The last ten days or so have been all about evaluating the final assignments for my two fall-term classes, Mystery and Detective Fiction and The Somerville Novelists. The students in my Intro to Literature class wrote a last essay for the term too, but that came in earlier and so I was able to turn it around before the final exams and essays and projects came in from the other groups. That means, though, that basically, for about two weeks, I’ve been in what we refer to on Twitter with the hashtag “#gradingjail.”
I went to a teaching workshop a few years ago where the very helpful advice offered was not to assign any writing you won’t want to read when students turn it in. That’s a good idea, but it’s also a ridiculous idea, as any writing instructor knows: there is no assignment so meticulously conceived, there are no instructions so compellingly worded, that every student will be motivated to, much less able to, do a wonderful job. And it’s not the well-intentioned imperfections in assignments by motivated students that drag us down at this time of year: it’s the lame-ass ‘I’m only doing this because you’re making me’ ones, or the ‘everything else was a higher priority so I threw this together at the last minute’ ones, or the ‘I really have no idea how to do this but even though I never came class or to your office hours, I’m still turning something in to see if I can pass’ ones. It’s the ones in which even the authors’ names are misspelled, despite being right there on the book cover for easy reference, or the advice on three previous assignments was ignored, or that show beyond a reasonable doubt that the student never finished the book they are writing about. Though it would be fun (and fast!) to grade a batch of final essays or exams all of which deserved A+ grades, we don’t expect perfect work: these are students, after all, and they’re learning — that’s the point of their being in our classrooms in the first place. But learning really is a two-way street. Exciting as a truly great assignment by an already flourishing student can be, often it’s the students who have, by effort and persistence and caring, and also by consultation, just made their work better who give me the best feeling when I’m marking.
Happily, I did see some examples of that this term, and overall my sense of all three classes was that most students were doing their level best. One of the biggest surprises of my recent marking was that a significant majority of the answers to the essay question on the Mystery and Detective Fiction exam (on social justice in Devil in a Blue Dress and Indemnity Only, in case you wondered) were very good: smart, articulate, and supported with detailed discussion of examples. It was hard work going through the entire stack of exams, and it took a long time (between students who did the optional final paper and students who mysteriously vanished from the course over time, there were 74 exams in the end, which certainly felt like plenty) but it was a familiar experience, and I think it gave me a good sense of who was really on top of the course material and who really wasn’t, which after all is the point of the exercise.
Evaluating the wiki projects for the Somerville Seminar, on the other hand, was a new kind of effort. As my Twitter friends know, I felt a lot of stress about these projects while they were still in progress, mostly because despite my urging, not a lot of students put even draft material up early, thus making ‘gardening’ as well as some aspects of collaborating and conceptualizing difficult. But it was also stressful because of the difficulties I knew some groups were having organizing meetings and getting everyone to participate. As I said, rather defensively, to people who responded to my stress by wondering why I assigned group projects in the first place, I have included a group project of some kind in nearly every 4th-year seminar I’ve taught in my 17 years at Dalhousie, and they have always seemed to go very well! So what was different this time? A couple of things, I think. First of all, this time I had a backstage pass: the projects were going up on a shared PBWorks site, so not only could I see posted content, but I got daily reports of which users had been doing what – including, sometimes, discussions among group members about logistics and frustrations. If I had seen only the finished product, as in the past (not counting the mandatory ‘confer with me at least once about your plans’ sessions that are always part of the process), I might never have known it wasn’t a seamless, harmonious process.
Would it have been better for me to hide my eyes? More important, would it have been better for them? In both cases, I think the answer is no. Because the assignment was experimental, for one thing, I needed to know if clarification or intervention was required, which sometimes it was. Also, because one aspect of the assignment was precisely ‘good collaboration among group members,’ I needed to see if this was going on. Without watching the sausage get made, too, there would be no way for me to learn if I had done my part well, in terms of designing the assignment, laying out the instructions, and supporting the class in meeting the requirements. From their point of view, I think my surveillance, though no doubt occasionally felt as intrusive, was mostly a good thing: I did step in with suggestions when I felt they were heading in unhelpful directions, and when I realized how imbalanced the (visible) contributions were getting, I did some covert, as well as some overt, er, motivating.
All in all, then, I think it was not just useful but responsible of me to pay attention to how things were unfolding. Looking over the final projects, which range from good to outstanding, I’m not sorry, either, to have put everyone (myself included) through this difficult process. But I have certainly been thinking about whether I could have made it any less stressful, and this leads me to another way in which these projects differed from previous group assignments: instead of being staggered across the term, they all came due at once; and though there were multiple components, there was really only one explicit deadline. I thought that it would suffice to address the various components through in-class workshops aimed at developing concepts and getting people started, but clearly, though that was not wasted time, people didn’t (mostly) get started. Probably 75% of the final content on the wikis went up in the 2-3 days before the final deadline, and as far as I could tell, a pretty significant amount of the research was done during those days as well. I talked and talked about the importance of doing the projects in stages, and especially about putting content up early so that others could ‘garden’ it, but I think this advice was just too abstract, the required work too amorphous or theoretical. Also, I think most of them wildly underestimated how much work would actually be involved in building the different components (something earlier attempts would, of course, have alerted them to). As a result, these projects lost out in the day-to-day triage, as they did other work that felt more urgent because it had concrete deadlines coming right up. Lesson learned: when (indeed, if) I do anything similar again, I’ll build in more staged deadlines. To me that goes against the atmosphere of open creativity I was trying to foster: setting deadlines means spelling out exactly what has to be done by then, and that’s tricky if you want them to make decisions about what needs to be done in the first place. That’s why I didn’t have more interim deadlines this time–that, and because I thought they would be better at managing their own time. Some of them were, amazingly so, but that didn’t help them too much when they were dependent on others to do their parts. I’m of two minds, really, about how much responsibility to take for some students’ work habits, which is really what we’re talking about here. But ultimately what I want (what I wanted) is to see everyone involved and successful and excited: it made me sad to see, instead, people feeling frustrated, stymied, and harried. If there’s a next time, I’ll see what I can do to structure their time better for them.
Evaluating these projects was challenging for me. There was a lot of content (eventually!) and there were a lot of different aspects to take into account, from layout to research to clarity and focus to effective linking between sections: it made reading a traditional essay seem like a reductively linear process! But in many ways it was a much more interesting task than reading a stack of critical analyses. One reason is that a lot of students wrote about quite obscure books, so I learned a lot myself from the work they had done. Another is that several of the components were more reportage than literary criticism, which meant that the prose was crisper and more straightforward and didn’t need to be read with a painstaking eye to argument or interpretation. One of the hardest parts of commenting on literary essays is trying to grasp what thesis would have worked to unify the examples, or even just to understand what a conceptually garbled sentence or paragraph might have been intended to mean, in order to propose a better version of it. There wasn’t much of that involved here, and that was great! Freed from the obligation to write academic-ese, they proved perfectly capable of saying very insightful things and making all kinds of good connections between texts and contexts and concepts we worked on in the course. That was very satisfying to see, and it encourages me to keep looking for different kinds of writing to assign. Hardly anybody in my classes is going to become an academic critic, after all, so teaching them to write like one seems less and less like it should be my priority. As far as that goes, in fact, everything about these assignments still, in spite of everything, seems like a good idea.
And now my final grades are filed for the two courses that ended, and I’m going to take a break from fretting about teaching for a few days before I turn my attention to the final planning for the winter term. My Introduction to Literature class continues, and I start another round of The 19th-Century British Novel From Dickens to Hardy. As usual, I’ve tweaked the reading list by a book or two, and I have ideas for yet another twist on course requirements … but first, I’m looking forward to returning to Anna Karenina.
What a fascinating post! I’ve spent years of my life as a (mostly part-time) university student with a couple of Arts degrees under my belt and a lot of single subjects in this-and-that and a diploma in Indonesian – but I’ve never before read anything about the process of designing or evaluating tertiary level assignments. Thank you for sharing this:)
I was especially interested to read about you ‘lurking’ on those group wiki projects and discovering the lack of harmony that emerged. I have to say that I loathed the one group project inflicted on me at university, and all the keen-and-able students I know feel the same: those same students who land you with the lame assignments are there in those groups dragging the project down and causing intense frustration. That’s good preparation for life at work LOL, but if like me a student is genuinely interested in learning and shaping that learning into something that is the best it can be, it’s a real drag to be forced to invest usually fruitless time on group dynamics (i.e. getting the others to do their share that everyone else is dependent on). So often I hear the complaint that the keen-and-able student did all the work and the others did the bare minimum and still collected the high grades. Or worse (and insulting too) is that the keen-and-able student did an enormous amount of work to produce an outstanding component of the project – but got low grades because the rest of the team didn’t do their share.
I’m a teacher myself, and I do occasionally set group projects or pair work, but I get round the problem in my classes with very careful grouping. I put the keen-and-able students together, where they can shine. And the converse? Well, I thought long and hard about grouping the ‘lames’ together, and decided to trial it – with good results. When they realised that there was no one in the group they could offload the work to, they actually put in an effort, with reasonably creditable results that reflected the same sort of standard that they achieved in solo assignments. What’s more, they learned something about themselves, a ‘life lesson’ as well, and some changed their work habits so that they would be wanted as group members in other teams.
All the best for the festive season, and enjoy Anna!
Lisa (in sunny Australia).
Lisa, your point about the drag on “keen-and-able” students is one I fret over often. In other, smaller projects I do occasionally tweak partners so that strong students work together, as I don’t want them to feel they are not getting any return on their own investment. Your description of students realizing that they can and should be better team members sounds like an ideal outcome. I do think that you can’t always predict who’s keen or able for a given assignment and in most cases for group work I let them be guided by their interests, on the theory that caring about the topic will help with motivation. The higher level the class, too, the more I figure there’s not that much difference in keenness or ability — and I think that was true this term, with the differences arising more from work habits (who likes to start early vs. who is motivated by a looming deadline) or, perhaps, priorities or other extra-curricular factors. I’d like to say all’s well that ends well, and that is true to a large extent, but I don’t want to forget what I learned about the process.
Hi Rohan, that’s an interesting point, too, about work habits … how difficult it must be to know about them. I probably appear to thrive on the rush of last-minute adrenalin but have a solid steady base of reading and research that began as soon as the assignment was issued and spend the weeks before the deadline thinking, thinking, thinking – till it all comes out in a rush in the last few days. But my husband! He does everything in the last few days before the deadline, and still gets HDs. What a challenging job it is to be a tertiary educator these days!
I like to think that somebody somewhere is doing some serious research about the whole business of assessment strategies. I had the interesting experience of doing my first two undergraduate degrees at two different institutions, more or less at the same time. One was very conservative. Lectures, tutorials and exams. The other was, I am fairly confident, experimenting on us , with all kinds of jazzy ideas (presumably for someone’s PhD), including one memorable unit which simply consisted of the student proving that they’d done 120 hours of something they were interested in that was somehow relevant to the course. I thrived in both (meaning, I passed with high grades and I learned heaps of interesting stuff which I value to this day) but I knew other students who didn’t: some chafed at the conservative university and suffered terrible stress at the idea of their whole future depending on one EOY exam, while others couldn’t cope with the less structured system at the other university and failed or finished up feeling cheated and ill-prepared for the future.
That said, I think it is important to experiment with better ways of assessment. One of my treasured cyber-friends would probably have failed at university because he uses idiosyncratic grammar and spelling. But the quality and originality of his thinking and the perception he brings to his reading is outstanding. I like to think that as time goes by schools and universities will get better at keeping doors open for people who don’t fit the mould.
Anyway, I love reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I bet you never thought when you penned this post that a 60-something polynerd from the Antipodes would be reading it!