Ramblings on assessments that work and assumptions that don’t

At this time of the semester, I am grading Participation Assessments. I do this twice each semester, asking the students to evaluate their own participation in the course as compared to a rubric.

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At the end of the first eight weeks, when they do this for the first time, there are often revelations. Students are grateful I gave the assignment, because now they know they aren’t meeting expectations. Many promise to do better.

I learn from this that the assessment is important, because it makes them look at the Grading Policies page, where the rubric is. That page has been “required” reading since the beginning of the class. There were questions from it on the Tech Check/Syllabus Quiz, which is the first thing due in the class. And yet most have forgotten it, or never read it, or didn’t think it applied to them, etc. till the assessment.

What’s remarkable is that occasionally, the assessment at the end of the year also prompts discovery, or in this case, makes me aware there hasn’t been any.

My ending Participation Assessment says:

After carefully examining the grading rubric, your logs, and forum posts for the second half of the semester, consider in what ways have you improved or reduced your participation from the half-way point. Please briefly explain:
1. how may points you received on the first Participation Assessment,
2. how many you think you should have for this half, and
3. why.

One student wrote:

“I’ve actually probably participated less since the class begun. I just try to learn the information that is presented along with information in my book and take the tests and get the best grade possible. I’ve always not really understood the class discussions, since i can usually do the test with out them and i am really busy. I don’t think i should get to many points in the participation section! I’ll try to get by and do my with the tests.”

This student didn’t have a single discussion post since the first evaluation, and seemed unaware that the discussions aren’t just chatting — they constitute the bulk of writing for the class. I tell them this, of course, but I say it in the forums! And there’s no evidence here that he looked at the rubric at all.

I figure the Grading Policies page isn’t the only page not being seen by some. I know by looking at logs that many skip the Study Guides (and therefore don’t realize they contain all the multiple choice questions that will be on the forthcoming quiz). Or they don’t bother with the lecture. They read the book, and take the tests.

In terms of course design, I don’t consider the discussion 20% of the course, just 20% of the grade. It’s more like half the class, because it’s the processing and sharing of the knowledge learned via presentation and reading. It’s the heart, not a side activity. It’s lower stakes (not 50% of the grade)  because I want the students to feel free to explore. I assume they’re looking at the grading, and figuring where to spend their time for maximum grade impact. But I see increasingly that they don’t do that.

Rather, they make assumptions:

  • Anything called a test or quiz is important.
  • Anything called discussion you can miss.
  • The textbook is the heart of the class and should be read carefully.
  • Anything called an assessment could go one way or another.
  • If it’s online, it’s self-paced and you don’t need to “show up”.
  • All online classes are in Blackboard.

They have to discover that it’s not that way, but to discover one has to explore. As I see all these wonderful ideas to get students to explore (using collaborative or connectivist methods) they have to actually peruse the class website, understand the rules and the process. My class isn’t that much different from a traditional class, yet I have a very non-traditional element in the way I use discussion and participation assessments (where they get to assess their own learning). If students can’t even accept this, what chance do more radical methods have?

I know, I have heard that one has to throw out the whole thing (university, grading, teacher-directed anything) for it to work. But I refuse to believe this. If I do that, I will spend the entire class with teacher-directed instruction on how to do the class! Once I created an (on-site) honors section where all we did was write one research paper, meeting an hour a week throughout the semester. Just one paper. Instead of talking history and ideas during our hour-long sessions, I ended up having to instruct them on how to write a paper. Even with a list to guide them, they did not know how to do basic college English 101 things, like make an outline, do basic research, develop a thesis. Of the 12 who started the section, only 3 finished. Their assumption? That I would lecture on history for the 16 hours, and they’d memorize it. My radical method was great for 3 students. That doesn’t hack it in my job.

This means that designing an online class is not just an exercise in transferring pedagogy, or plugging things in. It is an awareness that the exact same difficulties that haunt us in on-site classes are not magically solved online. These challenges include students not attending class, not reading the syllabus, not understanding when they ask a question and it is answered, not asking questions when they need to, missing tests, having low reading ability, being inexperienced at processing basic information, and not being aware of cues given to help them.

Sometimes we focus so hard on the “online” aspect of the class that we forget these problems exist, or think they are replaced by scary tech problems instead. The scary tech problem comes down to one: if the only way the student will understand what’s necessary is to be talked to into his face, then he will not understand. If he couldn’t understand anyway, no matter how many different ways it’s explained, then that’s the way it is. Whether it’s online or on-site, all we can do is provide resources and repeatedly remind the students that those resources (the instructor, the rules posted or handed out, the entire internet, that site or handout about plagiarism) are there for them.  We can try to counter assumptions, but we cannot eliminate all obstacles.

4 thoughts on “Ramblings on assessments that work and assumptions that don’t

  1. I like your list of their assumptions. So true! Since the collaborative speaking and writing activities are medullar to my online Spanish classes as they are to most online courses, I do believe that it is important to keep a list of their assumptions in mind when deciding how to label the course components. I call them all “assignments”: Voicethread, Wimba & Elluminate recorded discussions = Recorded Speaking Assignments; their Blogs on NING = Writing Assignments. Even though these all involve discussion and collaboration, and the instructions include these words, in the syllabus and list of things to complete for each chapter, I label them as assignments.

    Somehow this has given the collaborative activities enough importance in their minds. I do belabor the point both in the syllabus and on the front page of the course that participation in these is the best way to become prepared for all written quizzes and tests, but also for the final speaking exam.


  2. That’s a really good point — what we call things matters a lot. I call the forums “Sources and Discussion”, since they post sources first. Maybe I should call it “Sources, Writing and Discussion”?


  3. Great post. I have found a way to resolve this problem at least partially. From the beginning of my courses I make it clear that grades will be based on summative assessment only, and that all other activities are formative and for that reason are not graded. For the first few times I gave online classes, this caused so much confusion because people didn’t know where to focus their energy. So, I decided to give a mark to each activity, a number according to its value. I keep this on a Google spreadsheet linked to the Moodle so it is always up to date. That changed everything because students can’t stand to see a low number, even if it doesn’t count towards the grade.

    Also, if a discussion is designed to last 2 weeks and it is worth 6 points (marks), then I assign 3 to the first week and 3 to the second week. This gets students to participate more constantly and not just at the end of the designated period for that discussion.

    I have told them that because activities are formative, they can be improved by going over my feedback and the rubric. This has motivated them to interact with me more and with the rubrics.

    It is kind of sad to use numbers for this purpose, but it seems to be a language symbol that speaks far clearer than many of my attempts to explain and motivate.


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