The issue of assessment has already come up a couple of times this semester. On my syllabus, I told learners that I would not be using any form of quantified grading. I explained that I would not be attaching a number to anyone's writing. Instead, I explained that I would be responding honestly to their work and giving them feedback based on my personal reaction to their writing. At the end of this explanation I slipped in, "that means you will get an 'A' as long as you do all the work and turn it in on time."
I initially thought that the primary issue arising out of this would be the power that I was (perhaps) relinquishing. It was my intention that this policy would lead students to take more risks, to write in a more personalized way, and to get beyond the need to conform to a set of technical norms. Perhaps this will still happen, but if it does, it won't simply be because I have removed grades.... it will require a positive alternative that transforms this policy from 'the absence of grades' into 'the presence of... well... something else.'
A student visited me in my office yesterday. He had a specific question about a lesson we had done on 'agency' in descriptive writing (I'll post on that shortly). After clarifying the gist of the lesson, he proceeded to pull out the written assignment I had just returned to him. He asked me, "where can I find the score for my assignment?" I looked at his paper and saw a few of my own comments scrawled here and there around his short essay. He went on, "when I was in high school, my teacher always commented on specific problems and gave me a score so I could improve my writing." This struck me as a reasonable critique of what he may have perceived to be a haphazard response to his work.
After I explained my policy for assessment once again, he went on to say, "I think you are an American-style teacher."
At first I had the knee-jerk response of wanting to subvert this designation. I told him that my high school writing experience hadn't been so different from his. But if I'm being honest with myself, I'd also have to admit that it felt good that my teaching was 'recognizable' in some sense. Even if reductive, it was something that might make sense to learners... a loose logic that might translate my odd decisions into a recognizable pedagogy.
But another statement by this student really stuck with me. He said, "in the past, teachers would give me a score, tell me what I did wrong, and I could improve my writing."
This complicates things because it brings into focus the fact that he (along with many other learners) have probably developed a system for dealing with more standardized forms of assessment. I have to wonder if my insistence that 'grades are bad' or 'numerical scores & rubrics must be avoided' in some way puts students in the position of not knowing how to respond to my comments... of not understanding exactly how or what it means to improve in our class, and of recognizing my goals only insofar as they conform to a reductive notion of an 'American-style.'
I have to recognize that the decisions I make might be chalked up to broad cultural references that only serve to obscure and oversimplify what I'm trying to accomplish.
So the challenge I see at the moment will be in finding an alternative to grading that is more than simply the negation of standardized/quantified rubrics. Any attempts to provoke learners to think about writing within our classroom community in new ways will have to be fueled by feedback that speaks to this issue.
In a fantastic essay on the more general issue of rubrics, Alfie Kohn describes research in educational psychology that challenges the benefits of rubrics in writing classes. Research states that, focusing too much on the quality of one's performance (how well one is doing on a particular assignment or task) leads to more superficial thinking, an excess of attention on being 'correct', and an inability to function in ambiguous learning environments. Writing, in its most technical and sterilized sense, improves while the capacity to create original and relevant work for a particular audience is all but forgotten.
My unique challenge here is to grapple with the cultural (or perceived cultural) dichotomies that tend to reduce the complexity and the potential of alternative forms of assessment. So... perhaps in my next class, I will present this problem briefly, and try to incite a conversation about how I can best help learners improve their writing.
This will begin with four written questions:
- Why do you believe that I choose not to use grades or rubrics to assess your writing?
- What do you think are the possible benefits of this method of assessment?
- What do you think are some weaknesses of this approach?
- What other kinds of feedback do you think would be more beneficial to you?
I'll post later on how this turns out....