The online course I’m currently teaching is the only space I get to test out the pedagogical strategies I’m learning about in my EdD, on Twitter, and in conversation with my colleagues in an autonomous manner. It often feels like a playground, allowing theory to inform my practice (praxis). However, I’m not autonomous in this space. I’m working collaboratively with my students, and sometimes my pedagogical approach pushes them outside of their comfort zones.
Not Ungrading, But Not the Norm
A major influencer of late has been Jesse Stommel and his advocacy work related to ungrading. Stommel’s writing really hits home for me. While I’ve never been completely comfortable with traditional assessments practices, the more I learn, the more strongly I react against mechanistic and superficial assessments that are disconnected from learners’ goals.
While I teach in an institution that values outcomes-based education, and have no problem intentionally aligning my assessments with the course-level outcomes and objectives, I want to make sure that my students have agency and choice in how they are evaluated, and see some actual value in the work they’re doing. So, I’ve been implementing assignments that I hope will support these goals, always in conversation with my students.
At the beginning of the course, I made my students a few promises related to assessment. Here’s an excerpt from my student-facing document titled Succedding in the Course:
Each assessment in SSC 1002 will:
- include transparent scoring criteria so you know exactly what I’ll be evaluating and to what degree
- offer you at least two options for demonstrating your abilities
- include a self-assessment opportunity, so that you get to weigh in on the quality of your work and have a degree of agency over the assessment process
- honour the effort you put into your work through the provision of qualitative feedback
In addition to these promises, I also intend to invite you to publish your coursework in open, online spaces so that future students, and knowledge-seekers generally, can find and benefit from your work. I’ll expand on this idea as the course unfolds.
While I promised transparent scoring critieria, I also wanted students to take liberties and get creative with their assignments. As a compromise, I provide general guidelines, typically a series of yes/no questions to help students self-assess their own performance. While some students embraced the flexibility and ran with it, others started to request more prescriptive scoring criteria. They wanted to know exactly how to format their work, and exactly how to get perfect on the assignment.
So far, students have completed three assignments. Here are a few student responses to my question, How do you think this assignment can be improved for future learners?:
- I think this assignment is well structured and well explained. I did not have any questions because I understood everything that was asked by the teacher.
- I think the rubric could have been posted to what you’re specifically grading us on, I believe that I struggled because I didn’t have a rubric to follow.
- I think this assignment is perfect and a fun way to express critical thinking. I found that throughout this assignment, I was self-reflecting and really grasped the concept of critical thinking. I found the assignment clear, and I understood what was asked of me.
- This assignment could be improved with a more defined rubric that is clearly visible
- I really liked this assignment. Now that I’m understanding more what your assignments are designed to do, I’m finding that I’m really enjoying them. I wouldn’t change anything!
- Nothing, the instructions were clear and well laid out.
- I love that we are able to be creative for these assignments, although since writing is what I enjoy, I would be interested in a few more guide lines for formatting and length.
Responding to Mixed Reviews
I was left with a bit of a pickle. I want to respond to their feedback, but I don’t want to box in their thinking. Since I’m already providing binary scoring criteria in the form of a grading checklist, I thought that maybe one step forward would be to make that criteria a little bit more formal and visible.
Cue technological intervention!
Rather than simply embedding my success criteria in the assignment description and self-assessment, I reverted back to using Moodle’s Advanced Grading features and actually programmed my scoring criteria into the assignment dropbox itself. Now, when students submit their next assignment, they’ll see exactly what I’ll be asking myself as I determine their grade. It’s the same strategy, just more obvious on the student side.
I also intend to take a cue from Stommel’s Ungrading article and his reference to Peter Elbow’s advise for “making rubrics plainer and more direct, a 3×3 or smaller grid”. If my students find comfort and security in rubrics, I can align with that need without being overly prescriptive. While I like the idea of student-generated or co-constructed rubrics, I feel that I’m pushing my group beyond their comfort zones in many respects, and suspect that in this particular iteration of the course, they won’t have a high tolerance level for that kind of co-construction.
They want answers, not more questions.
Bates’ SECTIONS Model
Here’s how my pedagogical intervention, implimenting electronic rubrics to replace the scoring guidelines found in my assignment descriptions, maps to Tony Bates’ SECTIONS model:
Students: The Moodle rubric is accessible and all students in the course will be able to use it
Ease of Use: Super friendly learning curve
Cost / Time: No overhead costs; minimal time commitment
Teaching (Pedagogy): Yes, their goals (and mine, as I want them to feel secure)
Interaction: The electronic rubric communicates information to students, but doesn’t really invite response. However, I will continue to email students qualitative feedback too, so the opportunty for dialogue is not lost.
Organizational (Support): Yes, our Moodle team supports the use of the Moodle rubric
Networking (Openess): No, students will not retain a version of the rubric after the course. This isn’t really something I’d considered. However, they will have access to their final mark and all of my qualitative feedback…
Security and Privacy: Yes, the Moodle rubric is compliant with internal policies related to privacy and user data.
As I reflect on this learning curve, I think that next semester I’d like to lead with more prescriptive scoring criteria, then slowly transition students into focusing less on my ask, and more on their learning. I realize that this is a process that will take time, trust, and a great deal of communication.
I think I asked for too much too fast, and while some students see my non-traditional approach as an opportunity, I must acknowledge that some see it as a threat, and I must make sure that I don’t leave those students behind in my efforts to push the envelope.
I want us all to get there, and we will, together.