This quarter, I tried a new approach to giving students in my General Education courses feedback on their assigned essays. I think it went OK, but it met with grumbling among some students. So I'd be interested to know how I might make the approach more effective and more satisfying to students.
The background: This quarter, I had 123 students in my intro to ethics sections. This is about 50% more than I'm accustomed to having. I assign them two 1,000-word essay assignments during the quarter. (They are required to revise one of these essays and turn it in at the end of the quarter.) Needless to say, the grading burden for me is great. Just reading 120,000+ words is time consuming enough. Evaluating the work and giving feedback only adds to the workload.
So here was the approach I took: I read about one-quarter of the student papers carefully, and took a quick glance at the other three-quarters. (Since the students can choose to write on different topics, I made sure that the sample of papers I read carefully reflected the number of papers written in response to each topic.) All the papers were evaluated on a pass/fail basis: A paper passed if it was broadly on-topic and suggested minimal effort. Each of the two papers was 5% of the students' quarter grade (the revised essay was 25% of the quarter grade). I then developed collective feedback based on the one-quarter of the papers I read carefully, highlighting common organizational, logical, and interpretive problems in these papers. I provided both general feedback, based on all of the papers I read carefully, as well as feedback specific to each topic. I then made all of this feedback available to students via Blackboard.
So here are the merits to this approach as I see it.
- It obviously reduces my workload, as well as decreasing the turnaround time for students. If I had graded and given feedback on each of the 123 papers, it would have taken me at least ten days, I suspect. With this approach, students get a pass/fail grade and some feedback within five days.
- I use rubrics and comment codes on papers, but I still find I make many of the same comments on student papers anyway, so this approach saves me the time of repeating the same point, say, fifty times.
- The pass/fail grading essentially turns the essay assignments into first drafts. As a result, they are relatively low risk, but they prepare students for the more high-risk task of revising and resubmitting one of the assignments later on. It also has the positive benefit that students' grades end up turning more on their best performance rather than on their worst, i.e., the grade reflects their capabilities. In an introductory philosophy course, where students are confronting something wholly new to them, letting their best work represent their learning (instead of their early struggles) strikes me as equitable.
- This approach also requires them to revise, which I believe to be at least as important to the overall writing process as initial drafting.
- It sends a realistic and accurate message to students about the economic situation within the public university system I teach in. Faculty workloads are increasing, and our educational model is increasingly off-the-rack rather than customized. Wholesale feedback for wholesale education!
- It makes the students do some self-diagnosis with their writing in that they have to identify which elements of the collective feedback apply to their own essays and which don't. My hope is that they then have to look at their own writing with a careful and discerning eye. Ultimately, this self-diagnosis is part of being a skilled and autonomoous writer, so my aim is to give them practice at such self-diagnosis. Indeed, one thing I worry about with individualized feedback is that it is too helpful in a sense. I the instructor diagnose the problems in the paper, the student 'fixes' the problems, and the process is over without the student really developing the capacity to see their own writing from a critical perspective. This 'jump!'/'how high?' dynamic runs against an important long-term goal of teaching writing.
As I said, I think this approach worked OK, but there was grumbling from a few. The grumblers wanted individualized feedback. Some weren't sure about how to apply the collective feedback to their own work (point 6 above). But since I think this approach is pedagogically sound, as well as being in my own considered interests, I'd be interested to know how the approach could be tweaked or modified.