Help with teaching, part 3: the syllabus (assessment)

The first time I ever taught, I got some advice: “Make it easy on yourself and give them a midterm and a final. Use multiple choice as much as you can.” I didn’t listen at the time, because the type of class described was so foreign to my (paper-laden) undergraduate experience; in the years since, I haven’t listened because I decided that that advice doesn’t reflect the way I want to teach. But if that has been your learning or teaching experience, how do you learn to do something different?

In my last post, I walked you through how to plan your learning outcomes. In this post, we’re focusing on assessment — the types of assignment that you give and how you might want to weight them. If you think “assessment? You mean there’s more than testing?”, then this post is for you!

There are many ways to categorize different types of assessment, but two of them have played focal roles in the news lately: formative and summative assessments. Speaking generally, formative assessments are shorter, building-block assignments, while summative assessments are larger-scale and comprehensive. Although summative assessment has drawn a lot of criticism lately, both types can have a place in a well-designed course.

Different types of assignment suggest a different type of assessment. For example, a long research paper is often better approached formatively. Rather than assigning it at the beginning of term and collecting it towards the end (as is probably typical in your graduate classes), you might be better off scaffolding the steps of the assignment to help students get used to the research process. Scaffolding is a technique in which a larger assignment is broken down into smaller parts, each of which is graded (assessed) and returned with feedback. That’s where the formative assessment comes in: because the students receive feedback more regularly on smaller pieces of their overall grade, they can use that more regular feedback to improve more effectively.

For a research paper, your scaffolding might include an annotated bibliography, an outline, a thesis paragraph, or even a draft. These pieces need to be spaced well enough that you can read them, return them, and still give students time to work on the next piece before it’s due. This schedule means that you need to get started on this project fairly early in the term, and it does require more frequent grading on your part (although it’s often easier grading than grading an essay). Hopefully you have done some grading before teaching your first class, and so you have an idea of how long it takes you to provide feedback. It is important to provide written feedback, not just a number, to help your students improve their final product. And don’t go too crazy with it: while I’m a big fan of formative assessment, it’s not going to be worth it if you spend so much time grading that you don’t have time for yourself. You’re a person, too!

Other fairly common forms of formative assessment include class journaling, response papers, regular quizzes (like a weekly vocab quiz), daily language homework, or the one-minute paper. Basically, if it’s a graded piece of work that lets your students know “hey, here’s where you stand on this topic/type of assignment,” it’s probably a formative assessment.

Summative assessments, in contrast, usually only appear 1-2 times per semester. They are often (not always) exams or major papers; depending on your course, other possibilities could include a poster session, oral presentation/recitation (in Latin or Greek, for example), or various types of project. Unlike formative assessment, summative assessment assumes that the student can and is carrying out all of the steps on his/her own. In that sense, summative assessment can be more ‘high-stakes’: it’s often worth more, and a mistake is more damaging to the overall course grade. But this doesn’t have to be the case. You may have two major assessments in your course, a formative paper and a summative exam, but weight those grades so that the paper is worth 75% total (in all its constituent parts), while the exam is only 25%.

So how do you choose your assignments and how to weight them? This decision is really a matter of personal choice, so I’m describing how I make these decisions. You might make different decisions based on different criteria. That’s okay, too: it’s your class! I often revisit my choices each time I teach a class.

When I choose a type of assessment, I tend to focus on formative assessments. I make this decision for two reasons: first, because I don’t find it difficult or time-consuming to offer feedback on annotated bibliographies or outlines, but I do find it difficult and time-consuming to offer detailed feedback on bad papers. So breaking up the assignment often results in less work for me. And second, because most of the students I’ve encountered have no idea how to write a research paper. Helping them work through the research process leaves them with a method to use for next time.

Despite my explanation in the previous paragraph, I also like to offer a variety of options from course to course. Within a single course, I usually make all students do the same thing so that I know I’m grading fairly. But from course to course, I like to change it up. Sometimes I do source analyses or response papers instead of formal essays. Sometimes I do major presentations. When I taught classics and film, I had students make a trailer. Because classics is a humanities discipline, there’s always a written component to these assignments, but it’s often not a ‘traditional’ component like an argumentative essay.

Once I have some ideas for assessment, I turn back to the learning outcomes (you knew they were coming back at some point!). As a general rule, all of your LOs should be covered by at least one assessment. Otherwise, students won’t be able to demonstrate that they’ve completed this LO. It’s okay if one assessment covers multiple learning outcomes, or if one LO is covered by multiple assessments. The goal is to show off your students’ achievements, not to make sure that those achievements are perfectly balanced. When you’ve made those alignments in your head, you might want to make them official by including the assessment in the learning outcome itself: for example, “demonstrate proficiency in Latin scansion through a 15-line sight examination.” I personally don’t make that alignment explicit most of the time, but I’ve seen other syllabi that do.

Finally, once you have all of your assignments lined up, it’s time to weight them. I usually start by ranking the assignments from heaviest to least, and I make weight a function of both effort and importance. Your term paper: lots of effort, lots of importance, and therefore more heavily weighted. Attendance: relatively little effort, and (depending on the class) maybe not that important, so pretty lightly weighted. Again, your choices here are going to be both personal and dependent on your class. You should consider the options and decide what you think is more important. In my experience, students usually case most about the assignments that are heavily weighted, because those assignments have the greatest impact on their grade.

My last bit of advice is a word to the wise: once you have all your weights assigned, take a calculator and add them up! This advice counts for double if you change the relative weight of several assignments a few times before deciding on an optimal solution. It’s embarrassing when a student catches the discrepancy; it can cause real havoc in your gradebook if no one notices until the end of term. So unless you are dividing your assignments into two exams, each worth 50%, take the time to double-check your math. You’ll feel better about it later.


~j

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