Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Assessment Philosophy

Posted by Gerald on September 15, 2007

I had originally intended to write this in response to a couple of comments on my last post.  As it grew in size I thought I should just promote it to a post of its own.  This is a summary of how and why I structure the assessment of my students the way I do.  Since I have some other teachers who read this blog I’m hoping maybe we can get a conversation going about assessments and class structures.  I’m always looking for good ideas to steal from other people. 

Because I teach nothing but survey courses (Western Civilization, American History, History of Africa) I feel I have to test for basic names, places, and events.  This is actually heavily implied in the course descriptions from the state system’s common course library and so falls naturally into the course outcomes and objectives.  So, in part, I use objective quizzes aimed primarily at the readings.  I am also trying to use types of questions, like multiple answer, that can assess some level of higher order thinking as well.  This also means working very hard to write objective prompts that aren’t just “who, what, when, and where.”  I have them take four of these during the course and then I have a final based on questions taken from the earlier quizzes.  I really see the final as nothing but a tool to make them review their quizzes and (hopefully) learn from their mistakes.

Also, although I’d rather this wasn’t true, our history courses are usually taken by entering Freshmen who have not taken any college-level courses; particularly English.  I’d rather that they had to have completed their basic English requirements, but the theory here is that this is a course they can take WHILE they are taking those courses.  Hence I have people who do not know how to write essays yet because they are just now learning.  I have to support that effort and that means not placing unrealistic expectations on them.  This also pushes me back toward some reliance on objective tests.

For my assessment of higher order thinking I’ve moved to a series of out of class essay assignments – usually four.  I thought about this for quite awhile and finally decided that what I really wanted to assess in their essay work was their ability to think and communicate rather than their recall and so I separated that part from my quizzes.  They are not required to do outside research for these but I do tell them I will reward those who go above and beyond.

Finally, although this was not common when I arrived here as an adjunct instructor, I’ve moved back to requiring a major semester paper.  I really feel that one of the purposes for a history course in the undergraduate curriculum is to include some instruction on how to research and synthesize information.  I also require them to do in-class group presentations which also require a fair amount of research.

I’m more concerned about thinking than memorization, so my quizzes actually do not count that much toward the final grade.  I see them as being as much a tool to keep them reading as an assessment.  Students can pass the course with lousy quiz grades so long as they have decent essays and a good research paper.

Still, I’ve always got a few people who are hard workers and conscientious but who just don’t have the analytical chops of the others.  We are a community college and we get a lot of students who are returning after years away from school and others who just were never on the college-bound track to begin with.  Those people can pull their grades up by working hard on the memorization part to make up for not doing so well on the essays.

Of course there are also the folks who just don’t turn things in at all.  Our new Sociology instructor – who is also comparatively new to teaching – was marvelling at this earlier in the week.  I’ve got to admit that this one still leaves me confused.  Why continue taking a course you aren’t turning in work for and which you are therefore going to fail?  I don’t get it.

In any case, this is the thinking behind how I run my courses at the moment.  Any comments?


7 Responses to “Assessment Philosophy”

  1. bridgett said

    My assessments change from my survey course (which at my college has just moved to be the first course that our majors all have to take) to my upper-level topical classes. My survey is now a combo “historical methods” introduction and a narrative content run-through. I do some lecturing, they do some reading, and we do a lot of “here’s how you analyze and draw inferences about the past from a variety of types of sources” critical thinking stuff. Still, if they get out of the course without knowing anything about the US Constitution…well, hell, in this country they might wind up to be President, but I still think we’d have a problem. So I use my objective “quizzing” to depth-check their preparation for class and to assess if they really are getting the basic narrative out of the textbook. (My lectures are complementary and not re-iterative.) I use 5 document-based essays (I give them about 11 pages of transcribed primary documents and a set of prompts — they are asked to respond to one). The DBEs over time help to teach them how to put together an argument and support it with evidence. It’s also their first attempt to use fns, do a bibliography…all the stuff that we’ll be asking them to do in the rest of their classes. Finally, I have them do a lot of different kinds of critical thinking exercises — analyses of different kind of sources (artifacts, runaway ads, etc…the textbook comes with a sourcebook) and then we talk about those in class, so discussion and oral presentations are also part of their assessed work. The people who aren’t great writers often do well on the more objective stuff, but the people who write well usually have no problem on the obj work…

    The upper-level is heavily weighted toward secondary research papers, analytic book reviews, and class leadership — they work in pairs to lead the class seminar style for half the class. Many of them are going to be teachers (lots of Social Studies secondary ed people) so this is a good opportunity for them to take the reins of the classroom. It’s a pretty structured assignment (otherwise, we’d play hangman every week for 15 weeks) and they seem to enjoy it. In the most advanced classes, they might do a historiography on a particular topic (their choice from a list of maybe 25 things that I know that our library has the resources to support) or a primary paper that they go out and find the docs for.

  2. euphrosyne1115 said

    Weak writers – oh, how I feel your pain.

    Do you issue assignment-specific grading rubrics for your essays, or do you give them a general one for the course? I find that having a specific set of goals right in front of them helps even my weakest writers produce something, anything to evaluate.

    Bridgett’s ideas are marvelous; at my level, how to read for various purposes and how to record the salient points are major issues. Many of my objective quizzes reward preparation, note-taking and basic comprehension by allowing them to use materials they’ve prepared in advance.

  3. Gerald said

    I’ve gone back and forth on this. I currently use a general rubric for the course. I’m constantly reassessing how much help I should give with these. I need to help them with their writing, but one of the things I want to assess with the essays is their ability to master the historical material. One of the biggest things I want to see is their ability to create their own roadmap and so I am hesitant to provide them with one.

    One thought I’ve had is to have specific assignment rubrics that become more general over the course of the semester. Give them a lot of direction on the first one, less on the second, etc…

  4. bridgett said

    I think I’m probably going to go the other way. In the first assignment, we’re all going to learn how to make an argument (a statement that offers an interpretation or explanation that may be debated). In the second assignment, we’ll build on that by doing an argument with four pieces of evidence. The third, argument, four pieces of evidence, and correct citation. So I think getting more and more particular might actually help rather than saying build a house and having to explain, in writing, a hundred times why you probably shouldn’t try to start with the roof.

    Of course, my department is having to fail 80% of our incoming freshman majors in their intro methods class because they turned either plagiarized materials, didn’t show up at all for half the classes, or made a dog’s breakfast of a fairly simple bibliographic
    exercise for which they received both on-site library coaching and asynchronous support via Blackboard. Rude awakening time. If you don’t show up, or you turn in crap, or you don’t make an effort, you fail.

  5. Gerald said

    I started requiring all work in all of my courses to be submitted electronically just so I can check for plagiarism more readily.

    Is it just my imagination or is plagiarism not only becoming more common but more blatant? We discuss this here at my school all the time. I not only get stuff that has been cut straight out of Wikipedia – they keep leaving the hyperlinks in the text. I had a student over the summer who cut-and-pasted text straight from an online source and didn’t even change the way that the original authors or editors had fully capitalized all last names in the piece. The same student also cut-and-pasted the bibliography from the same online essay.

    I guess they think I am a complete idiot. In any case, cheating is bad enough, but STUPID cheating!?!

  6. bridgett said

    Yes, plagiarism is getting more widespread and more detectable, but it’s also shifting forms in ways that I think make it easier for us to bust. It used to be that one had to transcribe text from a book — either by longhand or by typing — and it was a tedious process that didn’t save all that much time. Enter the paper mill or frat-house paper bank — getting pre-done work wholesale. It was hard to guard against this — if the paper was on topic, even if it had been turned in a million times before to various grad assistants, who was the wiser? Now it’s the case where with the Web, plagiarism can be done time-efficiently by the student himself or herself, but the quality of the cheat has correspondingly declined. It’s very rare when a Cheaty McCheaterpants actually pulls a book off the shelf to transcribe (kickin’ it old skool) and when they do, it’s such a bizarrely bad fit or out of the intro to the course textbook or something that it’s straightforward to find.

    One of our grad students was kicked out of school for plagiarizing AHR book reviews, typos and all.

    I also think that part of it is that they don’t have any intellectual respect for teachers because their teachers at the secondary level never taught writing nor did they do much modeling the life of the mind. If your students never see you do anything but enforcing hall passes and putting check marks on pre-prepared multiple-choice worksheets, they aren’t going to believe that teachers as a whole beyond the secondary level might be a little more engaged.

  7. bridgett said

    Here’s a great teaching exercise I thought you would like:

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