Tag Archives: assessment

Turning class participation into short written assignments


By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services

In the entry from the Teaching Professor Blog pasted below, , suggests that instructors give students a participation grade for writing ABOUT participation, not for talking up in class. What a novel idea!  Weimer writes that the common approach to grading participation rewards students who like to talk and know that verbal participation will win them points.  Instead, she suggests that writing short papers  is a more fruitful strategy for helping students appreciate how important interaction is to the  learning process. As she explains, “With this approach, students would write a series of short papers (I’m thinking 1-2 pages) which aim to make them more aware of classroom interaction generally and their contribution to it specifically. ” She provides a list of guiding questions that faculty can use to get students started. I like this idea because it opens up the participation grade to more students and gets everyone writing (and thinking!) which is always a good thing. Faculty may worry that more writing means more grading and Weimer addresses this by suggesting that faculty grade these short assignments for completion rather than using a complex set of criteria. I am curious about this strategy so please let me know if you use it already or want to try it out!

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Originally posted on October 23, 2013

Grading Participation: An Alternative to Talking for Points

By Maryellen Weimer, PhD

Is there a way to motivate and improve student participation without grading it? I raise the question because I think grading contributions gets students talking for points, not talking to make points. Verbal students make sure they say something, but often without listening to or connecting with the comments of others.

Is grading participation an effective way for students to discover how and why classroom interaction promotes learning? I’ve been considering alternatives, including this one: “Participation, as in what you contribute verbally, is not graded in this course, but your writing about participation is.”

With this approach, students would write a series of short papers (I’m thinking 1-2 pages) which aim to make them more aware of classroom interaction generally and their contribution to it specifically. They would write the papers in response to the following prompts.

My Participation Skills – Do you participate? Why? Why not? What do you do when you participate? Ask questions? Answer questions? Only answer when you know the right answer? Make comments? What participation skills would you like to develop? How might you go about working on these skills? At the end of the course, how will you know if your skills in this area have improved?

Observing Participation – For the next two weeks observe participation as it occurs in this class. What do students do when they participate? How does the teacher respond? How well are students listening to each other? What’s the most interesting student comment or question you heard during this observation period? How could participation be improved in this class? What could you do to improve the interaction in this classroom?

Or, for two weeks observe participation in your other courses. How does participation there compare with what’s happening in this course? Be specific—write about behaviors. What are students doing? What is the teacher doing? If there are differences between courses, what are they and to what would you attribute these differences?

The Role of Participation in Learning – Write about any or all of these participation policy questions and, using your answer(s), conclude with a paragraph that discusses the role of participation in learning.

  • Should students have the right to remain silent in a course if they can learn the content without talking about it?
  • Should teachers call on students if they haven’t volunteered? Explain why.
  • If participation is graded, does that motivate students to answer questions and make comments? Does it motivate verbal contributions for the right reasons?
  • If participation is graded, how much should it count?
  • Do students learn things from the comments and questions of other students? Could they learn more than they do? How?
  • What kind of feedback from the teacher and classmates would help improve your contributions in class?
  • The ability to answer questions when called on and to speak up in a group are important skills, how do these skills factor into your future career plans?

My Participation Skills Revisited – Reread your three participation papers and then answer these prompts. Compare your participation skills now with your description of them written at the beginning of the course. Has your thinking about the role of participation in learning changed? What needs to happen now for you to take your participation skills to the next level?

Faculty, I know you are probably thinking, “That’s a lot of papers to grade.” But I think the learning benefit here comes from writing these papers, not from teacher feedback. The objective is to hone observational skills, encourage reflection, and get students engaged in some serious self-reflection. I’d assess these papers with a rubric that mostly looks at whether the student took the task seriously. I’d limit written feedback to one pithy question raised by what the student has written. Some of the feedback will likely apply to many students and that can be delivered in class or online. In either venue, you could use it to encourage discussion about interaction in the class (or online discussion board). And certainly you can modify the assignment structure to better fit your needs—shorter papers, fewer papers, etc.

Do you think the learning potential of student interaction is lost or compromised when we fuel students’ contributions by giving them points? An assignment option like this doesn’t totally change that dynamic—there’s still a grade involved—but it does offer students a different perspective.

Short writing assignments: something to consider


Many faculty shy away from short writing assignments, considering them to be the poorer cousin of the term paper or research paper.  There is a commonly held assumption that shorter assignments can never match the rigor or substance of longer papers and that faculty are letting students down if they don’t assign a full-length paper (whatever that is according to the conventions of each discipline). Yet, what are faculty to do in a context of increasing class sizes and decreasing TA support? How can we still assess important outcomes such as analysis, synthesis and critical thinking?  Moreover, how can we infuse these elements into courses that have tradtionally relied on quizzes and exams for assessment?  Many faculty at McGill have already discovered one answer to this dilemma: the short writing assignment. These assignments can take many forms – from a 500-word response to a question posed by Prof. Andre Costopoulos in a 200-level evolutionary theory class to a policy brief assigned by Prof. Madhav Badami in a class in Urban Planning.   On Oct. 30th the  workshop “Beyond the research paper – new ways to get students writing”  is being offered by TLS where we will share many more of these of examples and discuss how to design short writing assignments that engage students, provide meaningful tasks, and assess higher order thinking skills. To find out more and register, click here.

Hear this! Podcasts as an assessment tool in higher education


Prof. Chris Buddle, Natural Resource Sciences, writes about a podcast assignment he and his TA designed for a large undergraduate ecology class.

As a University Professor, I’m always experimenting with new ways to assess students in my undergraduate classes. This can be a significant challenge with larger class sizes, especially since I’m not a fan of multiple choice style questions. It’s nice to be able to assess students on the basis of how they are integrating and synthesizing course content, and traditionally this is done with longer-format essay-type assignments.  These long-format assignments are great, but do take a tremendous amount of time and energy to grade, and I seldom feel I can give enough time to each written assignment.

This past winter term I was faced with an increased enrollment in my undergraduate ecology class at McGill. I had a TA for the class, but I certainly didn’t have enough TA hours to include a large individual written assignment. I started to think of new and interesting ways to grade students, and I was looking for a way to test how students might be integrating content from different lectures in the class.

This got me thinking about podcasts.  When I mow the lawn, or when I am on a long road trip I listen to a lot of podcasts, and This American Life or RadioLab have become go-to places for me to hear new and interesting stories, from science through to art and culture. A good podcast entices the listener, is creative, informative, and overall, makes learning fun.  Bingo: Makes learning fun.

Podcasts as an assessment tool seemed a perfect fit with the challenge I was facing in my ecology class.  Together with my amazing TA, Carly Ziter, we brainstormed and came up with a podcast assignment.  We assigned students to groups, and handed out the assignment. Here are some of the details, as provided to students:

The learning outcomes for the Ecology Podcast assignment are the following: (1) expose students to ecological stories in the news, (2) explore the ways that ecology is portrayed in the news media, (3) link these stories to ecological content as delivered during lectures, and (4) to communicate (orally, and as a group) the story and the ecological concepts linked to the story.  Podcasts are an exciting way to communicate science, and can be an effective tool in helping to find a deeper understanding of ecological concepts.

The Ecology Podcast is done in groups, and is devoted to exploring the portrayal of ecological concepts in the news media and linking concepts to course material. Groups are required to get approval for their topic in advance of commencing the research and recording. Within the first 10 seconds of their podcast, each student in the group is requested to clearly state their name. Introductions should be followed by the title or concept that they  discuss.  The remaining time is  spent introducing the story / concept, explaining it to the audience, and linking the story to more fundamental ecological concepts, including those discussed during lectures.  It is expected that each group member spend approximately the same time speaking on the podcast.   Students are encouraged to be creative with the podcast – to have fun, and find ways to provide an informative and entertaining podcast.  Students are encouraged to interview other experts on the topic, and find other content to bring into the podcast. Podcasts are to be between 3-4 minutes long.

The podcast assignment is worth 15% of the grade in the class, and is graded using the following rubric:

Each of the following criteria is graded between 0 (poorly done) to 5 (excellent, above expectations) for a total out of 25 points:

  1. Format & Quality (length of podcast, sound quality, all group members given equal time)
  2. Broad coverage of ecological concept (introduction and explanation of broader topic, overview of portrayal in news media)
  3. Link to fundamental ecological concepts (links to lecture content, links to other course materials)
  4. Synthesis, integration (all parts of podcast linked together, evidence of deeper critical thinking about the topic, opinions presented and discussed)
  5. Creativity (effort to make podcast interesting, fun, entertaining; evidence of creative thinking)

Carly and I also did a sample podcast (ours was on Orca whales stuck in sea ice in the Arctic). This was really fun to put together, and allowed us to refine/adjust the assignment details to ensure it would meet the learning objectives.

We also provided a list of ‘model’ science podcasts out there (e.g., Scientific America’s 60 second science podcasts, and NASA’s earth audio podcasts), as a way to encourage students to make their podcasts high quality, interesting, and effective.  Students used McGill’s Learning Management System for uploading their podcasts, and then Carly and I sat down and over the course of a day, graded the entire set of podcasts.

Overall, the students rose to the challenge and produced truly amazing and high quality podcasts. You could tell they had fun with the idea, and in many cases, the groups found ‘experts’ to interview about their topic.  Here are links to two of the podcasts, and in both cases, the students sought out and interviewed another Professor in my Department, Dr. David Bird.

This one is about cat predation on birds, and this second example is about snow geese.

From an instructor’s perspective, podcasts were a true delight to grade, and it was a refreshing change from grading essays or tests. It also allowed students to exhibit creative talents that they otherwise would not get to explore in this ecology class.  I believe the podcasts were effective at assessing how students were engaged with the course content.  Explaining ecological concepts is difficult, and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the content. “Teaching” in the form of a podcast, is an excellent way to learn.

Podcasts were an effective form of group work. In some cases, groups could not find time to work together, so individuals were able to record sections separately and merge them together after the fact.  It’s also important to note that students had no complaints or technical issues with this assignment. They all were able to access software and hardware for this assignment, and uploading assignments to our learning management system was smooth.

In sum, podcasts are ideal as student assessment tool, especially when class sizes make written assignments unmanageable. Podcasts are fun to put together, enjoyable to grade, and because they force an explanation of content, they can truly test content in all the right ways.

I encourage instructors to try it out — You’ll like what you hear.

New York Times Opinion piece: Who will hold colleges accountable?


As McGill considers developing massively online open courses (MOOCs), perhaps we should begin to reflect on how students are graded now and how this will change. With large classes we already have, there are concerns about how well we evaluate student learning and how those outcomes prepare them for their futures. Attached here is an interesting piece which covers the history of the credit hour and how our current methods of assessment are already failing students. Given the diminishing commitment of governments to higher education, perhaps it is not time to expand in this direction. Perhaps it is time to think about how to survive with our missions of teaching, research and service intact.

Click here to read the original NYT opinion piece