During an informative, brown bag, lunch session on Friday, March 18th, four professors and three students presented 3-minute lightning talks about their experiences with assessments of specific course assignments. The professors described the rationales for their assignments and spoke about their feedback methods, while the students described their perspectives from the receiving end. The lightning talks were followed by a lively question and answer period that allowed the speakers and audience members to share candid opinions about the topics raised.
Professor Cheryl Armistead, from the Ingram School of Nursing, started the session by discussing a creative piece assignment for a 300-level class of 85 students on issues in women’s health. Students can choose to write an op-ed article or create a piece of artwork for the assignment. Professor Armistead grades it using a rubric and gives feedback by looking at students’ answers to specific questions in the pieces they submit. Some of the questions the students need to answer are:
- What is your issue?;
- What are three factors that contribute to your issue?;
- So what, or how would the world look differently if the issue were resolved?
The class consists of students from different disciplines, some of whom find it difficult to complete assignments when the research topics are not assigned and/or the assignment requires more than a summary of a topic. These questions guide students in completing the work.
From the departments of Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences and Earth & Planetary Sciences, Professors John Gyakum and John Stix talked about assessing scientific posters in their 100-level, natural disasters course, which has about 630 students. The professors flipped two of the classes in the course so that students could present their posters. The professors previously taught this course as a MOOC (Natural Disasters on edX) and, thus, were able to ask students to watch 2 lectures online in order to free up class time for this assignment. Students are asked to form 6-person groups for their posters, and three groups are then paired with the same graduate teaching assistant (TA) to enable peer-feedback, as well. The TA grades the poster and gives feedback; the other two student groups listen to the presentation of the poster and also provide comments. There were 15 teaching assistants for the natural disasters course in Fall 2015. It was possible to assign this number of teaching assistants to the course since each TA only completed half the maximum number of hours that can be devoted to a course.
Assessment can also be personal. Professor Shauna Van Praagh from the Faculty of Law spoke about an activity she does with first-year, undergraduate, law students at the beginning of the academic year. All students, around 180, are asked to write a letter during class about what they would say to future law students at the beginning of the program. The students submit the letter in an envelope to the professor and the letter is returned to the students, unopened, at the end of the academic year. Students then open their own letters and have the opportunity to reflect on how their attitudes and beliefs have changed over the previous 8 months.
Three students then had the opportunity to present from “the other side of the table,” that is, they spoke about their side of the assessment story. Faculty of Arts student, Magdalene Klassen, discussed the evaluation of a 5-page writing assignment for a 200-level modern European history course with approximately 200 students. The assignment was graded by three TAs, but the professor offered students the opportunity for detailed one-on-one feedback during his office hours. Magdalene appreciated the professor’s offer, took advantage of it, and benefited from the experience.
Henry Yu, from the Faculty of Science, described a group project for a 400-level investment management course (enrollment circa 100) that required students to find their own clients, gather information about their clients’ financial assets, and create financial investment portfolios for their clients. Each 4-person group presented its portfolio to the class and to three industry experts whom the professor had invited. These experts selected the top three groups, who were then given the opportunity to give their presentations to an external investment company. Henry valued this real-world experience and saw the immediate impact, that is, one student from a top group obtained a summer internship in the company where the group presentation had been given. An outcome of the assessment was employment.
Didem Dogar, from the Faculty of Law, ended the lightning talks by reporting on an individual, artifact project for a legal, research methodology, graduate course (about 75 students). Students were asked to pick an artifact—which could literally have been any thing—and link it to the course content. The professor shared the assessment rubric with the class so that students would have a clear sense of how to produce a quality assignment. Didem both enjoyed and appreciated the learning value of the assignment because it required students to think outside the box.
The lightning talks took up the first half-hour of the brown bag session. The remaining 45-minutes were jam-packed with questions posed by the audience, such as What does effective and non-effective feedback mean to you? The consensus, among the panel and the audience, was that effective feedback lets students understand where the grade comes from, explains where students went awry, offers suggestions for improving the work, explicitly recognizes well-produced work, and provides details about what was well done. To be effective, feedback needs to include the positive, the negative, and suggestions for how to address the negative.
The vibe in the room at the end of the brown bag session was extremely positive, with several audience members talking enthusiastically about the idea(s) they plan to explore/implement in their classes. Overall, an en-“lightening” session!
If you teach, what types of assignments have been most satisfying for you in terms of helping students achieve learning outcomes and being able to provide meaningful feedback to students?
If you’re a student, what meaningful or noteworthy assignments have you experienced? How did this assignment benefit your learning? What types of feedback have been helpful for you?