Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On Course: Session 7: Assignments and Grading

Lang contends that many teachers would like to teach in an environment that did not require us to evaluate and grade our students. But as he points out, this is an unrealistic expectation. We should understand and accept the fact that evaluating and grading is a complicated process as well as an anxiety producing experience that all of us have to squarely face. This concern has been discussed many times on this blog and many of the ideas in chapter 6 have already been discussed here in detail. I must admit that even after 20+ years of teaching I still spend more time and effort worrying about what evaluation tools to use and how to factor them into a final grade then I do selecting the readings or outlining the course objectives and content. This concern does not stop once the new semester begins, but continues on throughout the term. Have I developed evaluation tools (e.g., papers, tests, class presentations, etc.) that will help students learn the material and have I developed a grading mechanism that fairly sets forth the criteria that will be used to determine the grade?

In the chapter on “Assignments and Grading,” Lang offers practical suggestions on how to develop and implement evaluation tools that will be fair and effective in helping students obtain the objectives that are set forth in the syllabus. He once again emphasizes the importance of constructing a good syllabus that clearly sets forth the learning objectives of the course. He emphasizes the role that assignments we develop will play in our students being successful in obtaining these objectives. He makes the following key points:
1) Just as we should utilize a wide variety to teaching techniques so that students have the best opportunity to learn the material, we should develop various types of assignments to create learning opportunities and evaluate the level of learning that is taking place.
2) If we use exams as one of the evaluation tools we should include writing wherever possible. This will encourage students to think more deeply about what they are learning.
3) Be creative in the type of assignments given. The types of assignments that can be effective are somewhat dependent on the discipline being taught. I have used (not all in one course) short response papers, short critical papers, class presentations, keeping a journal, debates, small group work, research papers, and exams as assignments and evaluation tools.
4) Give adequate and clear instructions regarding what is expected in the work that is assigned. On a personal note, one should never assume that if no one raises their hand when asked if there are any questions that this means that everyone understands what is expected. I often think I have done a good job of explaining what is required only to find out after the 1st paper or essay exam that some students did not understand what was expected. It is important to remember that there are only two reasons why someone fails; 1) they cannot do the work, or 2) they will not do the work. When a student cannot do the work it is often a result of a failure on my part to give adequate and effective instruction and not a lack of effort or desire on the part of the student to be successful. How many people do you know that set out to fail?

The remainder of the chapter deals with issues associated with how to collect assignments, evaluating assignments, assigning numbers and letters, returning assignments, and commenting on the assignment. Most of what he says is pretty straightforward and in line with the four points raised above. He does give some nice examples on how to set up a grading rubric and how to assign percentages to various assignment as well as numbers and corresponding letter grades. The underlying message is to be clear and consistent in everything we say and do. For example, if you say you will not accept late work unless prior arrangements were made or unless there is third party verification that explains and justifies why the work is late then do not accept late work unless these criteria are meet.

Lang spends time discussing grading rubrics so I want to say something about the importance of having a grading rubric for papers and presentations that clearly sets forth the criteria that is going to be used to evaluate the work and the point factor for each element. It is my opinion that if you use a rubric students are more confident that their work is being fairly assessed and that the number/letter grade is accurate as well as fair. As part of my syllabus, I give a definition for each letter grade and assign a point value for each letter (I presently use the 4 point scale). I also include the grading rubric to be used with each type of assignment where a rubric is usable with each element factored regarding the percent that it will affect the grade for that assignment. For example, I use this very simple rubric for critical essays:

1. Introduction 15%
2. Thesis statement 10%
3. Formal argument 25%
4. Defense of premise 40%
5. Mechanics 10%


1. Introduction 4 3 2 1 0

2. Thesis 4 3 2 1 0

3. Formal argument 4 3 2 1 0

4. Defense of premise 4 3 2 1 0

5. Mechanics 4 3 2 1 0

Total points_______________________ Letter Grade_______________________

You can construct your own example and do the math, but the student clearly sees how the grade is determined. The student knows what the numbers (0-4) and corresponding letter grade (A-F) mean because I have defined them in my syllabus. I attach a completed rubric to each paper and return it to my students. I do not put written comments on papers other then to indicate various mechanical issues. (e.g., fragment, sentence structure, awkward phrasing, word choice, etc.) I have found it more beneficial from a learning perspective to meet with students one on one and review their papers if they have any questions regarding their grades. As Lang points out (and I suspect most of us already knew), effectively communicating with students about the quality of their work is crucial for successful learning outcomes. Remember that when a student fails, it is often the result of our teaching not be effective in meeting the objectives we stated in or syllabus.

Lang once again has offered some sage advice as well as practical examples in this chapter. Developing creative assignments and effective evaluation tools can be time consuming, but the payoff is worth the effort. Students do learn more effectively when the assignments are interesting as well as challenging and they think that their work is appreciated and fairly graded. I look forward to hearing how you handle this crucial element in your teaching.


  1. John, thanks for your very thorough overview of this chapter.

    Concerning Lang's (4): Students have (understandably and reasonably) the desire to guide their learning efforts so as to achieve the grades they seek. As you note, it's often easy to get the impression from students that they are comfortable with an assignment and its expectations only to see from their work that they clearly weren't. One very simple technique here is to make available to students (anonymous) examples of past student work in response to a given assignment. I've done this simply by putting them on Blackboard or by distributing them in class and following up with a group discussion. Seeing what other students have done with the assignment and critiquing their efforts (does the paper really have a thesis? is the argument clear? etc.) helps to demystify the assignment and gets them thinking concretely about the kind of effort they will need to put in so as to get the grade they desire.

  2. Thanks, John. I'd like to hear a little bit more about your experience using the rubric that you posted.

    How do (different kinds of) students react to it? How many of them come to you for comments? Are many disappointed not to receive more detailed written comments, or does the rubric give enough guidance?

    You say that you "define" the numeric and letter grades in your syllabus. Can you give an example?

    Do you ever get papers that are so strong in one area (e.g., argument) that you allow that strength to compensate for weakness in another (e.g., mechanics or introduction) in terms of the grade? If so, how do you handle that?

  3. Very nice post, John. You capture the chapter nicely. I have had similar success with the technique that Michael suggests, though I use anonymous selections from the current class of students (I have multiple writing assignments, so the examples are quite accessible). I demarcate the examples 1...n as needed. Then I print off copies of all the examples with a running commentary of why the selected pieces of writing are or are not well written. (I typically avoid this technique in smaller sections.) I have found that my students generally appreciate the public discussion and the written responses I give, particularly when my comments fail to be written well (which breaks down a lot of misconceptions and barriers for them as writers and adds a bit of humor to it all).

    Another effective tool for writing, in particular, that I have come to cherish as an instructor is what I call the "written review". (I have been teaching for ten years, and it has taken me about that long to finally learn this!) Every week, the students are given a scholarly task to write, e.g., to write a precis of an article, to communicate an idea in a novel way, to object to an argument, to buttress the force of an argument, or simply to write out the essential components of an argument, among other things. The written review has 1) allowed me to be more objective in my grading, since the expectations are straightforward and clear. 2) My students' writing progresses more quickly, since they are not hindered by the mysteriousness of writing a philosophy paper. Instead, each task is made manageable for them, and they typically learn how to perform that particular function when writing. 3) At the end of the semester, they have all of the tools to write an 8-12 page philosophy paper. They simply put the skills they learn together (so their 8-12 page paper is really four or five 2-3 page papers on one topic. I have come to heavily rely on this type of assignment, and it makes up the bulk of my assessment in each philosophy course I teach. 4) It has allowed me to guide the students to the type of final paper I think they should write. So, they never have to feel confused about the relative merits of other writing styles. This is just mine, and I am teaching it to them (and will be grading them on that basis).

    Once again, very nice post, John. Thank you for putting in the time to capture Lang's chapter so nicely.

  4. David
    Sorry it took so long for me to respond. Here is what I include in my syllabus. The definitions are the ones that the Philosophy Department uses although I think other departments use them also. The numerical breakdown of letter grades is the one used by the university.

    Grade definitions:
    [A] Outstanding. Work displays thorough mastery of material, exceptionally good writing, and genuine engagement with the subject matter. This grade is reserved for those students who attain the highest levels of excellence in thought and scholarship.
    [B] Good. Work displays accurate understanding of the material, writing is clear and free of mechanical errors.
    [C] Fair. Work displays basic grasp of material, though there may be the occasional misunderstanding or inaccuracy. Writing quality acceptable.
    [D] Marginal. Work displays a grasp of the material adequate for credit, but quality of work indicates lack of effort or aptitude.
    [F] Unacceptable. Excessive absences, assignments not completed, or assignments unworthy of credit. Cheating or plagiarism will earn an automatic F for the assignment and/or the course.

    The grading scales with the assigned quality points are as follows:
    Grade 4-Point Scale
    A 4
    A- 3.7
    B+ 3.3
    B 3
    B- 2.7
    C+ 2.3
    C 2.0
    C- 1.7
    D+ 1.3
    D 1.0
    F 0

    As far as how students react to the lack of written comments I do not have any firm data. But the number of students who have sought out help in writing their papers has increased and the writing in general has improved as the class does more of these critical papers. This approach also gives an indication of who is trying to improve. I do take effort and improvement into account when determining the final grade.

    I use very short (1000 words max) critical papers in place of exams. I have the student construct a formal argument and defend one of the premises (or in some cases criticize one of the premises if that is what they wish to do). Here is what I put in the syllabus:

    Critical papers: The object of these papers is to get students familiar with defending premises that make up arguments. Students will outline an argument that supports a particular conclusion and then take one of the normative premises of that argument and present reasons that support that premise. Grade will be determined as follows:

    1) Introduction 15%
    2) Thesis 10%
    2) General argument 25%
    3) Defense of premise 40%
    4) Mechanics 10%

    I use a grading rubric to grade papers. I will not put extensive comments on papers. I will meet with you individually to review and discuss your work. It is recommended that if you get a C or below on any of your papers that you make an appointment to discuss it with me. Regardless, you may meet with me to discuss your work if you want detailed constructive criticism of your papers. I think that this approach to commenting on papers is more effective and helpful then simply writing comments on papers. I will work with students on helping to construct the argument for the 1st paper, but only in face-to-face meetings.

    I am finding this approach to evaluating learning to be more productive. They do have to bring in what they have learned in order to construct the argument and defend one of the premises, but they have to do so very concisely. In so far as one of my objectives is to have student learn to be more critical, writing these papers enables them how to achieve this goal. I include this statement in all my syllabi:

    Final note: It is important that you understand the important role that you play in the moral life of the community. To this end I want you to ‘question authority.’ That includes questioning what I am saying to determine its’ truth-value for you. Reasonable people can, and do, disagree on what is morally required in specific situations. This is one of the major, defining features of moral life. I do not require, nor do I expect, that you will agree with everything that I have to say. Your grade will not be affected by what position you argue for, but only on how well you argue for your position. You must be able to support your position with sound reasons.

    As to your last point, I am strict about staying to they rubric and how each element is factored. Being successful within the limitations imposed requires students to focus on each element and give them their due. A good introduction should set up the ideas that will be in the formal argument. The thesis should tell the reader what is going to be done in the paper, etc. It is not uncommon for students to do well on constructing the formal argument – with practice this does become rather easy, but that does not mean that the introduction, thesis, or defense will be as good. Sometimes the formal argument is weak, but the defense is good. But I want students to understand how each element interacts with the other elements in constructing a well written short critical paper.

  5. Thanks for the detailed response, John. That's very helpful.

    I'm trying something like your critical papers in one of my courses this semester, so I'm glad to hear that others have used it successfully.


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