April 25, 2017

Grading. The often loathsome task we, as educators, describe as everything from a necessary evil, to a sorting mechanism, to the greatest impediment to studentlearning. Every pejorative term possible has been leveled at the process of grading. However, in a realm of grading where it is indeed a necessity, hope springs eternal for ways to make the process better. And, dare I say, even make grading something to be excited about.

During a recent morning review of my Twitter feed, I noticed a colleague talking about the re-design of assignments to not only better enable students to demonstrate what they have learned, but more so to make them something that would be interesting to grade. Inspired by the idea, I posted the query to our very own TeachNet list: “Tell me about the assignments that you are most excited to grade.” After receiving responses from faculty across the campus and disciplines, several themes emerged. Below, I list the emerging themes and practices that define assignments faculty are most excited to grade.

  1. Students are asked to produce something of their own. Rather than fill in a prescribed sheet, or select from given answers, assignments can push students to take course material and concepts into an application or analysis of something novel and new. Sometimes this takes the shape of students having a choice in topics for a paper or project. Other times, students are forced to think about the evidence learned through the course and use it creatively. As Michelle Douskey (Chemistry) explains, “I am most excited to grade things that might surprise me.” Try passing Chem1A without being able to present on “Why does slicing onions make you cry?” or “Why is Kevlar so strong?” or “Why is baking soda a good deodorizer?” Students choose a topic of interest and through their research on it, connecting it to concepts like molecular structures and properties.

  2. If surprise gets you excited to grade, then giving students the freedom to choose the form of the outcome of the assignment may be a theme of great interest. Across examples, faculty reference assignments where there is a good deal of variation in the answers as a design method to avoid tedium. In some instances, this manifests as incorporating options for student output - e.g., presenting work through different art forms (theater, dance, poetry, song, painting, etc.). This may appear to be restrictive to certain disciplines, but the principle can be applied anywhere. Admittedly, faculty report that it takes a lot of thought to design an assignment and develop a rubric that will elicit the required elements and concepts to be demonstrated in a way that is feasible across possible forms. Stuck on how to even begin re-imagining an assignment that could take on various forms? Start with #3 below.

  3. Whether through options, or by prescription, have the assignment put students in the position of addressing a different, specific audience. Instead of the usual assignments where students complete it strictly for you, the instructor, try to make the outcome focused elsewhere. This could mean having students turn what was a research paper just for you into a public blog directed at a broader academic audience, or at non-academic audiences. Or, it could mean simply directing students to compose the assignment for a targeted audience (e.g., create a resource guide that could be given to community members to educate them on the topic; teach this concept, skill, technique to high school students interested in the discipline). In one inspired example, Henrike Christiane Lange (Art History and Italian Studies) gave students an option to produce a research-based final creative project in the large survey course she teaches. The students generated such outstanding works in a variety of media that she then decided to “make an exhibition of it; you can see it on the 4th floor of Doe.” Moving forward, such projects might be started off with the expectation that student work will be displayed in an online exhibit. Changing the audience for an assignment necessarily changes the way students must think about its process, composition, and final outcome. This leads to natural opportunities to further promote learning through reflection and commentary.

  4. Reviewing an answer or response can be interesting, yet it appears faculty find it much more interesting to couple that with asking students for some type of commentary or reflection within assignments. Essentially, asking students to provide a rationale for any answer or response. It can be as simple as coupling any question prompt for an assignment with a question asking “Why?” The articulation of their approach and process is both enlightening to assess where understanding and misunderstanding are taking place, and also much more compelling to read (think about the difference in reading a bulleted list of facts versus a story that situates those facts in context - the context behind an assignment completed is infinitely more interesting).

  5. Time and again, faculty report finding grading much more engaging when the assignment asks students to connect in-class work/topics with their authentic, lived environments. These kinds of assignments put students in the position of investigating and interpreting data, and taking on multiple points of view. Fang Xu (Interdisciplinary Studies) explains that her favorite assignment to grade is “designed to connect personal experience with the theoretical and analytical framework covered in class, to encourage students to think beyond the classroom setting, and to engage with real world issues.” In the same vein, Brian Powers (Sociology) recounts his excitement in grading a semester-long project in the Sociology of Education course where students explore the “ways a site of teaching and learning have been shaped by policy and features of the social structure, and contribute to observable effects on learners - on identities, aspiration, engagement, or strategic behavior.”

  6. As students connect in-class experience with the world in which they live, they begin to see how the disciplinary modes of thinking inform how they view and experience the world. This means designing assignments where students will actually do the work of the discipline in an appropriate context and at an appropriate level - asking disciplinary questions, moving through disciplinary approaches to answer those questions, and ultimately generating answers or arguments that can be supported in discipline-specific ways. Faculty reference excitement when grading assignments based on data and questions that drove their own dissertation, or even current research projects. In Computer Science, Pieter Abbeel raves about the enjoyment he, his GSIs, and his students get from doing their applied projects every two weeks, consolidating what's been covered during that time. He relays, “The projects in particular end up being very popular, as students get to see their AI (artificial intelligence) in action.” It’s one thing for students to recall what was taught (and I don’t know many would call that learning). It’s quite another thing for students to take what was taught and transform it into something where they are actively engaged with the discipline itself - through creation, synthesis, analysis, critique, interpretation, etc.

  7. Not everything exciting is easy, or fast. In fact, it is clear from faculty responses that the most exciting assignments to grade often take the most time to grade. But, all say that the time is worth it. Dan Acland (Public Policy) expresses it best when speaking about his "milestone" assignments given to the project groups in his benefit-cost analysis class: “I always think I'm going to hate it, because it is very time consuming. I always wind up loving it because it involves a lot of intellectual heavy lifting on my part, of a kind I really enjoy.” The sentiment is shared by Margaretta Lovell (Art History) for the research assignment in her "American Architecture: Domestic Forms" course, where she explains, “I eagerly look forward to reading the student papers as each is original research and exhibits extraordinary competence and confidence. Students who are not 'up' for the challenge of real research drop the class as soon as they see what is necessarily involved. The cohort of 25 to 40 who complete the class are incredibly (and justly) proud of themselves and of the life-long skills they have learned.” And, in some instances and disciplines, there’s a workaround. Software tools like auto-graders are being used across many disciplines, and quite heavily in courses that rely on coding. These tools automatically grade student code so that instructors can focus their assessment and feedback on the more conceptual pieces of an assignment (often the most interesting aspects).

  8. The final theme is presented last because it is the most comprehensive. Partly apparent in faculty comments, partly evident in the assignment sheets themselves, and mostly illustrated in the course syllabus, a really great assignment that aligns with the themes above and is exciting to grade can (and often does) completely inform the overall course design. These assignments do not happen in a vacuum. One look at a syllabus for any of these courses reveals how the goals for student learning and the teaching and learning activities are all anchored by the assignment/s. From a very pragmatic standpoint, we don’t (or shouldn’t) design classes by coming up with how to teach/learn the material and then devise an assessment. The goals for student learning come first, then determining what assignments would best allow students to demonstrate their level of mastery of those goals, and THEN we devise teaching and learning experiences that will prepare them for those assignments and to meet the goals. Della Peretti (Education) explained the impact of a great assignment she was excited to grade on the rest of a course, “Expanding the range of what an assignment should look like changed my teaching forever, deepened my understanding of and interactions with students, and heightened student interest in the material in all cases. It was like magic. I couldn’t wait to review student work once it was turned in!”

Grading got you down? It doesn’t have to. You’ve just been exposed to tangible ways to (re)design assignments to not only promote student learning, but transform them into something you may even be excited to grade.

Still have questions? Want help turning a vision into a concrete assignment? Need a thought partner in (re)design? Contact us in the Center for Teaching and Learning to arrange a consultation (teaching@berkeley.edu). We’re here to help!