Grading Learning

When I was taking classes towards my undergraduate major, I was forced into education courses which, for the most part, were utterly useless. They taught us high ideals, unrealistic conceptual frameworks, “student-friendly” assignments, and how to use technology that is most unavailable to most high schools. Thus, the concept of backward design is not new to me, nor should it be new to anyone. In short, backward design is creating assessments and assignments by defining the goals of the course from the outset, before any other thought is given towards textbooks, etc. Ultimately, the real problem with assessment is the formulation of stated course goals and objectives.

First, the only two forms of assessment I’ve seen used in survey courses are exams (multiple choice and short answer/essay) and essays. Of course, there seems to be agreement that part of our “calling” is to produce better writers. While I, in spirit, agree with that sentiment, we have become part-time English professors. I find myself marking grammar, spelling and punctuation errors more than reading for content. Though these errors need to be corrected, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve become outdated in that sense. Sure, better writers mean better students and “citizens,” but is it really producing students who are better educated in the field of history?

I am not suggesting getting rid of the essay, but rather, we should try to get students to write better “arguments” using more “analysis” rather than summarizing and perfecting their grammar. Even so, there is a huge problem with that as well: How do you ask the right questions to guide the students to producing more analytical writing? Instead of taking off points for bad grammar (though it should be stressed that it still needs to be readable), we should be focusing our efforts at producing argumentative students.

As for assessing content knowledge, again it is more important to have students learn rather than regurgitate information. Instead of asking students to write all you know about “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” we should ask more specific questions, such as: How was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen a turning point in the French Revolution? It is not asking when was it written, nor is it asking who wrote it. Still, there are issues with this method, as all are aware.

Even though I have opinions on this matter, assessment is not a strong part of my limited capacities, and it is something I must work to improve. Also, I have difficulty defining my objectives for the course. I am not an innovator, but I certainly would appreciate someone who has a brand new method of assessment that works for the history survey course. In the end, I will add my own variations of familiar forms of assessment until I or someone else discovers a way to quantify “learning.”

2 thoughts on “Grading Learning

  1. Jeremy, I agree with most of your commentary and follow in your sentiments concerning student assessment. I remember a very limited form of assessment in use at my undergraduate institute as well. Either you would be expected to take a series of multiple-choice exams, write your heart out on an essay exam or compose a number of papers to display your comprehension of presented material. History professors usually preferred the essay method where the course grade depended heavily upon your written performance. Indeed, this method has its purpose and profound benefits but what if we did a few things differently? Like you, Jeremy, I don’t propose that we do away with the essay. I actually think we should try to incorporate more writing exercises into our courses. Yes, this does pose more work for instructors, but maybe it will give students a better opportunity to actually improve their writing skills. Perhaps it will allow us more engagement with student writing and offer them more of an opportunity to grow as critical thinkers and better writers.

  2. Jeremy, I like your general observations and I concur with them. I too do not want to get rid of the essay format. And I completely agree that less attention should be focused on grammar. But I have to say that I have not had many professors overly concerned with grammar in the essays. When I taught community college I did not even count grammar as part of their grade. I was almost solely interested in analysis and their argument. I tried to explicate a few course objectives on my blog. Your example of the “Declaration” is a good one. I used a Civil War example on my blog, although I suppose my essay question is more geared to writing as much as the student knows about the events leading up to the Civil War. But still, the focus is on analysis and not coverage, which is why I put in the instuctions “some issues” to consider. As I mentioned on Denise’s blog, I have used analytical book review assignments for undergrads. These are similar to the short papers we write in graduate school. I let the students choose the book they wanted to review on any aspect within the timeframe of the course (the book had to be approved by me). I think this type of assignment allows students to voice their opinion on the relative strengths and weaknesses of a particular arguement and will help students realize that just because a book out there has been published it does not mean that it is necessarily “correct.” But yes, I don’t waste my time with grammar, although because many of my students were hispanic with limited English skills, I spent a lot of time correcting grammar mistakes, but those mistakes did not effect their grade. Their conceptual analysis is what counted for me.

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