Guest post: Assessing Assessment

By Michelle Liu Carriger

Full disclosure: I think grades are dumb. I love teaching in the humanities and I think my work is important, but I hate grading: it makes me feel sad and stressed, it makes students sad and stressed, I find myself resenting them for not doing better work and “making me” deduct points and all that undercuts what I try to do as an educator. But that said, I also recognise that it’s a bit lofty to think my students are going to be totally on board with pie in the sky learning-for-learning’s-sake and being a better human and all that. I understand that for them university is also a means to ends which will not value searingly insightful articulations of gender and race in MTV’s reality show 16 and Pregnant or promising nascent playscripts the way I do. So grades are one way of translating the work that students do as university students into a currency that is supposed to “buy” them something else later, like a job. The part that bothers me about grades, though, is what exactly goes into making that grade in the first place: it often doesn’t feel to me at all that the things I actually wanted to instill in the students constituted the substance of the grade. That is, as an educator, I think of the grade as but an index of the real course material, but for many students it’s the grade itself, something I think of as only a label or indicator, which takes on the value that I attribute to the material. (Now that I’ve ventured into the realm of money theory, it seems a short step to suggest that this is a sort of commodity fetishism of the grade, and the gold standard is NOT in effect here: too often, I feel that the grade conferred is “empty”. It’s not guaranteed by a substance of “real” value.)

Now, because of a grade’s exchange value, I don’t think that students are entirely wrong to value grades, even though I’ve often bemoaned their obsessions as misplaced. But for we educators who believe that critical reasoning skills, writing skills, and the other educational aims of our classes are just as transferable and valuable as grades (and preferably more so), then we need to find ways of hauling our goals into line with grading practices. One of the goals I often have trouble achieving under the aegis of letter grades is that of valuing student process and effort over virtuosity. While of course I appreciate students with native (or well-honed) abilities in critical thinking, discussion, and writing, I believe that it’s more important, even amongst students with strong abilities, to cultivate methods of engagement, on the understanding that while the “content” of any given humanities module may be more or less relevant to students, the skills of critical thinking, reading, and writing are definitely transferable.

Recently my convictions about the importance of emphasising process and effort have been underscored while reading the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck’s primary psychological theory is on “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. As summarised by Maria Popova in a blog post on Dweck’s mass market book, Mindset:

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

Dweck’s research provides additional reasoning for why we should encourage process over achievement: because summative assessments do not provide impetus toward more effort, they tend to function as endpoints instead of stepping stones to improved effort. As teachers, we can help to encourage growth mindsets in our students by emphasising the ways in which assessment serves as a diagnostic for what they can continue working on, rather than as an indication of their intelligence or talent. We should encourage students to think of assessment as diagnostic in part of an ongoing process of learning and skill acquisition, not as a final declaration of an area completed or a box to tick with a rating of quality like a cut of meat.

papers

(The author, amidst the marking)

My position at Queen Mary University of London as a Lecturer in Drama is my first full time academic position post-PhD and the first time I’ve worked within the UK educational system; I was born and bred to the US system, where I’ve been through small liberal arts schools, a big land grant university, and elite private theatre and humanities departments. At first, things seem pretty similar at QM to what I’ve known in the US – it was just that everything had a different name: students take modules (courses) appropriate to their course (major); they get marks (grades) on an A to F scale, except that Britain leaves a full 20+ points for mythical geniuses who surely never appear at the undergraduate level. By which I mean: the American A of 90-to-100 is equivalent to the UK 70-to-100, the reality being that apparently until recently virtually no one ever got more than 72, maybe 75 at the outside.

One thing that the culture shock of a new system has revealed to me is how I might have been using the “grade inflation” I experienced at Brown and CU Boulder as a means of secretly moving toward a credit/no credit type of grading. At Brown I loved the courses that were deemed credit/not credit, like playwriting and speech. However, I also recognise that my own grade inflation probably only assuages my own marking discomfort and does not actually help students value the skills and content I want them to value.

Last semester at QM I convened a practical module on playwriting and I found that my students were just as nonplussed and anxious as I was about how their plays would be graded. Although I would expect my third year students to be more comfortable with the QM/UK system than I was at that point, I soon discovered that many were still trying to figure out the school’s “formula”, like a good grade recipe to follow in order to come out with a “first” (an A) instead of a good play. They read the assignment guidelines for loopholes like lawyers. When we discussed Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” in class, the first comment posed was: “But now I’m wondering, how are you going to mark our plays?” The class’s endless fretting and the insufficiency of my constant reply to “write the best play you can” pushed me to desperation as I tried to figure out how to embolden them to experiment and write their most creative, brave, and best work.

The problem with using letter grades at all is that clarity of standards is necessary in making the assessment practice useful for the student; without knowledge of what will constitute a “good” grade, the student has no idea what to work toward. While this is difficult to explain when we’re dealing with the qualitative work (such as critical writing and reasoning) typical of the humanities, the standards become even more vague when venturing into the subjective territory of art and creative expression. By no means did I want plays calculated toward what students believed I would like, nor actually do I believe that all good plays are written to the same standards in a few short weeks (the time allotted for the assignment at the end of the term). For all these reasons, I sought to shift the class’s understanding of the assessment goals away from “quality” and toward “effort” and method. I believe that solid and steady effort, thoroughness, and thoughtfulness first of all are the proper goals of growth-mindset based pedagogy, are easier to mark, and, finally and by no means least, I believe that they lead to higher quality work in the end.

All along I encouraged the students to attend to these goals and reminded them to use the 2000-word accompanying rationale to explain the kinds of labor and method that went into their creative work. But near the end of the semester, when we were still having long discussions in class in which I attempted to instill the confidence they continued to lack, I finally came to terms with the fact that in this case I was not going to turn out to be the teacher who magically inspires her class to forget about grades and just do what they love. So I came up with a new idea. I decided to add a requirement to their final projects in which they would write their own criteria for the marking of their individual assignments, in order to provide concrete goals for their work without me having to dictate what “a good play” consisted of. I implemented this plan by first holding a discussion in which I asked the class to name the things by which they judged a performance text “good.” These included features like “cohesive worlds of the play,” “strong, distinctive dialogue,” “arresting images.” Then I asked what they thought appropriate outcomes of the module would be. Their answers included “engagement with the assigned texts” and “establishment of a personal methodology.” At the conclusion of this discussion, I assigned them each to write their own set of 5 to 7 criteria for their final projects, with at least three pertaining to writing a script and at least two demonstrating mastery of the module goals; they could then choose to adapt any of the things we had discussed or come up with their own criteria for the final document, which they had to send to me by the end of the semester. I in turn replied to each student with feedback, sometimes asking them to edit a criterium if it was not concrete enough for me to use.

What did I hope this change achieved? I hope it brought into line the highly individual circumstances of writing a play and the motivating effects of letter grades while alleviating the uncertainties of what makes good work and of what students were “allowed” to do. More importantly, I hope that this experiment helped give the students a greater sense of autonomy in their work in general, pushing them to define for themselves what it is they wanted to achieve and therefore investing the grades they ultimately did achieve with a little more substance. In general, the criteria assignment was received well, although I think if it had come earlier in the semester it could have headed off much more of the lingering anxiety that remained visible on my module evaluations, filed in the last week of class. More than one student told me, when I met with them individually about their projects in the last week before they were due, that they had grown to appreciate some of the changes I had implemented over the Christmas break, once they had had the chance to get really deeply into their individual projects. I’m eager to try this strategy again in a more systematic way, integrating it from the beginning of the module, and perhaps in more “traditional” classes, too, to see if such a procedure can improve students’ agency and engagement with learning. It’s not a big change; it feels more like a hack or a patch slapped onto the typical mode of grading. But I hope that I’ve managed to sneak a little more worthwhile learning gold into the grade commodity.

I’d love to hear from others about strategies you’ve used for focusing on process in class, or about strategies for making grades feel more substantial.

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Michelle Liu Carriger is Lecturer in Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies at Queen Mary University of London where she is at work on a book project tentatively entitled “Theatricality of the Closet” on the historiography of the performance of everyday, through looking at clothing controversies in 19th century Britain and Japan. Meanwhile, she’s contemplating book two, on performance and the Japanese Way of Tea (tea ceremony) which she has been practicing for the last fifteen years, including one year in Kyoto Japan in a traditional arts training program. She holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from Brown University where she taught fashion and performance, speech, and devised collaborative work with Elise Morrison and Molly Flynn under the moniker Cabaret Murderess.

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