Assessing Non-Traditional Assignments Design Sprint

When I advocated for this Design Sprint over the summer to be a part of our Digital Liberal Arts series, I envisioned the opportunity to bring in Fine Arts faculty to describe and walk other faculty through their process of assessing the kinds of work (art) their students produce. I thought it was time to have a productive conversation around “subjectivity,” assessment, creativity, and experience/expertise. I thought (and still think) that there are untapped opportunities for faculty from a variety of disciplines to collaborate on what assessment means and how we go about doing it (and, above all, why).

But then the semester happened, and things didn’t go as planned. The design sprint ended up looking quite different.

I started by asking, what is a traditional assignment? And while the various disciplines represented had different assignments that had been (and in many cases, still remain) the standard, they all shared one important commonality: they were all text-based.

These traditional text-based assignments have evolved over time (thanks to word processors and other technologies, they’ve gotten much, much longer), their modality has largely remained the same. The norms themselves, have been entrenched into our disciplines, reinforced implicitly and explicitly throughout our academic training.

Which is why it never surprises me when I ask the question, who taught you how to grade an essay (or whatever traditional, discipline-specific assignment), everyone looks blankly at me and shrugs. No one ever (or, depending on the discipline, rarely) explicitly taught us how to grade and assess what we are expected to grade and assess as TAs, as adjuncts, as junior professors.

And yet, we do it, and we’ve been doing it.

We know what a good traditional text-based assignment is in our discipline is because we have been normed into recognizing it. But we rarely take the time to sit down and reflect on what those norms are. Which is what I asked the participants to do next, list the “writing norms” and the “disciplinary norms” for their traditional, text-based assignments.

For the writing, there was the usual expectation of having a purpose or argument or thesis, supported by evidence, and presented in a way that was compelling, convincing, and made sense. It involved understanding the purpose and audience, and selecting the proper language level that corresponded with those twin influences (while admitting that for much of those traditional, text-based assignments, the audience was “the professor.”).

Oh, and following directions, which basically means, follow the norms.

For the discipline, it involved citation style; proper (or at least appropriate) theoretical or methodological approaches; understanding the proper use of primary versus secondary sources; and use of tables, figures, equations, notations, etc. Each discipline represented of course, had their own answers, but this encapsulates the general standards that each disciplines defines and reinforces.

The thing is about these norms is that they are, in fact, values. And the values themselves aren’t necessarily attached to a specific modality. At least, not all of them. Listing these values gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate what we think is most valuable in any given assignments, and allows us to start building a set of criteria that we can build upon when it comes time to assessing non-traditional assignments that are becoming increasingly common, taking advantage of the technologies that are available to us.

The biggest challenge, however, is admitting that we are all largely novices at this kind of work. No one ever explicitly taught us how to grade and assess each of our traditional assignments, but we have years of experience reading and writing these kinds of assignments ourselves, through our graduate school courses, our literature reviews, our own essays for courses, our research publications, our theses and dissertations, our exams, and our own grading experiences.

Just as we don’t expect a first-year undergraduate student to produce a publishable piece of work in our disciplines, we should not expect that we are as able and as confident in our work assessing the kinds of scholarship that now exist and that our students (and colleagues) are producing. We are novices, and that is a deeply unsettling position to find ourselves in.

Or, it can be deeply freeing. It gives us to opportunity to re-examine our values as educators, our values as practitioners in our disciplines, and our values when it comes to assessment. Because our experience and our expertise doesn’t just disappear, it just needs to be reassessed and realigned.

It can also be deeply humbling to assess work that we ourselves don’t feel confident that we could reproduce or do ourselves. We can turn away from that moment, or we can choose to celebrate it, that our fields are evolving and changing and growing. We can help our students understand the standards, norms, and values that have informed our disciplines and negotiate how these can be incorporated into the new kinds of work they are doing.

But it can only happen if we have that list of values, having gone through the process of prioritizing, so that when we open those files, those submissions, our students have produced for us, we feel like we can engage in the conversation that meaningful assessment requires of us.

We also talked about metacognition and reflection, and framing of assignments, but the purpose and timing of the design sprint was really about helping faculty get through the grading that they were facing right then and there, in this moment at the end of the semester.

I also put a call out on Twitter for resources, and this is what I got, as well as ones I knew of previously:

@readywriting i’ve always gotten a lot of mileage out of framing my stuff like this:

— Shawn Graham (@electricarchaeo) December 6, 2016

@readywriting @shorterpearson All I can tell you is to check out my new location at Newer than the Chronicle.

— Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert) December 5, 2016

@readywriting Transforming Classroom Grading

— Michael C. Russell (@ProfRussellCIE) December 5, 2016

@readywriting this is writing focused, but anti-racist writing assessment ecologies is great for rethinking grading (free ebook online)

— Kaitlin Clinnin (@kclinnin) December 5, 2016