The joy of revision

Although I haven’t taught summer in two decades, I am doing it now – an 8-week, 3 unit class in Western Civ, online. That’s double-speed, so I’ve gotten rid of the textbook (and instead spent hours writing multiple-choice questions on my lectures to check content retention) and am heavily relying on my two-step discussion forum technique for students to find their own sources and practice historical skills.

During the regular semester, I have at least 200 students (40 for each of 5 class sections) over 16 weeks. That’s too many for me to do as much individual feedback as I would like, so I’ve developed various methods for giving group feedback that’s valuable, and limited individual feedback to essay questions on exams and answers to their questions in the forums.

Here we are compressed, so the content has been combined. But the forum technique is the same. Each week they must post a primary source related to the (now twice as long) historical era by Wednesday. Then I come in on Thursday to guide the discussion, then they create a historical thesis mini-essay by Sunday.

During a regular semester, this wasn’t really an essay – it was just a thesis and brief outline, and it wasn’t graded separately, but as a part of the general Contribution grade. Then they would write a “real” essay in a private quiz, and I would grade it.

In order to reduce workload for summer, I am having them post a full essay each week by Sunday, and am grading it as if it were the quiz essay, right there in the forum. Here have been the considerations.

1. How to grade them

I am using Moodle, and created a scale like this for forum ratings (the “lowest grade” setting is to force Moodle to start the points at 50% instead of 0):

The idea was that on Monday, I’d just go down the essay posts and grade them, but…

2. Public or private?

On the first forum, which didn’t count for points, I graded them openly, so that everyone could see everyone’s ratings (it only shows the qualitative comment, not the number of points). I asked in the Facebook group if they liked this, and several students said they didn’t mind, but there weren’t enough students to tell what they all wanted. So for the next two forums, I’ve kept them closed – students can only see their own ratings.

3. Revision

The first week of grading, I noticed that some mini-essays could have gotten a higher score if they’d had some feedback. When students left feedback, it was often really helpful, but there was not mechanism for revision. During the regular semester, I can’t really do this, come back to an assignment twice to grade and regrade, but why not, with only 40 students?

So that’s what’s happening. They submit their mini-essay, then I ask them to comment on each others’ (which they are supposed to do anyway), and I comment on them too, then they can post again with “REVISED” in the subject line, and I grade that one instead.

I started getting confused – had I graded this one already? So I reset the Forum preference to just show the Maximum rating. That way, if I grade a mini-essay twice by mistake, the student will only get the highest score.

It’s remarkable to me what a difference this is making in their grades and how much work they are putting into the class!

The level of emotional connection in this class is not high (these are mostly university students just trying to get through – they rejected my offer for a synchronous session to talk to me), but the amount of learning is increased anyway.

So two lessons from this:

1. With lower class size, the opportunity for individual feedback, and thus student success, is much higher.

2. An emotional, “friend”, “like” connection between instructor and students, or among students, is not as important in learning a skill as how much work is put into the learning