Tag Archives: Assessment

Rubrics: A Best Friend for Teachers & Students

Jessica Greenfield, PhD
Director of the Cooper International Learning Center and Lecturer in Italian
Contact at: jgreenfi@oberlin.edu

Rubrics are not a new-fangled teaching device designed by some evil assessment gurus who thought we didn’t have enough hoops to jump through as is. They’ve been around for years and, far from being a burden, are, in my opinion, a teacher’s best friend and a frequent lifeline.  As focus continues to grow on student evaluation of teaching effectiveness, and as we continue to reflect on our own teaching practice, it is important to ensure that the expectations we have for our students are clear and that we are evaluating them fairly and in a way that is explicit and obvious to them. Most of us do this as a matter of course; but rubrics are a fantastic tool to make this process as transparent as possible.  


A few years ago, I became obsessed with assessment and feedback.  I noticed that my grading would often shift from lenient to harsh within a single class, leading me to grade and re-grade each assessment several times as I tried to be equitable.  I began to worry about fairness in my grading and clarity in my assignment design and explanations.  Furthermore, I discovered that I often was assessing too many elements within one formative activity.  And so, I began to search for better methods of assessment, which led me to the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA).  While there are many elements of the IPA that I love, I was particularly enthralled with the rubrics provided in the guidebook, since they offered me a clear and compelling solution to the problems I had been experiencing.  I now use rubrics in a number of ways: as a tool to help students evaluate themselves, as a guide for designing and grading assignments, and as a method to bring students into the assessment process when we create rubrics together, specifically for summative assessments that are more creative in nature.  

Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/holistic-analytic-single-point-rubrics/

While there are a lot of different rubric forms, I use two kinds most of all: ANALYTIC RUBRICS which are descriptive, finite, and exhaustive in the consideration of component parts, and HOLISTIC RUBRICS which use a single scale to apply an overall judgment in a specific area. I create “analytic” rubrics for each of my formative assignments, and “holistic” rubrics as a way of evaluating student participation or, often, for end-of-unit or end-of-course summative assessments.  One can also create a SINGLE POINT RUBRIC in which you have a given standard you are assessing, and the instructor then adds comments during the performance. For example, in an oral presentation single point rubric, the instructor might have a standard such as: student links the presentation to reading materials from the course syllabus. The instructor would then evaluate that one element by providing comments on where the student succeeded or failed in meeting that standard. To provide a clearer sense of these various kinds of rubrics, check out some examples and further definitions here.

Analytic Rubric Example

Analytic Rubric (Greenfield)

Holistic Rubric Example

Holistic Rubric (Greenfield)

Single-Point Rubric

Single Point Rubric: Jennifer Gonzalez: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/holistic-analytic-single-point-rubrics/

The research is definitive in showing that rubrics not only provide a clear and fair framework for evaluation of student work, but also is conclusive that the most effective rubrics follow certain steps (considering learning objectives, deciding upon the elements to be evaluated, and then weighing each of those elements as it contributes to the overall evaluation). Personal experience reinforces the research: good rubrics are clear, descriptive, and avoid generalities.  They use such objective terms as “student uses…”; “student chooses…”; “student is successful in…”, rather than the more subjective, “I felt that…,” or, “it seems that…”, in order to provide as factual and objective feedback as possible.. The best rubrics are also context specific.  I never use the same rubric for two different kinds of assignments and I always make sure to review and adapt my rubrics from semester to semester to check for appropriateness.  Often, I will find some recurring area for improvement among student performance or an area that I did not describe well, which I update for the following semester.

Interpretative-Novice (Greenfield)

While the process of creating rubrics from scratch can be time consuming (and, rather than reinventing the wheel, consider building off of the many resources available online or from our own CTIE), the payoff is large; you can reduce time spent grading and confusion among students as to what you’re looking for, and you will also be providing more transparency for students throughout the coursework.  My teaching has definitely improved since adopting rubrics as my primary evaluation tool, mostly because I can spend more time focused on lesson preparation and less time reading and rereading student work. Some of the biggest improvements in my instruction since using rubrics include the following:

  1. My grading has become more uniform and fair.  I no longer need to worry about whether I’m being too lenient or too harsh; I write explicit descriptions that allow me to grade fairly.  It’s also cut down on grade inflation, which is always something at the back of my mind.
  2. In giving students the evaluation rubric at the same time that I introduce the assignment, I can be sure that students understand the elements within the assignment that I’m most interested in. I remember the day I discovered that the point values in rubrics don’t have to be equal across columns and rows, and that has allowed me to show students where the bulk of their energy should go in a given assignment. If I want to focus on vocabulary over style, I will give that column more points.
  3. Feedback is easy to give within the framework of a well-developed rubric as you are commenting on that specific aspect of the assignment.  Not only is evaluation time greatly reduced, but also the time an instructor spends writing comments and critiques.
  4. The very process of creating a rubric also helps me ensure that I’m clear on what the assignment is asking students to do. Developing a rubric is often a metacognitive process which prompts the instructor to reflect on the task that she will present to students, and encourages her to take the necessary time to determine if the instructions are clear and appropriate.

Finally, I’m so grateful for the rubrics tool in Blackboard.  Several years ago when I flipped my class, I discovered that I could recreate my rubrics right within the LMS and make them available to students.  You can also copy them from one semester to the next, so once you’ve done the work, it’s easy to utilize them again.  This feature also allows students to revisit the tool from the gradebook function and reflect on their performance before coming to you to discuss how they did on a certain task.

Composition with revisions (Greenfield)

If you are interested in making your own rubrics, my recommendation is to follow these steps for success:

  1. Reflect on the task and content for which you are creating the rubric.
  2. Create Student Learning Objectives for the assignment with an explicit set of expectations.
  3. Group and label the elements so that students can see what you will evaluate and you are clear on what elements you want to look for.
  4. Apply the rubric form and add descriptors in each box.  If you are applying points to the assignment, this is the time to weight the distribution of points as well.  
  5. Discuss with colleagues and/or students and make appropriate adjustments.

Some useful online resources:

Learning from the Semester: 2.0

Steven Volk (April 25, 2016)

[The following is an edited and updated version of a post from 2013.]

From Guy Newell Boothby, "Doctor Nikola" (London: Ward, Lock, & Co,  1986), p. 335. British Library.

From Guy Newell Boothby, “Doctor Nikola” (London: Ward, Lock, & Co, 1986), p. 335. British Library.

As the semester moves to it close (insert fist pump), it’s a good time to reflect on what you learned from the semester as well as considering what you think your students are taking away from your classes. To begin, here are three ways to track your teaching, from the quick and simple to the more time consuming.

End of Semester Snapshop

While you can, and probably should, reflect on your teaching at many points during the semester (see nos. 2 and 3 below), two moments can be particularly productive: Some 2-3 weeks before the semester ends (when you already have a very good sense about how the semester has gone), and about 2-3 weeks after the semester ends (or once you have had a chance to read student evaluations). You are all unbelievably busy right now, but try to set aside 30 minutes to begin to answer these questions – and then return to them when you can. It is useful to engage in this process before you read the students’ evaluations, as you want to be able to consider from your own perspective why the semester turned out as it did.

(1) What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?

What did you accomplish? Try to answer this question concretely. Was it the assignment you designed to help you evaluate whether students were reading the text closely and which worked exactly as planned? The discussions, which were a lot livelier than other times you taught the class? The students’ ability to recall basic materials, as demonstrated by better exam results than in previous years? The fact that you were able to establish a dynamic in class that allowed students to talk about extremely difficult topics? In short: What worked well in the class?

(2) Why do you think that happened? Can you link these outcomes to your teaching methods.

What did you do differently? Was it a matter of the composition of the class or of your methods? If outcomes were different than in previous years, reflect on why that was the case.

"Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

(3) Did you achieve your learning goals for the course?

This, of course, should lead you back a consideration of your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.

Did you use assessment methods – papers, tests, projects, etc. – that can help you answer this question reasonably? If you find that you have learning goals that aren’t being assessed, you should make a note to change that next semester.

(4) What were you dissatisfied with in terms of how the course is turning out?

What didn’t work as you would have liked it in your classes? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking, “Next time, I probably shouldn’t do that”?

You can think about this in a variety of ways. For example:

(a) The pedagogy you employed. The mix of discussion and lecture, more active learning techniques, preparation for discussions, group work, student presentations, etc.

(b) Structural factors: Maybe you have found that teaching after lunch is not the best time; that the classroom you were assigned did not help your teaching and should be changed, that the class size did not lend itself to the particular pedagogy you employed.

(c) Classroom management issues. Did you allow one student to assert too much sway over the other students? Did you not step in where you should have? Did you not address management issues early enough? Should laptops be banned in your class as students are not using them appropriately? Should you have a “bathroom” policy to prevent a continual in-and-out of students from the class? How have you responded to challenges to your authority? How have you dealt with tensions that have come up in the class?

(d) Course Materials: Were students doing the readings? If not, why? Was the reading too basic? Too theoretical? Did mechanical issues (not being able to upload files, etc.) get in the way of their being able to complete assigned readings? Were the readings improperly paced (too much right during midterms) or unengaging (even for you!).

(e) Assignments: Too many? Too few to give students proper feedback? Should you be assigning multiple drafts of papers? Would smaller quizzes work better than one or two high-stakes exams? Did you assign collaborative work without preparing for it?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

(5) As with your successes, think about why things didn’t work and what you can do the next time to change those aspects that you can change.

If time doesn’t permit you to plan out a concrete strategy for doing things differently next semester, jot down a note to remind you about the things that you should consider addressing.

(6) Who can help?

If you are not sure what to do to change those aspects of your course that you agree should be changed, jot down the name of the person/people you can talk to or the resource you can use.  Who are the colleagues and mentors, on campus or elsewhere, who you should be emailing to set up a coffee date? Where can you find materials that address the topics of your concern?

After the SETs Come In

Try to go through the same exercise after you have read and digested the student evaluations of teaching (SETs) for your courses. (For advice on how and when to read your students’ evaluations, see the “Article of the Week” from Feb. 7, 2010: Reading Student Evaluation of Teaching).  Get a sense of whether your self-evaluation finds any resonance in the students’ comments, or whether you come to different conclusions – and you need to think about why that’s the case. Reflect on – or talk to a colleague about – any disparities. Just because the students liked your class (i.e., gave you favorable ratings), it doesn’t mean that you met your learning objectives. Just because some students didn’t like certain aspects of the course, it doesn’t mean that those aspects should be jettisoned.

Longer-term Reflection: Annotated Syllabus

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

While it is useful to reflect back on your class at the end of the semester, you can gain more insight by reflecting on your classes in real time. This is particularly useful for people like me whose memory, to quote Billy Collins, has “decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.” Create a “dummy” syllabus for your class. If your regular syllabus doesn’t include information on what you are planning to do on a class-by-class basis, make sure that this dummy syllabus does. So, for example:

Wednesday, November 27: Make goal of class: Help students classify polysaccharides based on function in plants and animals and describe how monomers join to form them.

Each day, after that class has finished, enter some notes on the syllabus as to how the class went, paying particular attention to whether you think that the class helped the students reach the objectives you have set out (in this case classifying polysaccharides). Also think about what evidence you have to answer this question (do you ask for “muddy points” responses at the end of class? Do you use clickers or other audience response systems that let you know whether the students are “getting” it?).

Jot down notes of in your opinion worked and what didn’t: was it the way you broke them up into discussion groups? The amount or nature of the reading assigned? The presence or absence of contextualizing material? The day you chose to examine the topic (The day before Thanksgiving? What was I thinking!).

Finally, enter some notes as to what you would do differently the next time around: Less/more reading; start with a quiz to see where they are at; have them work in groups; make the goals of the class more transparent; work to create an atmosphere where students can talk more easily about controversial issues; etc.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss annotating classes now and again. The last thing you need is to be hard on yourself. Maybe your best bet is to try to open a syllabus template that you can get to whenever you can. If you set impossible goals, you won’t accomplish them, and the purpose is not to find another reason to feel guilty (and we all have many of those) but to begin a practice that can be empowering.

In For a Penny, In for a Pound: The Teaching Portfolio

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 226. British Library.

‘Lilliput Lyrics … Edited by R. Brimley Johnson. Illustrated by Chas. Robinson’ 226

To contemplate creating a teaching portfolio is to accept that you’re willing to spend some quality time reflecting on your teaching. At some level, the teaching portfolio is an ongoing conversation between #2 (the daily syllabus annotations) and #1 (the end of semester reflections). The syllabus annotation is at the heart of a teaching portfolio, but the portfolio allows you greater space for reflection on your teaching philosophy, pedagogical approaches, readings on – and thoughts about – learning theory, longer blog posts (either public or private), articles that have influenced your thinking, etc.

You can set up a portfolio quite easily using Google sites or any one of a number of (free) commercial products (WordPress, IMCreator, etc.). The main issue is not to get hung up on the technology. Perhaps all you want is a set of folders (either on your computer or actual folders) into which you can place these materials: standard syllabus, annotated syllabus, reflections on particular classes or on the course in general, emerging “philosophy” of teaching, notes on pedagogy, classroom management style, essays on finding your own teaching style, articles that have proven particularly important in your teaching, comments from people who have observed your teaching, student reflections, student work in response to particular prompts, comments from mentors and colleagues, etc., etc.

The main goal of the teaching portfolio, as far as I’m concerned, is to complete the feedback loop that ties together action, reflection, and reformulation. For example: Tried a very directed set of primary source readings in philosophy class to get students to understand John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberalism and the individual. Don’t think it worked given that their answers to a short reflection piece at the end of the class; papers on topic turned in two weeks later were imprecise and often factually incorrect. Thought about goals for that class, talked about it with a colleague in the department, and read more about what other philosophy teachers do when teaching Mill. Here’s a plan for the next time…

For more on teaching portfolios, consult the excellent handbook written by Hannelore B Rodriguez-Farrar (The Teaching Portfolio: A Handbook for Faculty, Teaching Assistants, and Teaching Fellows) at Brown University, the materials prepared by the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, or the paper (“The Teaching Portfolio”) by Matthew Kaplan at the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning.

Final Reflections: What Have Your Students Carried Away?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

The end of the semester is a time, all too often, of exhaustion and, at some level and speaking for myself, disappointment. In light of this, reflecting on what we think our students have actually absorbed from our classes is a useful exercise.

One of the most complicated issues we face in teaching is understanding in a comprehensive fashion what our students have taken away from the course. I think of this as somewhat different from what they have “learned.” We can get a good sense of that through our students’ written work or quizzes and examinations. What I’m talking about is more speculative: what do we think they will carry with them into the future, what will shape the way they think about the subject of our classes or more broadly? What will they remember 10 or 20 years in the future?

This is, of course, one of the devilishly hard questions of assessment. In the humanities, in particular, we know that more often than not, many students will “get it” only after the course is over. Synapses will be closed that remained wide-open during the class; light bulbs will finally turn on. And, more often than not, when this happens, it won’t be tied back to a particular class or even a particular course.

Of course, there is no way to know what the group of students just completing your class will take away from it. But thinking into the future is actually the starting point of “backward planning” and, as such, the first step for planning your next course syllabus. So, what do we think they will put in their backpacks and carry away with them?

I’ll use my own teaching this semester as an example. One of my classes is on museum studies (“Museum Narratives”). I am quite sure that only a few – OK, no one – will remember anything about exhibition morphology, how depth, ring factor, and entropy work in exhibition design. But I think that most, when they walk into a museum in the future, will think about how exhibition layout relates to content and audience, will search for the museum’s narrative rather than only focusing on its artifacts, and will continue to consider what Stephen Greenblatt meant when he divided museum exhibitions between those that worked through resonance versus those that work by wonderment.

And maybe that’s good enough.

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading

Steve Volk, March 27, 2016

Benin Plaque, c. 16- 17th century, brass “lost-wax” technique, British Museum Af1898,0115.38

Benin Plaque, c. 16- 17th century, brass “lost-wax” technique, British Museum Af1898,0115.38

Students in museums studies, more so than casual visitors, are frequently confronted with the question of how specific artifacts made their way from their point of origin into the museum where they are displayed for our enjoyment and edification. For some objects, the answer is relatively straightforward: the painting originally in, say, the French royal collection, was purchased by a dealer who sold it to a collector who donated it to the museum. For other artifacts, particularly if the museum in question is the British Museum (the end point of a vast collection of imperial booty), the origins of the artifact is more troubled. The catalog entry for this “Benin Plaque” (left), dating from the 16th-17th centuries, calmly notes that “following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were seized by British force from the royal quarters and various storerooms.”

But as this information doesn’t appear on the object’s label in the gallery, the viewer has little sense of the violent history — the imperial relations — that underwrote the trajectory of the plaque from Benin City to its current abode on Great Russell Street in London. Museologically and culturally speaking, that’s a problem. If museums are to represent (and not simply appropriate) objects from their colonial empires, the history of that displacement must be kept in sight.

This may seem an unusual way to begin an essay on grading, but I thought of the Benin Plaques and their absent labels as I prepared another set of grades for my students. Grading (as I’ve written many times before here and hardly need to remind you) is about as eagerly anticipated by teachers as a colonoscopy (and at least those are served up with propofol.) There are any number of reasons why this is the case, and at least some of the problems of grading do come with relatively straight-forward solutions. If you can’t bear reading the 27th paper on the role of the cottage in Frankenstein, then open your assignments to allow for a greater variety of responses. If the assignment essentially requires that students feed back to you what you’ve given to them, don’t expect to have an enjoyable experience reading them. Try completing your own assignments and if you find them boring or not conducive of learning, change them so that students can use the assignment to demonstrate both mastery and application.

Full Disclosure

Other issues involved in grading are more difficult to resolve, which brings us back to the Benin Plaques. What everyone knows, yet no label discloses, is that grades represent the ultimate power that faculty hold over our students. As much as our professional code of conduct requires – demands – that we grade fairly, objectively, and without regard to extraneous factors, there is no denying that we are humans and that, when it comes to grading, we are both shaped by, and must contend with, a variety of factors that make that difficult, if not impossible. These range from simple tiredness to complex issues of prejudice including racism and sexism. [See, for example, here (the impact of the teacher’s emotional state) and here (the impact of the stereotype threat) as examples.). Perhaps, just as the Benin Plaques should include on their label an indication of the nature of the power that brought them to the British Museum, so too should we include a label on all of our tests and assignments:

Warning: As much as I will try to grade your assignments objectively, fairly, and without prejudice, and as much as I will attempt to forget how annoyed I was with you when you [fill in appropriately]: didn’t do the reading/watched a Beyoncé video on your laptop instead of listening to what I was saying/left the class three times to go to the bathroom, I am only human, so caveat emptor!

When Life Is Young, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

When Life Is Young, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

Grading has a way of reversing the intent of teaching, not only closing off a formative process of dialog and reflection, but often contradicting what we have been insisting all semester: “It’s not about the grade.” Well, what if it is? And how do we tell students with a straight face not to worry so much about their grades when they know (as do we) that when all is said and done, the grade we give them can/will influence whether they get the fellowship they need to pursue their studies. I would venture that, for most of us, the problem is not that we feel pressured to give “C” work an “A” (although grade inflation, particularly at elite institutions, might suggest otherwise), but rather how we maintain a straight face when we suggest there is a clear and obvious difference between a “B” and a “B+,” between a “B+ and an “A-.” Particularly in the humanities and social studies, but likely in the sciences as well, we know full well that extraneous considerations (those extra trips to the bathroom!) can influence our decisions. There’s no way around the fact that a serious evaluation of our students’ work is so much more complex than can be expressed in that single letter, and giving a student a “B+/A-” really doesn’t resolve the problem.

What else is wrong with grades? Let me count the ways! As  Steven Mintz, Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out,

  • A single, over-all grade conflates elements that need to be disentangled.
  • They tend to overly reward lower-order thinking skills (such as memorization and recall) rather than higher order skills (involving analysis, application, and synthesis).
  • Grades too often fail to accurately reflect student learning or mastery.
  • They are frequently de-motivating and discouraging.

Nor is this a recent finding: studies as early as 1912 questioned the utility (and validity) of grades, and research has fairly consistently underlined some of the main problems in grading practices.

Typical-student, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

“Typical figure, showing tendency of student life,” British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

Does that mean that we should stop giving grades? Very few colleges or universities have abandoned the grading system altogether. Hampshire College, where faculty write narratives of their students’ learning rather than assigning grades, remains the exception. But even there, complex narratives probably won’t work in a class of 80 students, nor is Pass/Fail an option without draw-backs in a world in which grades are the norm. A “Pass” in Organic Chemistry might not help a student when she applies to med school.

Valen E. Johnson, professor and head of the department of statistics at Texas A&M University at College Station argues further that if we didn’t grade, “students probably wouldn’t work as much and wouldn’t do homework and wouldn’t study for exams”? While this is not universally the case, we can (and probably should) admit that we share at least some of the blame for not making learning more intrinsically motivating. But such an observation can only get us so far. Ultimately, we need to think about new ways of grading that can address some of the shortcomings of the current system. That’s where contract grading comes in.


Contract grading, which actually was first used some decades ago, more recently has been gaining traction in higher ed. Briefly, contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students within the evaluation system in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment.

There are a variety of approaches to contract grading, each designed to meet an instructor’s intended outcomes, but all share the fundamental goal of clarifying the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions. While there are a number of different types of contract grading options, I’ve  summarized three different contract-grading approaches here. At the same time, I’d encourage you to talk to your colleagues about how they grade; raise the issue at department meetings: you’d be surprised how many have adopted this method of grading.

Contract grading as a means of negotiating authority

Songs of a Savoyard, British Library HMNTS 11651.k.42

Songs of a Savoyard, British Library HMNTS 11651.k.42

The essential factor in determining a grading approach, at least as I see it, is deciding what you hope the process of grading can achieve in the broadest terms. For some, revealing and addressing the nature of power relations within a classroom environment is the central element that a grading system can address. Ira Shore, for example, has written much about the importance of creating a democratic classroom in which power is both fully disclosed and openly negotiated with students. Similarly, Isabel Moreno Lopez argues that teachers should create a critical classroom in which “authority and responsibilities are shared between teacher and students, empowering all course members to become active, responsible participants of the learning process, not merely passive consumers.” For both, grading is a means by which power can be shared through a collectively negotiated contract co-constructed at the beginning of the semester.

Here, in a condensed version, is how Moreno Lopez describes her contract grading system:

The negotiation process starts at the beginning of the semester when the teacher presents the elements of a contract grading system to the students. In general terms, the grading system is based on the quality and quantity of work students are willing and capable of doing. That is, if a student signs a contract for an “A,” s/he will do more work in the course than the student who contracts for a “C.” The quality of work will also reflect the contracted grade. Students are permitted to rewrite the written assignments as many times as necessary to attain the contracted grade.

At the start of the semester, then, the teacher opens up class-time to discuss both the syllabus and the grading system. Then, s/he asks for questions, amendments, and comments on the original proposal. A debate follows, after which the students sign the contract, as amended by themselves, and keep a copy for their records. During the semester, the negotiation process continues, both in class discussions and in comments in the students’ journals. At the end of the semester, based on the contracts and their performance, students discuss with the teacher their final grades. This grade might be the same they contracted or might have varied depending on their performance and progress.

Moreno Lopez suggests that this negotiated grading system is valuable in two ways: it helps students see learning as a process and not an end, and it “encourages students to be active participants in their own learning process by allowing them to cooperate in what is usually considered the ultimate prerogative of the teacher: the assessment process.”

Shor, Moreno Lopez and others who engage in this form of critical pedagogy identify the classroom as a political arena where differences of power are necessarily, and properly, brought into the center of teaching where they are negotiated. In such a context, struggle and conflict is both inevitable and appropriate insofar as it is a reflection of the larger society, not a “bubble” separate from it.

Non-negotiated contract grading to improve learning

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS 10027.ee

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS 10027.ee

The grading contracts used by Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow in their composition courses are similar in some respects, but they are less concerned about using the classroom to negotiate authority than Shor or Moreno Lopez. Instead, they see their goal as creating “a classroom where both teachers and students get to give as much time and attention as possible to writing—not politics and culture. Of course political and cultural issues turn up in student writing, but our tendency is to discuss the effectiveness of the writing more than political and cultural issues themselves (not that one can ever completely separate the two).”

Danielewicz and Elbow present the grading contracts to students at the beginning of the semester rather than co-constructing them with student input. By using contracts, they seek “not only to help students learn more and function better as learners; we also want a grading system that encourages them to be the kind of persons our world needs; furthermore, we want to make our own teaching easier and more satisfying.” And they add, “That’s all.” Indeed, that would be plenty.

Here is a summary of the main elements of the Danielewicz-Elbow grading contract:

  1. Attend class regularly—not missing more than a week’s worth of classes.
  2. Meet due dates and writing criteria for all major assignments.
  3. Participate in all in-class exercises and activities.
  4. Complete all informal, low stakes writing assignments (e.g. journal writing or discussion-board writing).
  5. Give thoughtful peer feedback during class workshops and work faithfully with their group on other collaborative tasks (e.g., sharing papers, commenting on drafts, peer editing, on-line discussion boards, answering peer questions).
  6. Sustain effort and investment on each draft of all papers.
  7. Make substantive revisions when the assignment is to revise—extending or changing the thinking or organization—not just editing or touching up.
  8. Copy-edit all final revisions of main assignments until they conform to the conventions of edited, revised English.
  9. Attend conferences with the teacher to discuss drafts.
  10. Submit their mid term and final portfolio.

In other words, students get a “B” based solely on what they do, not on any evaluation of their work by the professor. Grades higher than a “B,” however, depend on the teacher’s evaluation of the quality of their writing. They will discuss in class what “exceptionally high quality” writing means, making the criteria as public and concrete as possible, but they don’t give students power over “high-grade” decisions.

Although they don’t evaluate the quality of their students’ writing up to a “B” grade, they also don’t withhold evaluation as they continue to provide students with feedback on the strengths and weaknesses in their work, both drafts and final version. But the evaluation (up to a “B”) is decoupled from grades. “As a result,” they write, “students don’t have to heed any of our judgments or advice when they revise their papers (though they must revise).” They want their students to feel that the evaluations they conduct are “from individual persons: yes, experts about writing, but individuals, nevertheless, who cannot pretend to be wholly impersonal or fair.”

Their article (“A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching”) offers a fascinating discussion of how they came to the various elements of the contract, why, for example, they picked a “B” grade as the base-line mark for their contract (“Our original reasoning was merely timid—crassly negative and pragmatic: we were scared to ‘go all the way.’”), or whether their contract is actually less “fuzzy” than a standard grading system. “How can we defend ambiguous and arguable criteria like ‘conscientious effort,’ ‘thoughtful feedback,’ and ‘conscientious participation?’” they ask. “First, we don’t accuse someone of failing to meet one of these fuzzy criteria (‘no-effort,’ for example), unless the violation is grossly flagrant (e.g. drafts far short of the required length). Secondly, we’ll always take the students word for it.” In terms of a final, summative, grade they are persuaded that their decisions were relatively easy to make. Students who didn’t fulfill the contract (including some who were excellent writers), were disqualified. They then focused more closely on the remaining final portfolios that they found to be particularly strong.

Contract grading to encouraging active learning and community building

"The Life of George Barnwell; or, the London apprentice of the last century," British Library HMNTS 12621.dd.5.

“The Life of George Barnwell; or, the London apprentice of the last century,” British Library HMNTS 12621.dd.5.

The final example of contract-style grading is Asao B. Inoue’s community-based assessment approach. Similar to all contract models, Inoue, a writing instructor at Washington State University, moves away from teacher-centered assessment and evaluation while encouraging students to take more initiative. But, more than in the previous models, Inoue seeks to create a classroom in which “students take control of all writing assignments, their instructions, assessment criteria, and the practices and reflective activities that go along with their writing.” Such an approach, he maintains, “encourages a community of writers that are implicated in each others’ writing and assessment practices, and gets them to critically engage with these practices.”

Inoue’s model underscores the fact that assessment is a vital component in the act of writing. He spends considerable time discussing with students what they want out of their papers and how they should be read and assessed. It is a complex and recursive process that begins when the class collectively creates its first assessment rubric, a set of guidelines that everyone agrees to, and that they will use both as writers and assessors. This first rubric will be revised continually as the class moves from the early stages of writing (paragraph writing) to position papers and final essays.

Any student can suggest a rubric revision or raise a question about the rubric at any time. To test and revise the iterated rubric, class members write two separate paragraphs, each receiving three peer assessments that use the in-process rubric. The class — instructor and students alike — uses what it has learned from the paragraph assessments to revise the rubric, which becomes the new starting point for on-going assignments, and so on. Over a month, each student writes a position paper, receives responses and assessments from the entire class (both on paper and through class discussions), posts a revision of the position paper based on those discussions and input, gets a more formal peer-assessment of the revision by a few colleagues, writes an essay (often based on the position paper), and finally receives a formal peer-evaluation of the essay. The same process is repeated for a second paper. (The process is schematized in the illustration below.)

ChartWhen the students assess each others’ writing, they are not looking to identify an “A” paragraph or an “exemplary,” or “outstanding” one. Rather they use the rubrics to help them identify proficient paragraphs, ones that reach the proficiency markers they set out at the start of the process. If a paragraph hits these markers, then it has done its job.

Here, for example, is what the class came up as a “proficient” paragraph with after their discussions: A proficient and adequate paragraph will . . .

  • Contain a consistent claim
  • Support claim with appropriate evidence (when needed)
  • Elicit thought on the part of the audience
  • Adapt to or consider its audience
  • Use clear and concise language
  • Use appropriate language and grammar
  • Contain three or more sentences

They continue to refine this set of criteria over the course of the semester.

As Inoue explains,

I try simply to provide the structures for my students to create a rubric, re-think it, write from it, use it to assess each other, and, of course, reflect continually upon all these practices. I distribute guidelines, provide due dates, post weekly reflection prompts, and pose additional questions in class that facilitate assessment discussions on student writing. In short, I try to coach them toward sound assessment practices and active learning stances by making them do the hard work of assessment. I encourage them to voice disagreement, show agreement, and elaborate and qualify ideas. I act as a facilitator, questioner, and listener when we talk about each other’s writing. I try to keep us focused on our rubric in our assessment discussions, yet not be a guard to ivory towers… Our class writing isn’t about what I want — it’s about what the class can agree on they want and can justify in some way so that agreements can be made… My students must debate and decide on all the important decisions regarding their writing in the course from start to finish. The class is about them learning not me teaching.

The key to making assessment work pedagogically, according to Inoue, is periodic reflection on the assessment activities. He does it once a week based on open-ended prompts to point the students to the areas he wants them to reflect on. Community-based assessment pedagogy also offers ways to build a pragmatic sense of community that is active and purposeful.

If our purpose, as teachers, in assessing and evaluating student writing is to help students learn — if assessment is inherently a learning practice (which I think it is) — then the teacher shouldn’t control all of the process. And Inoue concludes:

Community-based assessment pedagogy, as described here, boils down to three classroom imperatives: (1) encourage active learning stances by allowing students to assess and evaluate their own and their colleagues’ writing practices, and make these assessments meaningful and purposeful, (2) situate assessment practices within a community of knowledge makers who construct assessment rubrics and define and justify assessment practices, i.e., encourage the class to work for one another as mutual agents working with and for each other’s benefit, writing for each other, and negotiating hard agreements together, and (3) give lots of opportunities to reflect on assessment that speaks to the larger class community, in order to theorize about writing, rhetorical conventions, assessment, and the judging of writing from specific criteria, i.e., what we say about what we are doing (or did) can help us do it better in the future. In my versions of this pedagogy, these imperatives rest on a framework of recursive, repeated writing and assessment activities.


As you will have noticed, none of these models makes grading “easy.” Contract grading is not the contemporary equivalent of throwing the papers down the steps and handing out marks depending on where they land. But, by bringing students into the assessment process, contract grading can help make assessment criteria clearer, remove some subjective aspects of grading, bolster student learning, and build community. And, by foregrounding the grading process as reflective of the inherent power of faculty (i.e., we may be their friends, but ultimately we will give them grades), contract grading provides a needed “label” for students and an invitation to faculty to re-imagine classroom practices.

Some additional bibliography:

Elbow, Peter and Jane Danielwicz. “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching.” English Department Faculty Publication Series. Paper 3.

Huot, B. “Toward a new discourse of assessment for the college writing classroom.” College English 65 (2002): 163–180.

Inoue, Asao B. “Community-based Assessment Pedagogy.” Assessing Writing 9 (2005) 208–238.

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Moreno-Lopez, Isabel. “Sharing Power with Students: The Critical Language Classroom.” Radical Pedagogy 7:2 (2005).

Radican, Lynda S. “Contract Grades: An Agreement between Students and Their Teachers.” In Stephen Tchudi, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997, 285-290.

Shor, Ira. When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Tchudi, Stephen, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997.

Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design

Steven Volk, September 27, 2015

I’ve often thought that the more we can reveal to our students about why we design our classes as we do, or the more we can suggest the principles that underpin our assignments,  the more they would learn and the better they would do. I probably started thinking this way as a simple reaction against the “You need to do it this way because that’s what I’m asking for” approach, the teacher’s equivalent of the parental “Because!” response to a child’s “Why do I have to?” question. I continue to disclose the architecture of my course design because it offers an opportunity to discuss the way I apply learning theory to instructional design, bringing students in as collaborators in the complex process of teaching and learning. At the start of the semester, I’ll spend some time talking about constructivist theories of learning to explain why I rely more on discussion than lecture. I’m not always sure they fully understand what I’m talking about, and that is somewhat beside the point anyway since I don’t teach learning theory even though it informs my teaching (and my students’ learning). But clarifying the architecture that supports my course design is one way I have of inviting students into the club, as it were. By showing them academia’s “secret handshakes,” I felt I could make them feel both more in control of their learning and somewhat more self-confident about what they could achieve in my class.

Secret HandshakesNow I’ve discovered that there is some strong research to support my assumptions. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article about the work of Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her “Transparency Project.” Winkelmes, who trained as an art historian specializing in Renaissance art and architecture, served as the associate director of Harvard’s superb Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. She moved on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she organized the Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, an assessment project involving 25,000 students at 27 institutions in seven countries. The project aimed at disclosing more precisely what instructors could do to improve student learning.

Winkelmes’ results confirm what many of us have been doing for some time. If we make the process of teaching and learning explicit to students — especially those who don’t know what to expect from their college experience — we can have a significant impact on their learning. By the relatively simple act of letting students in on what Winkelmes calls “the secret, unwritten rules of how to succeed in college” (which are, essentially, my “secret handshakes”), we can actually impact their learning positively.

The Illinois project has two main goals: to promote students’ conscious understanding of how they learn, and to enable faculty to benefit from data about students’ learning by coordinating efforts across disciplines, institutions, and countries. The Transparency Initiative asks students about their perceptions of the current and future learning benefits they are gaining, complementing existing assessments of content mastery and teaching performance. It was designed to determine whether the information that many of us reported anecdotally – that students did better when they understood how and why instructors had structured their learning experiences in particular ways – would stand up in a rigorous research study.

Psychology Today_3 types of handshakes

We already know a fair amount about the impact of putting students more in control of their own learning. Metacognition research has demonstrated fairly consistently that students learn more and retain more of what they have learned when they have some control over how they are learning and are aware of the learning process itself. Further, we know that training students to understand how to take control over their learning will increase their academic success. (For those who want to pursue this further, you’ll find a short bibliography at the end of the article.) I should note that the surveys developed by Winkelmes avoided the typical limitations of student self-reports of learning (students tend to self-report greater mastery than actual performance reveals) by focusing on students’ reports of how much, or if, their learning experience affected their mastery of content and critical thinking skills. (Full details on the assessment study are here. Demographically, the responses to the survey closely matched the overall undergraduate population in the United States.)

Making the Unwritten Rules Visible in Assignment Design

Winkelmes is currently at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is the principal investigator of the project Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. There, she is trying to fit the findings of her Illinois Transparency Project into a simple protocol for assignment design that instructors can easily implement. Professors who have signed on to the project (click here if you want to join) are asked to take three questions on board when creating assignments. For me, they offer an useful way of thinking about how to design assignments whether or not you are a formal part of the Transparency Project, and two of the questions are valid for any classroom activity, graded or non-graded:

  1. The Task: What are you asking your students to do?
  2. The Purpose: Why do they have to do it?
  3. The Criteria: How will their work be evaluated?


Maybe it’s just me, but I’m continually amazed that after some 30+ years in teaching I still write assignments that, when prompted by student comments, I find to be relatively unclear and poorly written. It’s not surprising that the students don’t always know what I am asking of them, i.e., the task.  (In fact, after reading Winkelmes’ articles, I rushed to rewrite the first assignment for one of my current classes.) And perhaps that’s the problem: the longer we’re in this business, the more we operate with certain “unwritten rules” in mind, expecting that students will know exactly what we’re thinking about – even though we haven’t told them. Quite often, the only parts of the assignment that we are explicit about are the purely technical ones (12 point type, double spaced, no more than 5 pages, etc.). So, what is it we’re asking the students to do in the assignment?


Here I’m better, but it took some years of wandering before I got there. Do we make the purpose of the assignment explicit, or do we expect the students will some intuit it? Is an assignment fundamentally about testing recall of factual information? Using that information in the context of an argument? Using evidence to argue a position? Being able to see multiple sides of an argument or carrying out a certain task? Furthermore, is the information we provide students about the purpose of the paper explicit, or written in our insiders shorthand?  Do we think that we’re giving something away by disclosing this, and that they should figure it out by themselves? The research Winkelmes has gathered is fairly convincing that the clearer we are in addressing the purpose of the assignment, the better our students will do.

Criteria for Assessment

Many faculty provide students with grading rubrics as a way of making their assessment criteria perfectly clear. Others include these details within the body of the assignment. However one does it, informing students as to how they will be graded will help them approach the assignment with greater clarity, increase their sense of control, and add to their self-confidence. If performance criteria aren’t specified, it can increase student anxiety besides leading students to focus their work on aspects of the assignment that aren’t what we intended. Again, we often assume that students know what we are asking for without our having to say it. Quite often, they don’t.

Don’t they get it anyway?

But what if they do? Many of our students seem to do perfectly well without these particular prompts. Is it that they are just smarter (and deserve a better grade) or are better able to read our minds and figure out what we’re asking for? Well, they’re not any smarter, but they might be able to read our minds better because they have a greater grasp of these “unwritten rules” of higher education. What they have, according to Tara J. Yosso, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is “navigational capital”; they understanding the rules of the game. Students who have had strong preparation through high school, who have taken a boatload of AP or IB courses, attended college courses while in high school, or whose parents are college teachers (which is often the case at Oberlin) know how to read a syllabus, how to locate the unwritten assumptions of an assignment, or – most importantly – have the confidence to ask the professor for guidance if the assignment isn’t clear to them. First-generation students, low-income, or historically underrepresented students, on the other hand, have come to college with all the “smarts” needed to do well in their classes, but they may lack the “navigational capital,” not to mention the self-confidence, to succeed.

So, should we be writing out the unwritten rules for them alone? The answer to that falls squarely within the realm of universal design. The basic principle of universal design is the importance of constructing a curriculum, a class, or an entire education that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. By constructing assignments that specifically write out the unwritten rules (task, purpose, criteria), we not only are helping those who might not know the rules, but literally everyone in the class. But there’s more: Writing these three simple points into the assignment helps us focus and be explicit in terms of what we are asking students to do, why we are asking the to do this, and how we will grade them. Everyone’s a winner.


Benefits of transparent teaching and learning methods

Beyond these three points of assignment design, Winkelmes’ survey results suggest a few fairly easy but important practices that can improve both current and future learning in different disciplines and for different class sizes. The information below comes from her article published in Liberal Education (Spring 2013, Vol. 99:2), “Transparency in Teaching: Faculty Share Data and Improve Students’ Learning.”

In humanities courses at the introductory undergraduate level, two practices seem to benefit students’ current course learning experiences depending on the size of the class:

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment (in classes ranging in size from thirty-one to sixty-five students).
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class (in classes ranging in size from sixty-six to three hundred students).

In social science courses at the introductory undergraduate level, particularly in mid-sized level classes (31-65 students) several transparent methods have statistically significant benefits for students’ current course learning experiences:

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment.
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class.

In larger introductory courses in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the following transparent methods have statistically significant benefits for students’ current course learning experiences and for their future learning:

  • Explicitly connect “how people learn” data with course activities when students struggle at difficult transition points.
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals before students begin each assignment.

Students at the intermediate and advanced levels in STEM courses (again, larger classes) indicated that the following methods are helpful to their current and future learning:

  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class.

As with the material on writing assignments, Winkelmes reports that many of these practices are especially beneficial for underrepresented students, for those who can’t read the unwritten rules of the game as easily as students who are more familiar with college settings. Not only do these practices improve their academic self-confidence, but it gives them a greater sense of control over their learning. What’s not to like?


A Bit of Bibliography

Cohen, P. A. 1980. “Effectiveness of Student-Rating Feedback for Improving College Instruction: A Meta-Analysis of Findings.” Research in Higher Education 13 (4): 321–41.

Dunlosky, J., and J. Metcalfe. 2009. Metacognition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Francis, G. E., J. P. Adams, and E. J. Noonan. 1998. “Do They Stay Fixed?” The Physics Teacher 36 (8): 488–90.

Gynnald, V., A. Holstad, and D. Myrhaug. 2008. “Identifying and Promoting Self-Regulated Learning in Higher Education: Roles and Responsibilities of Student Tutors.” Mentoring & Tutoring 16 (2): 147–61.

Light, R. J. 1990. The Harvard Assessment Seminars: Explorations with Students and Faculty about Teaching, Learning, and Student Life. First Report. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Nelson, T. O., and J. Dunlosky. 1991. “When People’s Judgments of Learning Are Extremely Accurate at Predicting Subsequent Recall: The Delayed JOL Effect.” Psychological Science 2 (4): 267–70.

Perry, R., N. C. Hall, and J. C. Ruthig. 2007. “Perceived (Academic) Control and Scholastic Attainment in Higher Education.” In The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: An Evidence-Based Perspective, edited by R. P. Perry and J. C. Smart, 477–552. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Let’s Talk About It: Fostering productive class discussions

Steve Volk, September 6, 2015

There are no general rules for stimulating a good class discussion…OK, so there are. But they are not so much rules as a set of understandings, things we probably all know but don’t always remember to practice. Of all the topics that faculty are interested in, particularly new faculty, this is the one I get most often. I’ve written about this before (for example here and here), but it’s a good question to consider again.

Do you believe? I don’t think we would be here if we didn’t believe this, but to state the obvious: Discussion (by which I mean both the back-and-forth with students that takes place within a more lecture-driven pedagogy and longer discussion-centered classes) will probably not go the way we hope if we don’t believe there is any pedagogical utility in student discussion, If we solicit student input only when answering our questions or when asking us to clarify points we raise in lecture. That certainly was the standard when I began teaching; I no longer think it is.

Good discussions are built on an understanding that students learn by taking an active part in their own education. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, criticized what he called the “banking theory” of education in which “the students [and he was talking about adult learners] are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits…But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

Discussions work best when we see them as a central part of student learning and make them an important aspect of our pedagogies.

Habits form quickly. We all know that by the second class of the semester, 90% of the students will be sitting in the same seat they occupied in the first class. And this will continue all semester; it becomes a matter of habit. The same is true about talking and listening. Many (if not most) students will quickly fall into the habit of talking…or remaining largely silent. In our smaller seminars, particularly the First Year Seminars, we almost always have every students speak during the very first class: they may introduce themselves, suggest why they are interested in the class, discuss some aspect of their background, or speak of what they hope to get out of the class the class. Those are good things to know, but the basic idea is to get the students talking so that they quickly feel comfortable with their own voices.

We don’t do the same in larger classes, often because there are too many people for everyone to speak, but the same proposition holds true. If students learn from the start that their primary role in class is to listen and not speak, it will not prove surprising that they won’t engage as easily when we do ask them to enter into a discussion  with their classmates. (To be sure: there are always those who are not only willing to talk, but often dominate any conversation, leaving little room for others – but more on strategies for dealing with this later.)

The bottom line is that if you understand that discussion is essential to student learning and want to encourage rich discussions in your class, make sure that your students develop the habit of talking from the very start and try to build in opportunities for discussion continually, not just on one day a week or only at the end of the lecture.

Slow is better. Except in seminar settings, and even there, student voices are most often encouraged when we ask students to answer a question we pose. Certainly there are a lot of times we ask so-called “known answer” questions as a way to discover whether they did the assigned reading or can fill in a specific piece of information (although asking such questions can produce a deadening stupor, as anyone familiar with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off will recall: “Anyone? Anyone?”).

More often we ask questions which require students to think more deeply about an issue but don’t necessarily want to break the class into smaller groups to discuss them. In these cases, the answer is neither obvious nor easy, and unless you want the same hands to shoot up each time, you need to give the students time to think and consider before answering. You can say, “wait a few seconds before answering,” but you’ll still get the same hands going up. Instead, have them write their answers or briefly discuss with the person next to them. Not only does that give them time to think, but it also makes it easier for you to call on a student who doesn’t normally talk in class. “Katie – I see that you’re writing away. What did you come up with?” (There are teachers, to be sure, who adopt what I would call the “enforced” Socratic method, like Professor Kingsfield, the contracts law professor in The Paper Chase.  And there is some value in that method – not the Kingsfield humiliation approach, but as a way to see that students come to class well prepared.) But understanding that students need time to prepare responses to complex question (as do we), is one way to get broader participation and more informed responses while avoiding both “Anyone-Anyone” moments and discussions that always revolve around the same few students.

Anatomy-Poster-French-head-238x300Save the harder for later. I have noticed that in seminars in which students are expected to take the lead in discussions, they often start the class by asking what I would consider to be the most difficult questions, the kinds of questions that usually require the students to synthesize the subject matter and come to a conclusion before the discussion has even begun.  And I also realized that I often did the same thing: I would open the discussion (at 9:00 AM, no less) with a question that not only couldn’t be answered then, but was certain to stop any discussion dead in its tracks.

When planning for student participation in class, whether a lecture-centered class or a discussion-based seminar, try to begin with those questions that are both easier to get at (perhaps descriptive or informational questions) and build to the more analytic, synthetic questions as the student, you, and the discussion get warmed up. You will generate more participation and bring along more students.

Good scaffolds make good buildings. Moving from the back-and-forth question and answer of a lecture class to a seminar-style discussion or any class in which student input is primary, the best chance to generate a productive discussion is by helping students prepare with clear expectations and prompts to guide them through the readings or other homework. What should they be looking for? How should they be preparing for the discussion? Will they be expected to lead the discussion? Will you set the pattern of staying (largely) silent or can they count on you to “rescue” them when the discussion stalls in silence?

And when you give students a set of prompts to be thinking about, try to stick to them when you open the discussion. More than once I realized that I gave my students a set of questions to help them prepare the reading and then I asked a completely different set of questions in class. It’s not that we have to stick unalterably to a scripts that we have written, but if students see no relation between what you’ve asked them to think about and what you’re asking them to talk about, they are not likely to generate a good discussion.

Responsible talking, responsible listening. Whether in a seminar setting or having divided your class into smaller groups, it is useful to employ some practices to support the discussion. There are two key roles in the discussion section: responsible talking and active listening. To support the first, give the students a sense of what it means to be a responsible participant in the group. Obviously, it means being prepared for the discussion by having completed and thought about the reading, trying to stay on topic, and encouraging others to talk as well. It also means attempting to move the discussion forward. Which brings up active listening. A good discussion is built on the fact that students are not (just) queuing up with a Medical-Illustration-Hearing-NLM-211x300set of things they want to say even though those points have already been made. They are listening to their colleagues in an active way so that even if they repeat some of what has been said, they also try to move the discussion to a new point. (For tips on active listening, see here.) You can do some things to support this by having students adopt (and exchange) certain roles in the discussion. You might want one student to be a note taker and another to be in charge of facilitating the discussion or reporting back to the class. (You can find different report-back strategies here.)

Unless you assign regular discussion groups at the start of the semester, you can encourage more participation by arranging discussion groups to have different students in them each time, particularly if you find that students always sit in the same seats and you tend to form discussion groups by having students talk to those sitting closest to them. While quick discussions will inevitably rely on turning to one’s neighbors, for longer discussions you might want to mix the groups up, setting them up by “counting-off” or other techniques. The latest suggestion I read on how to do this comes from George Williams in ProfHacker who uses playing cards to establish groups in a large class. (For example, to set up groups of four, pass out the cards and have those who draw the same number form a group. This may seem an unnecessary waste of time, but students might also find it intriguing.)

Finally, if you are interested in different ways to assess student discussions, please refer to the Article of the Week for February 18, 2013 (Assessing Student Discussions). You can find this on CTIE’s Blackboard site.

Do you have other ways to encourage student discussions? Share them with us by posting a comment.

Closing Time: Managing the End of the Semester

Steve Volk (April 28, 2014)

(Note: This is a revised and updated version of “Topics in Teaching and Learning” written on May 9, 2011).

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, yeah,” Semisonic

The end of the semester, like the first week, poses specific challenges to teachers. For most of us, it feels like we’re in a head-long rush to complete the syllabus, hand out evaluations [Check back to the “Article of the Week” from December 8, 2010 for tips on how to read your Student Evaluations], and prepare students for final exams or papers, all the while trying to achieve closure on the semester. It’s also a time when both student and faculty energy levels have bottomed out, even more so in the spring semester. It probably goes without saying that the best way to end the semester is the way that works for you. But here are some suggestions that have come up over the years from my own practice and some that I’ve taken from other teaching and learning centers.

Icky List - Wait But Why

  • Revisit the course goals written in your syllabus with your class. This is a good time to synthesize the main points covered in your course by way of a discussion of the goals you established at the start of the semester and what you, in fact, were able to accomplish. It’s yet one more way to help students reflect on the design of your course, why you structured it as you did, and how the assignments they have completed (along with the final assignment) were there to help the students accomplish the course objectives. The review allows students to step back somewhat from the course content in order to examine what they have accomplished on a broader level.
  • After you have revisited the syllabus and the course goals with students, you can open time for student reflection and self-assessment, encouraging them to think about how they have achieved the course’s goals, what they still need to do before taking a final exam or writing their last paper. You can extend this by asking students to write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation. This allows them to reflect on their performance and behavior in the class. Such an exercise goes substantially beyond the self-assessment questions on the Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) forms which they will be getting, and hopefully will help them think about their own learning and the next classes they want to take.  One instructor (Ted Panitz, a math teacher at Cape Cod Community College) asks his students the following:
  • Has your approach to math changed during this course or compared to previous courses? How?
  • Have your attitudes or feelings about math changed?
  • How do you feel you performed in this course?
  • What would you do differently if you had a chance to do this all over again?

Information Overload - Creative Commons (http://www.principals.com.au)

One question you might want to consider, particularly for a class in which there has been a substantial amount of discussion, is to ask students to reflect on their own participation in the discussions and whether they thought they intervened in a way that supported (everyone’s) learning in the classroom or whether it had the effect of isolating or silencing other students.

If you want, you can also add sections which encourage students to suggest ways you can improve class procedures or ask how they feel about particular teaching approaches you have used that semester and would like to hear specific feedback.

  • Have students create a concept map of the course they are completing. (For tips, see the “Article of the Week” from March 14, 2011.)
  • Student presentations often occur in the last few weeks of the semester. I know of one instructor who has her students present a short lesson for the class on the issue, topic, or theme that they found most difficult or challenging during the semester. It is an excellent way for students to prepare for exams, since we all know that teaching a subject is the best way to learn it.
  • Encourage your students to revisit earlier writing (or other) assignments in the course as a way to measure their own learning in the class, to assess what they have learned and the areas in which they still feel unconsolidated. One way to do this is to ask students to bring their papers to class and then break them into smaller groups where they can discuss their papers with peers.
  • In a similar fashion, you can have students in small groups discuss how their thinking has changed over the course of the semester. They can take notes for themselves (and/or for you).

This can include new appreciations for the content covered, for their own strengths and weaknesses, or for meta issues as they reflect on their own learning.

  • Students can be encouraged to discuss what they consider to be the critical moments in the course: insights they have had; content that they have found most surprising; highlights in the course.
  • By way of course review for exams, you can group students to collaborate on one or two typical exam questions involving analysis, synthesis, application, etc.

Learning from the Semester

In an “Article of the Week” from November 25, 2013, I offered three ways for faculty to look back and learn from the semester that just ended. Here (again) are some questions to think about:

  • What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?
  • Why do you think that happened? Link outcomes to your teaching methods.
  • Do you think you achieved your learning goals for the course? This, of course, should lead you back to your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.
  • What do you think basically didn’t work in the course? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking: next time, I just won’t do that?
  • As above: Why did you (or didn’t you) reach your learning objectives? Link outcomes to your teaching approach.
  • Getting concrete: what do you want to at least think about doing differently next time?
  • Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people and what are the resources that can help?

    Procrastination - Creative Common images

Stress and Anxiety

While we all know this at some basic level, it is useful to keep in mind how stressful the end of the semester can be for students – and for faculty. We all have a lot to do, and there are many crunch-time challenges. In terms of students, we all notice a general increase in their tiredness and, often, illness. But we should also be aware of times when stress turns into anxiety and when our usual techniques for helping students regain their footing and confidence could use some extra support. Don’t forget the help that can be provided by the Dean of Students’ office, the Counseling Center, the Dean of Studies office or Student Academic Services. If you are not sure whom you should be talking to, always start with the class deans. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, some 40 million college students suffer from an anxiety disorder and 75% will have an anxiety episode by age 22. For more on coping with student stress, see my “Article of the Week” for September 2, 2013.

Saying Good-bye…

.… can be a lot harder than you imagine, and it’s not unusual to feel a sense of loss as the semester (the year and, for your seniors, a college career) come to an end. Even after many years teaching, I’m often still amazed at how hard this can be.

So, don’t be afraid to offer your students some parting thoughts even though this might sound really cheesy. If you mean them, your students will appreciate them.

I often tell my students that, once they have graduated, I’m happy to have them as “friends” on Facebook and that it actually means a lot to me that they keep in touch, let me know how they are doing and what they’re up to.

And, of course, this is the time for any end-of-semester ritual that you may have developed (donuts, sing-a-longs, poetry reading, etc.).


From Josh Eyler’s blog (“A Lifetime’s Training: Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”), a post that I included at the end of the Fall 2013 semester, “The Final Class of the Semester”:

On every final exam I have ever given, I have written a note expressing my thanks to students for their work over the course of the semester.  In this note, I also include quotes from two movies.  The first is from Back to the Future, one of my favorite comedies.  Towards the end of the film and after many hijinks have ensued, Marty McFly says to the 1955 versions of his parents, “It’s been…educational.”  I use this quote to inject a little levity into the generally high-stressed atmosphere of the exam and hopefully also to emphasize the ways in which we have all learned from each other.

The other quote that I use is from Dead Poets Society.  Love it or hate it, the movie has some powerful things to say.  The quote that I borrow from the film is not the over-used ‘Carpe Diem,’ but instead the line that follows it:  ‘Make your lives extraordinary.’

Most of all, this is what I hope for each of my students, and I wish them all the very best.

And two end-of-semester haikus from the blogger at “Confessions of a Community College Dean” (Inside Higher Ed.com):

temper tantrums fly

yet are mercifully brief

who has energy?

amazed at colleagues

miracles on a shoestring

take a bow, people

“You can’t measure what we teach.”

Inside Higher Ed – Dec. 4, 2008

“You can’t measure what we teach.”

“The results [of what our students gain in the classroom] won’t be known for 10 years.”

“You’re just going to use the information to evaluate us.”

Those are just a few of the responses that Orin L. Grossman, academic vice president at Fairfield University, said he has heard from faculty members — especially in the humanities — who resist the notion that they and their colleges must find ways to measure how, and how much, their students learn in the classroom. “Their view tends to be that we should simply trust the faculty, and that the role of the administration is to keep scrutiny of them at arm’s length,” Grossman said.

His comments came Wednesday during a session on assessing student outcomes in the humanities at the annual meeting of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accrediting agency for that part of the country. The meeting took place in Boston.

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