It’s the end of my third semester teaching.  It’s the first semester that I’ve used a radically different grading policy.  I’ve got a pile of stuff in the “drafts” folder that I’d like to clear out; so, this is the first in a series of Semester In Review posts.  Since the major change that I made was about assessment, it makes sense to start there.

Test Schedule Before

3-4 major tests, each 2 hours long, stressful, difficult, full of challenging synthesis problems.  Answers were rarely numbers; more often they were recommendations, arguments in favour/against a position, etc.

Result:

Students who entered the program with strong problem-solving skills were able to display those skills.  The rest found that the best strategy was to throw as much stuff at the paper as they could think of, and hope that something stuck.  The tests were awful to grade.  It was often unclear whether students actually believed their own train of thought.  If they were on the wrong track, it was hard to tell which part they didn’t understand.  There were often many defensible answers, and it was easy to award full marks to any one of them; but there was no really fair way to award fractional marks.  The students took one look at their mark, shrugged, and filed the test paper in the “forget” pile.  If they didn’t have any insight into their problem-solving habits before the test, they had none after.  Those who did poorly had no idea what to improve — or that there was any point in improving, since the points couldn’t be gotten back and they couldn’t know that those skills would be needed next semester or maybe next week.

Test Schedule After

Now I give shorter quizzes every week instead of long tests/exams.  The quizzes include both “exercises” (applying standard procedures) and “problems” (questions requiring students to synthesize, choose or evaluate procedures, etc.).  For any synthesis skill, I also assess the components individually. There are no fractional grades; you’ve either demonstrated the skill or not.  I store each skill’s status (complete or incomplete) as a 1 or 0 in my gradebook.  If you miss a question, you can ask to retry it any Wednesday afternoon.  As many Wednesdays as you want (I reserve the right to redirect students who are reassessing without making progress).

Result:

I have a better grip on what each student does and doesn’t know.  They have a better grip on their own understanding.  Grading is easier and faster. Students actually go back and fix up their misunderstandings.  This makes the rest of the courses infinitely less painful — for all of us.

Then there are the Wednesday reassessments.  Mostly they’re just a quiz buffet.  As each student finishes their quiz(zes), they sit down with me to find out how they did.  We review the quiz together, which has all the above-mentioned benefits about immediate feedback.  But there’s another hidden gem here: this is an instant tutoring session — on exactly what they need to learn.  Some students who would not otherwise book a tutoring session with me end up sitting down and having conversations about all kinds of things.

Quizzes have a new lease on life.  If students don’t necessarily salivate at the thought of another one, at least quizzes don’t seem like “the enemy” any more.  A class discussion recently concluded “the more quizzes, the better.”  Yes, there’s some point-chasing and question-memorizing tucked in there.  But there’s some willingness, maybe even eagerness, to discover progress.  It’s a start.

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