I consulted others to proofread my work.

The idea is to help provide students accept responsibility for the quality of their work. They have this checklist ahead of time and use it as a basic guide. Moreover, this type of low-investment strategy nudges behavior in ways that better align with our instructional goals and concerns.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beckie Supiano discusses how small nudges can help students be more  successful navigating the initial complexities of starting college. Similarly, Dan Ariely discusses the power of the nudge in changing human decisions and behavior. Ariely cites a studies at MIT, Yale and Princeton universities (p.42) where student cheating was seriously reduced when prior to taking a test students were required to sign an acknowledgement of a university honor code. Amazingly, MIT and Yale didn’t even have honor codes according to Ariely. Just the act of simply reminding students of ethical standards shifted their behavior.

When we apply this principle to our above checklist, the simple act of having students take a moment to reflect on WHAT they did to prepare and HOW they prepared can seriously reduce our workloads.

Another classic text, that I totally love, is Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross. This book is filled with nudges that can make not only make our grading more dynamic and enjoyable, but help one dedicate more time to GUIDING.

Pop Quiz Hot Shot!

pop quiz

(photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bdunnette/184607940 )

I want to elaborate on an idea I blogged about a couple months ago. I gave my undergraduate students a pop-quiz toward the end of last semester. I know: pop quizzes are kind of unfair and there are those who believe they can give the classroom learning environment a punitive flavor. I am very sensitive to that, so I don’t typically give pop-quizzes. However, this quiz was designed to address the thinking that students are doing within the subject and the thinking they are doing about their learning and classroom presence. Let me tell you why and, more importantly, how.

Why did I give a pop quiz?

I believe that humans are competent compartmentalizers. I use this term in two ways. First, we are fairly efficient when it comes to managing all the things contemporary life throws at us. This is largely due to our tendency to place different pieces of information, different parts of our lives, and different responsibilities into different organizational categories or intellectual compartments. However, when does such compartmentalization become an obstacle to deep thinking and substantive learning? This leads to the second meaning of the term, which I draw from the field of psychology: “Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.” This second meaning speaks to the complexities of meaning making: managing new information and the need to bring it in alignment with existing world views, beliefs, values and assumptions. We often distort information and our interpretations of it, or rationalize, so as to maintain our existing schema. Dan Ariely speaks clearly and accessibly to this tendency in his book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone- Especially Ourselves. To combat the problems of agenda driven compartmentalization, educators and scholars often talk about the importance of facilitating transfer of ideas, methods and insights across domains.

The discourse on transfer exists, in part, due to the pervasiveness of compartmental thinking. The AAC&U, for example, advances the notion that a substantive general education cultivates the skills, dispositions and insights necessary to thrive as a global citizen and well-rounded thinkers. Although this topic is well beyond the scope of this blog post, there is a well established body of scholarship on the theoretical and applied benefits of helping students explicate, examine and apply their emerging skills within and across academic disciplines. With this backdrop functioning within my thinking, I provided an opportunity for students to assess the extent to which they were committed to substantive intellectual engagement in the classroom as individuals and as members of a community.

My goals for the Pop Quiz:

  1. Remind students that they have a responsibility to their peers: seriously considering their points of view, comments, questions, insights. Doing so requires connecting via blog comments or twitter or in person; taking notes; studying and contextualizing all relevant comments as we collectively work through content issues and problems.
  2. Recall and reflect on anchor activities: there are certain learning experiences that I frame as anchors – core experiences/processes/models/concepts/etc. that ground our work; things we can continually revisit to help frame our thinking and work.
  3. The critically engaged student is open-minded and exercises discernible judgment: a healthy skepticism is essential to informed decision-making; however, we must give all ideas their fair voice and evaluation before we judge. One of the highest forms of respect in a classroom is to actively listen to one’s peers. It’s like saying: “Your point is important and valuable, so I want to understand what you are saying.”
  4. Recall our learning agreement: We entered into a learning contract that they helped craft at the beginning of the term. The aforementioned points were all part of the agreement.

How did I administer the pop quiz? 

When students entered, I instructed them to get out a piece of paper. This was unique for our classroom context because we typically use white boards and google docs. I told them that we were having a pop quiz and there would be three questions. I was actually surprised that no one protested.

Question #1:“One of your peers (insert name) gave an excellent explanation of the nail puzzle as a metaphor for writing a quality research paper. What was her explanation?”

Question #2: Last class, (insert student name) asked a question about citing sources. Specifically, she asked a question about in-text citations and hyperlinks. What was her question and what was my reply?

Question #3: This course is built on two organizing questions. What are they and how has your work thus far functioned within them?

You can use class notes, but access no other resources (e.g. – course website)


This pop quiz turned out to be a great success even though all students failed. The value manifested in reminding students of our course contract, the value of anchor activities, and the importance of one’s peers as potential resources for direction and insight. Moreover, it reminded them that it is important to take notes. This quiz was not weighted heavily, so poor performance did not cause anxiety as far as their grades are concerned. I wanted to craft a significant learning experience.

When we think of our courses as journey, I must ask myself: What type of journey do I wish for students to have? What am I doing to help the journey be meaningful? Of course, it’s their journey, but it is my responsibility to help craft the types of learning experiences that further the goals and objectives of the course: as emerging thinkers within a discipline and as students who are developing general education skills, dispositions and insights.

I might try this again in a graduate course I’m teaching this semester. I’m curious what, if anything, will be different.

What could I do with my class if I didn’t have to grade so much?


(image link: http://ahundredaffections.com/2014/03/31/the-bane-of-my-teaching-existence/ and the associated blog comment captures the mood)

The title of this post is a question I ask myself every time a pile of student work comes across my desk.  It is also a question that plagues many other instructors.  Others agree. It’s not that we don’t believe in grading, or that we don’t think its valuable for students, but there is so much! Doing something new or innovative often equates with more work for me. Does it have to be that way? What do I have to do to view the problem from a different perspective?  What are the implications for faculty development?

A Short Story

I met with a department last Fall semester to discuss participation the ALT Lab Brown Bag Lunch faculty development program. I was built into their faculty meeting. Although I was welcomed, it was made very clear to me that their time is extremely valuable. I was given 10 minutes according to the agenda. As a side note, I am NOT a salesman. I don’t “sell” my services mainly because (1) they are part of my job and (2) I see my work was a collaborative partnership not a service as such. However, when given only 10 minutes one finds himself giving a pitch.

I began with a question: What could I do if I didn’t have to grade so many papers? I followed it up with a saying something like: “Grading and assessment are part of my teaching responsibilities, but I’m tired of grading mediocre work: work that students haven’t taken ownership of; work that they see as mere check boxes, mere points. In fact, I hate it. My new philosophy of teaching is to only do things that make me happy. So, I’m not going to grade papers any more. I’m going to figure out how to get better thinking and work from them and simultaneously reduce my grading load.”

Eyes widened. One instructor practically yelled: “Tell us how!” We spent the next 40 minutes talking about the how.

The Point

How well do we as faculty developers help instructors see themselves within the goals and initiatives that we are trying to advance? To what extent do I genuinely speak the language that faculty speak? Do I empathize? How well have I positioned myself to respectfully challenge? Do I create and cultivate “thought partnerships” to use a phrase from a colleague of mine?

I am at a university that has one foot in research and tries to keep the other foot in maintaining a commitment to quality teaching. Research, Service and Teaching….and teaching often comes last yet tends to take up so much of the time. It doesn’t bode well for cultivating progressive attitudes toward teaching.  I work to help faculty discover and do what makes them happy. It’s often an issue of rethinking the way we were taught and our teaching patterns.

A Few Ideas on Grading (Make them your own according to your context)

First, read this and this.

Second, consider some of the following ideas. I have embedded variations of these ideas within my own instruction, and I continue to adjust and experiment. In every case, however, I try to focus on a core principle (thinking goal) and figure out how it may function within my instructional situation. Also, even though I maintain a high standard of rigor, I do so with compassion knowing that my students need guidance. In other words, I’m flexible, but maintain high standards.

Convince us to read your paper. 

  • I have got a lot of traction with this activity. Early on in my career I got really tired of papers that were written the night before often characterized by a poor attention to well disciplined and crafted work. I also got really tired reading papers that didn’t address some significant and interesting topic. So, I require students to write a ONE page argument that convinces the reader (me and one’s peers) to read their paper based on two criteria: the topic is interesting and significant. This is attached to their research paper as a preface of sorts. Prior to writing this short argument, the class has to operationally define what constitutes interesting and significant. They also must explicate the parts of an argument including how to outline their work so that the reader is convinced to invest their time to critically engage with the paper.  I scaffold this assignment with smaller assignments and activities in class that better prepare the work. If the reader is not convinced, then their main research paper will not be read. It has really helped improve the topics students research, the organization of their arguments, and the preparation they put into writing their research papers. Student blog posts have proven a valuable medium in this assignment for three reasons: (1) concise writing, (2) peer access and review, (3) ability to highlight specific intellectual moves for the entire class to see and evaluate. Here are a couple examples: Example 1 and Example 2. I am not claiming they are excellent or poor; rather they are examples of minds in action.

What did you do to pursue excellence?

  • This is another question that I require addressed before I will read any substantial assignment. My goal is to have students demonstrate that they have strategically taken advantage of every resource available to help them do the best job that they can. I am not asking or expecting students to be excellent writers…I’m not. I’m not expecting them to be intellectually sophisticated…again, I question my own sophistication. Rather, I DO expect that they utilize their support resources. By strategic I mean that they are to plan, take action and avoid procrastination. This activity is usually written, but I have been experimenting with video and podcasts. It accompanies the assignment they are turning in. I format it  for easy and quick reading. I usually ask that they address the following categories: Key question; Thesis; Record of library visits and document searches (this can be a screenshot of their search history or a list of sources they consulted); Record of the times they visited the writing center; Record of who read their paper/assignment with comment references; A statement addressing what they did to meet the criteria for an excellent mark and how they prevented from making mistakes that are present on previous work; A statement of the intellectual skills they have worked on or accessed as they worked on the assignment and how they plan to use those skills in other work in my class and other classes. This sounds like a lot of writing, but I don’t have to read it all. Rather, I place students in small groups for a particular task and I then hold short “interviews” with students about this work. If I have any doubts or questions, I read relevant sections. The idea here is that they are doing the intellectual work necessary to be successful rather than relying on me to tell them what their thinking is worth. Finally, I prefer to see this limited to two pages maximum.

Oral Arguments

  • How often do students study their own work? Do they study it with the mind to speak to any part (ideation, significance, argument, sources, alternative perspectives, connections, limitations, next steps) coherently? I know this is a tall expectation for students who do not have background experience doing such things, so I help them learn it. I am confused when I am asked to critically critique (study) a student’s paper who has not studied it himself. I provide students with a brief guide addressing some of the aforementioned parts. I meet for 2-3 minutes with individual students when the others are in peer assessment groups or on some other task. They have to speak to the log of their paper coherently. If they fail, they have to go back and study it, which leads to a better product.

The combination of these three activities have reduced my reading load because learners have invested more time working with peers, visiting my office hours, and consulting other institutional support resources like the writing center and our library.  By the time students turn in their final drafts, I shouldn’t have to read them because I know the work that they have done to prepare the final composition. I read them, of course, but I do not have to spend an enormous amount of time making comments, interpreting intent, and so forth. Rather, I read selectively to make sure they have seriously accounted for editing suggestions.