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%
A B C D F
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.