Thursday, October 29, 2015

Grading Collaborative Writing in the College Classroom

We’ve all witnessed the reactions to mention of the dreaded group project.  Worse still, the deafening collective gasp of shock when talk of a collaborative paper is thrown in the mix.  It’s no secret that college students fear group assignments, and with the difficulties of scheduling meetings, separating work, and relying on complete strangers to do their portion of the project with as much vigor and studious focus as one would do it individually?  Well, needless to say, it can be a stressful concept.

In fact, I can remember back to my first college group paper, and the ultimate betrayal I felt when I stayed up night after night researching, organizing, and writing, only to find out that my other group members waited until the day before it was due to do their own portions.  Then, it’s like some sort of unwritten code among the student body (especially in freshman level courses, mind you) to make sure that everyone gets an adequate grade on the peer evaluations.  The peer pressure in that alone is enough to make one question why they didn’t just do the entire project on their own from the get-go.

So, amidst all of this struggle, one question remains:  how is it possible to adequately and fairly grade a collaborative group project or paper?

An article released by Carnegie Mellon listed the different options concerning individual grading on a group scale.  One of these options was to have each student write a reflective journal piece to hand in with their group work.  This journal includes the things they struggled with individually with the project and how they overcame those struggles, and then also discusses the overall contributions of each group member, how often the group met before handing in their project, and any other details students might like to share with you concerning the completion of the project.  If you are planning on utilizing this type of assessment, make sure students know that their responses in these journals will remain confidential, and only you will be reading them.  Other ideas included individual quizzes or exams after group papers have been handed in to make sure all members of the group were equally fluent on the content their paper or project addressed.

If you’d like to be a little more personal with your assessments, and the class size isn’t too daunting, have students schedule individual conferences with you to discuss how the collaborative side of things went.  That way, you can take notes, and it enables you to discuss the importance of group roles within your classroom beforehand.  If students enter a project knowing that they will have to face you with information on their contribution, and that others will be telling you directly about their contributions as well, chances are they will be at least slightly more motivated to put their fair share of effort forth.

It's also strongly recommended that you never give a flat group grade to every person within the group.  Since students tend to split work among themselves in order to then bring their pieces together to create a larger cohesive piece, it might be beneficial for group members to label portions they personally are able to take credit for before handing in the finished product.  That way, you are able to better assess individual portions as well as take into account the finished product as a whole.  Utilizing a rubric that hosts point values for both the collaborative and individual aspects separately will help make grading and providing feedback seamless and consistent.

Tip Provided By:  Jessica Moser

Monday, October 19, 2015

Textbooks and Active Note-Taking Strategies

I remember taking my first textbook centered class in college.  We read chapters at a time and then listened to lectures on the content.  It seemed pretty standard at the beginning, but after the introduction and beginning chapters were over, and we began with more in-depth material, I quickly became overwhelmed.  There I was, sitting on the floor of my freshman dorm room, an arrayed collection of highlighters within easy reach, a notebook perched precariously on my lap, and I had no idea where to start.

That semester, I think I spent more time in my professor's office than in my dorm room, asking questions, and trying to better understand the content.  I got a tutor for the subject.  I asked friends for help.  Nothing seemed to work.  That was, until a friend of mine, two years my senior, suggested I look up tips on reading a textbook.  I had scoffed.  I was an English major.  I didn't need tips on how to read.  Reading was my life!  But to humor her, or maybe just to try and prove her wrong, I spent some time googling, and realized: I didn't know how to read a textbook.

I would put money on the fact that this is a hugely widespread issue that many college students have to work through.  Luckily, some of them are able to figure it out on their own with enough time and practice, but some students aren't as fortunate--spending semester after semester struggling with understanding content simply because they don't know how to effectively read or organize it once they understand it.

As it turns out, the key to reading a textbook has nothing to do with the actual act of reading, but instead, the ways in which students process, take notes on, and study the information they read about.  Therefore, the real problem has to do with how students work with the information they are given, and most of them are doing it wrong.

What most students perceive as good note-taking etiquette, is actually the opposite.  Students highlight full pages of text, they write down vocabulary words and only focus on the definitions, not the use of the words themselves.  They make flash cards and focus on route memorization to get them through tests.  They write things word-for-word from their texts, expecting that to be enough of a tool to remember what it means.  In reality, none of these things are effective learning techniques, and instead, have been proven across the board to promote a less engaged system of memory retention.

Instead, students should be using active note-taking procedures: putting things into their own words, making real-world or personal connections to the things they read, jotting things down in the margins instead of highlighting, or summarizing each page with one or two main thoughts written on sticky notes.  They should be considering titles, subtitles, and reviewing the questions that are at the end of the chapter before they even begin reading.

My proposal is this: for professors that choose to utilize textbooks, the first class of the semester can be used to show examples of how to effectively read and take notes on chapters within their texts.  Explain that there are several different techniques they can use (like the ones listed in the previous paragraph), but using an entire highlighter per chapter is not the way to go about it--mostly because it won't help them remember any of it, but also because they're college students and highlighters are expensive.

Look for resources (like this video) that might be helpful in illustrating how to put active note-taking skills to good use, and share them with your students before you begin the semester to make sure they're getting the most from your class, and you're getting the most from them.

Tip Provided By:  Jessica Moser 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Teaching Large Classes: Getting Students to Utilize Feedback

Grading and providing feedback is one of the most time consuming things that instructors must do.  Rubrics, written comments, point systems, whatever your grading method may be, it’s no question that you devote a large amount of time using it to provide constructive feedback to your students.  But what happens when those comments, suggestions, and point values are never read?  When students simply skip over your handwritten responses to glance at the letter grade and stuff the assignment away?  How do we get students to not just read the feedback that is provided to them, but to also take it constructively to use on future work?
Surprisingly, the first step to curing this problem is reconsidering the ways in which you provide the feedback itself.  According to Maryellen Weimer in her article “Getting Students to Act on our Feedback,” the feedback we so often provide to students tends to be more about justifying the grade we’ve awarded rather than highlighting what a student needs to do to improve.  Instead, include “three or four specific suggestions that target what the student should work on to improve the next assignment.”

I know what you’re saying, “But that still won’t help if the students aren’t actually reading the feedback anyway!”  Weimer provides a solution to that as well.  She suggests providing students with a few minutes in class to look over and read through their feedback, and then asking them to write an action plan on how they will use that feedback to improve their work in the future.  This action plan doesn’t have to be long, just a few statements will do.  You could even have students start with the same opening line, “Based on the teacher’s feedback and my own assessment of this work, here are the three things I plan to improve in the next assignment.” 

If you don’t particularly like the paragraph response as an option, try one of these instead:

  • Write in revisions – this is a particularly helpful method with papers and written work.  Have students turn in their work a second time, but making note of the revisions they made according to the comments and suggestions that you had provided on their first-round paper.
  • Collaborative revisions – have students bring in their work to review with someone near them.  Students should focus on the feedback you provided and then decide on ways that each of them could utilize that feedback to revise their work.
These assignments encourage students to take the constructive criticism you’ve provided and use it to become better writers, thinkers, and studiers in the future.

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser