So Many Things To Grade, So Little Time….. (Developing Strategic Assessment Practices)

As graduate students, one of the things we really need to get a handle on is student assessment. After all, unless we are elected to an All Soul’s Fellowship or going into the private sector, we will eventually be facing rooms full of undergraduate and (if we are very fortunate) graduate students, all looking to us for assessment of their abilities, which in turn will be data mined by departments, schools, and universities in determining whether or not we receive job offers/continuing contracts/tenure/raises and the like.

I know from personal experience that during the first two or so years of teaching, this is one of the things that bogged me down the most. I felt utterly obligated to assign written work regularly (like, a writing assignment in each class session and one every night for homework!) and to grade everything. After all, isn’t that what teaching is? Constant feedback and data? Always letting them know where they stand in my class? Making sure they have plenty of grades and assessment so that everyone can see how much quality work they (and, consequently, I) have done in the course? My poor students. I was so exhausted and overwhelmed trying to keep up with my “teaching workload” (self-inflicted over-grading) that I had little time to spare either in being a human being (so long, weekends and evenings! I was gradinggradinggrading all of the things, all of the time!) or in being particularly nice to the little fiends who were ruining my life by doing so much crappy work (that I had to grade.) When it comes to grading, the biggest complaint is: Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Then, around about Year 5 or so–just at the time when many teachers give up and let it go, deciding they don’t have what it takes to do this job/they don’t want to be slaves to this job/they need a job that lets them be real people–a two-part lightbulb went on: (1) My students wouldn’t be writing nearly so much crappy work for me to grade, if I didn’t assign so much to write, and (2) I didn’t have to grade every single thing they did in order to know how they were doing. I had gotten to a point where I was able to gauge, just based on a student’s performance in class activities, or in informal discussions or conversations with a given student, how well that student was grasping the material. I also began to understand that by grading everything, I was not giving them the opportunity to learn–we were stuck in the Assessment Vortex, and it was my own fault.

I think many, if not most, teachers go through this developmental stage, because we are predisposed to doing an excellent job, because our work matters so deeply to us, because we want so badly to do right by our students. There’s so much pressure on us to produce results, that we think everything needs to contribute to showing results–and that’s not necessarily “wrong” thinking, so much as perhaps misguided. What we need to learn, though, is the difference between formative and summative assessment, when one or the other is appropriate, and how to use them in context. That’s the point of this blog post. Following almost fifteen years of teaching experience, capping off a recent workshop I participated in on the subject of instructional assessment through our university’s Preparing Future Faculty program, and in response to a Twitter discussion on the subject of effective and less time-consuming grading practices, here’s what I can share with other graduate student TAs who are newer to the work than I am about assessing student progress in meaningful ways without killing yourself with the grading. This post focuses specifically on embedded and classroom assessment techniques; future posts will consider subjects such as writing rubrics for summative assessment activities and writing learning goals and objectives and aligning them with assessment practices.

What Grades Are

To begin, I want to try to shift the thinking we might be doing about what “grades” mean. As students, grades are a de facto determiner of our quality and worth as scholars; we obsess over them because they are a tangible sign of our achievements. We want more (good) grades because they prove we are “good” students; or, we want more grades because it shows that we are improving in a visible way; or, we want more grades because it shows whether or not we are going to keep our scholarship. While certainly all of these things can be tied to grades from a student perspective, the problem is of course that this serving as an emotional crutch for our anxieties is not what grades and grading are supposed to do and mean. For assessment purposes, a graded assignment is a summative assessment: a determiner of whether or not the student has mastered a learning goal or concept being stressed in the course. Grades determine the success rate of the students in a class towards meeting a specific goal or aim of the course. If we see graded assignments as summative assessments, then we can clearly see that we actually should NOT grade everything. It is actually UNFAIR to grade everything, both to you, and to your student. Some practice, some development of the skills and concepts and knowledge domains being tested, should occur before grades come into play, as we know from our own experience as students, graded work is always “high stakes” because grades are so important on so many levels.

Summative Versus Formative Assessment

Therefore, “high stakes”, graded assigments should not happen until students have received instruction, practiced the skills, and received feedback on their progress. As instructors, we therefore need to be aware of what constitutes adequate preparation for a graded assignment. You’ll notice as a student that these summative assessments--things like quizzes, tests, essays, research papers, portfolios, labs, presentations, performances, and the like–often come later in the term, precisely because professors need time to deliver appropriate instruction, assess the effectiveness of that instruction, and provide corrective instruction as needed, to ensure students have been given the tools they need to succeed in the work. Progressively, as we work our way through the levels of education, we see the amount of time allotted prior to assessment shortened: a Freshman biology class might not have a test for the first 4 or 5 weeks of class, whereas a senior capstone course might see a test after the first two weeks; a general education literature course might begin individual student presentations 4 or 5 weeks into the term, while a senior majors course will see students signing up to present on the second week of classes; a professor may assign quizzes beginning the first or second week of the term but then drop the lowest quiz score, anticipating that some students may need to learn this skill.

In other words–don’t do what I did as a young, eager, new instructor–DON’T grade all the things. It’s assessment overkill, it’s discouraging both to you and to your students, and it will ensure that almost everyone in your classes hates you (including, sometimes, yourself.) There may be exceptions–like the guy who gets straight-As on everything and loves to gloat over his peers’ Cs–but almost everyone hates him, too. Rather than grading everything from the start, consider alternate ways of assessing student progress, ways that let you see how they are developing in a less stressful, “low stakes” fashion. This is called formative assessment–assessing the progress students are making towards a stated learning goal–and it should be a regular part of your classroom practice, embedded into instruction as much as you possibly can manage it.

Some people think this is “cheating the students.” They think it is unfair to assign work that is not graded, that it is wasting student’s time. I think this is a fair consideration. But if we tweak how we look at it so that we are not viewing these as “assignments” but rather as practice, developmental activities being performed in pursuit of the mastery of a skill or concept prior to formal assessment/ being graded on that knowledge, then we can see that it is counterproductive to grade all of it. We don’t get formally assessed on every draft of our seminar papers or articles, for instance. We have learned over the years that we need multiple drafts, that we need to practice before we publish. I know I don’t want ANYONE’S eyes on the first draft of one of my essays! Asking students to write for practice without formally grading it creates a low-stakes, low-anxiety environment in which it is okay to make mistakes. It’s a learning tool, not a final product. I think when we view it that way, it’s easier to say “I’m not grading it not because I do not care about my students’ work, but in fact because I do, and I want them to succeed.”

Formative assessment takes place any time you perform an activity to gauge how much of the information your students have retained, to determine how well they can apply that information, or to see whether your students are performing at the target level of competence–when not a homework assignment but rather employed in class, these kinds of activities are called Classroom Assessment Techniques. I would say that roughly 80-90% of my own assessment practice in the classroom falls under the umbrella of formative assessment via classroom assessment techniques, because it’s easy, it’s ongoing, and it doesn’t seem like “ASSESSMENT”–that scary, bureaucratic, professional word that conjures up No Child Left Behind and accreditation and instructional evaluation and all of those other generally distressing and anxiety-provoking things associated with the paperwork side of academia. Rather, classroom assessment techniques are light, fun, and can be really effective tools for demonstrating to the students their ongoing progress in the course without assigning grades to everything in the world, as well as a means for me to know where they stand in terms of my course goals and objectives.

Classroom Assessment Techniques

You can Google “Classroom Assessment Techniques” and come up with thousands and thousands of hits, and I encourage you to do so. Here are the ones I use most often in my courses, followed by a brief description of what they are and how I use them:

Background probe

1-minute papers

3-2-1 exercises

“The person before me” – summarizing another student’s point

Reflections on formal writing assignments

“3 facts in 30 seconds” recall activity

Quotation ID and analysis activity

“The Most” activity

Affective response

Reading responses

Student-led Discussion

Socratic method discussion

Workshopping papers

Blackboard discussions

But What Are They?

Here is a list of the formative assessment techniques I use with my freshman seminar on the Arthurian Legend in literature. I do not grade any of these activities–they all fall under the aegis of “class participation”. Occasionally, when it’s to determine class preparedness to move to the next instructional unit or for a summative assessment activity, I collect, skim or read through, and comment on them. To keep track of whether or not students are completing them, I keep a tally in my grade book (+ or -) as to whether or not students have visibly participated in class each session.

Background probe:

I present the students with a “background probe” designed to provide me with a starting point concerning the subject matter of the course (“Tell me what you know about King Arthur.”) This is important because by determining how much of the subject matter my students have already been exposed to, I can best allocate my time and resources towards presenting them with material they need, rather than reviewing information they already know. If the results of the background probe show that generally my students know significantly more than I anticipated about the course subject, we can delve slightly more deeply into analysis and theory, whereas if overall students are less familiar with the subject we need to focus more on basic information, application, and interpretation. This ensures that I don’t inadvertently either “dumb down” the class or go well above my students’ heads: I can meet them where they are and deliver targeted, meaningful instruction. I generally also conduct a background probe concerning their writing preparation, for the same reason—if everyone seems to be comfortable with structuring an argument, we can focus more on using sources meaningfully, for example. This helps me align the course with our learning goals in ways that are appropriate for the students enrolled in it, personalizing the course towards their success. This is the formative assessment I read most carefully, because it is a tool for setting the opening point of the course.

1-minute papers: Your professors have probably all used this one. Intermittently throughout the term, at the beginning or end of the class, assigning a 1-minute response to a prompt allows me to gauge whether students are ready for the day’s lessons and activities without revision (in the case of its use as a pre-class activity) or whether students have retained a key point or set of points from the session (in the case of its use post-session.) I collect, skim, and occasionally comment on these; they serve as the marker of where I need to start in the next class session.

3-2-1 exercises : This activity, which I got from our wonderful graduate studies director,  consists of students preparing 3 questions they have about the text, two quotes from the text they found important or significant, and one comment on something they found especially interesting in the reading. These can be used to gauge student reading and comprehension, to determine what questions students still have about the reading, and to generate class discussion. I only collect these when I need to determine how many of the students are coming to class prepared; it’s really just an advance organizer for them.

“The person before me”: an activity in which students bring up important points or interesting quotes about the reading, and before each new student can respond with his or her point or comment, s/he must summarize the point made by the person who spoke prior. (The teacher begins, so the first student has someone to summarize). This reinforces the points being made, gives students practice in summarizing other people’s arguments (towards written essays and research presentation techniques) and requires students to pay greater attention to one another in class discussion. I can monitor what is being said and how it is being understood closely and intervene to clarify when and if necessary to ensure student comprehension. There is no writing involved in this one.

Reflections on formal writing assignments: After the first draft of each of the two major essays in the course, I will ask students to write a reflection on their essay, responding to the following questions: 1.) what do you feel that you did especially well in this essay? 2.) What problem(s) with your writing did you have to address while working on this essay, and how did you address them? 3.) What do you think could be improved in this essay? 4.) Overall, how do you feel about the essay’s quality? 5.) What did you learn about yourself as a writer on this essay? And 6.) Do you feel this essay meets all of the requirements on the assignment sheet? Be specific in terms of why or why not. This will enable me to understand how the students see themselves as writers, what problems or concerns they have with their writing, and what I may need to focus more on during instructional time; additionally, when students go to revise their essays towards the final draft, they can use their responses to this reflection to guide that work.

“3 facts in 30 seconds” recall activity: This is an activity designed to let me know how much information my students have retained about their reading. I will assign them a prompt (“give me three facts about…..”) and give them 30 seconds to jot down hose facts. If students have trouble generating the facts in the allotted time, then I know more attention needs to be paid to information gathering and retention activities. The goal is for the students to have a body of knowledge at the ready, in order to facilitate their writing and class discussion endeavors. I skim representative responses to determine quality, but don’t necessarily read through all of these.

Quotation ID and analysis activity: When we are preparing to write one of the major essays or gearing up for the midterm or final exam, I like to step up our writing and analytical activities, because this allows me to gauge how prepared they are and set them up for success on those summative assessments. Approximately 2-3 weeks before the midterm, we’ll do a series of quotation ID and analysis activities. This particular activity permits me to determine how well my students are  developing in terms of their recall and analysis skills, with the goal of habituating them to performing acts of literary analysis towards both their essays and examinations. Giving them an anonymous “blind attribution” consisting of no more than a paragraph or stanza of text, I ask my students to identify the quote by title and author (when applicable) and then to perform a brief close reading/literary analysis of at least 2 elements they see in the passage. I read these fairly carefully, because then I can provide necessary corrective instruction prior to the summative assessment activity.

“The Most” activity: I use this as a response to reading. The prompt is always the same: “The most ________________ thing about the reading for class today was _______________________.”) Students can fill this in with whatever word they choose (the most: surprising, astonishing, confusing, annoying, upsetting, interesting, exciting, thought-provoking….) but must follow through with a specific example from the reading to support their comment. Taking turns reading these aloud (or, in the case of a reluctant class, I collect and read them one by one myself) generates class discussion; after each comment is read, I ask the class “do you agree? Why or why not?” because they have to justify their responses, this serves as a formative assessment of their reading and interpretation practices, as well as their ability to construct an argument and defend their thinking with evidence—all acts they must be able to perform on their exams and essays for the course. In the instance that students choose “confusing” I know this is something I need to go over, or ask other students to clarify, during the class period. I don’t collect these unless there are an abnormally large number of “confusing” responses–which may indicate a need on my part to flesh out explanations.

Affective response: A variation on “the most” activity, an affective response is simply students remarking on their emotional or psychological response to the reading. The prompt is generally some form of, “so what did you think/ how did you feel about the reading last night, and why?” And I usually ask them to jot down what they think, to give them time to organize their thoughts. The purpose of this is both to gauge student reading (if they don’t have an opinion, they likely did not read, which means I need to adjust how I tackle the class activities), to give students a chance to take ownership of discussion with their own responses to the text, and to provide a number of avenues for entering into discussion or writing activities on the text based in student responses. I do not collect these; again, they’re advance organizer activities for the students.

Reading responses: Reading responses are 500-700 word responses to some aspect of the week’s reading. I do not ask students to do this every week, because I feel that leads to rote response rather than reflective thinking on the text. Instead, I ask students to choose three texts over the course of the term to which they write responses. Their responses can take many forms – a thing they found especially interesting/surprising/confusing about the text, an informal discussion of a character’s behaviors or motives, a discussion of some literary element or set of elements the student remarked upon as being particularly important or meaningful, a personal connection the student has to the text, a comparison to something else the student has read or studied or seen before, and similar—but they always involve close reading, a skill the students need to develop in order to succeed on the high stakes assignments and in other classes. Students may choose to use reflections as a basis/ prewriting for their formal essays in the course, in which case they become valuable parts of the writing process. Limiting the number each student completes and staggering them over the course of the term permits me to read and comment on them more thoroughly than getting a giant stack in one go would.

Student-led discussion: Every student in the class signs up to lead discussion once over the course of the term. They are tasked with creating 3-4 questions designed to generate class discussion. The questions must be interpretive, analytical, or require that students in the class engage in application of a theory or other skill to the reading. While the students engage in their class discussion based on these questions, I write down anything that is said that is particularly relevant, meaningful, astute, or in some other way stands out; after the students have finished going over the questions we review what’s on the board, engaging in a “real time analysis” that models for them ways in which they might go about constructing meaning based on their responses to the questions and also allows me the chance to fill in any blanks I see in the work they have done. This assesses many elements of student learning–recall, interpretation, application, analysis and even synthesis–but in a non-threatening way that promotes agency and student-centered instruction.

Socratic method discussion: This is the easiest way for me to conduct embedded assessment in my class and I use it regularly. Posing a question or set of questions, I ask students to respond; sometimes, I call on specific students, sometimes, I ask for volunteers, and sometimes I pair the students and have them “think-pair-share” a response for the class; then we discuss the answers and especially consider any answers that are different from the others, in order to determine comprehension and student ability to close read, interpret and analyze texts. When students have trouble answering my questions, I need to consider whether it is a question of their not being prepared, or whether I need to do a better job of instructing them, which largely determines how the rest of the session goes and what happens next in terms of my instructional design—am I on track, or do I need to rethink the approach and how much time I’m devoting to particular texts and skills sets for reading them? There’s nothing to collect or read with this activity.

Workshopping papers: This is a specific activity designed to help students navigate the writing of their formal essays. A week before the final draft is due, students bring in their roughdrafts and undergo a peer review in which they read their work aloud to 2 of their peers, who are following along with copies of their essay-in-progress. The peers then respond to the essay draft, noting things such as the strength and quality of the argument, the thesis, whether the examples are appropriate, how strong the analysis is, and the like. As the students conduct this activity, I am able to walk around the room and observe, which lets me know how well they are doing with their writing and with literary analysis. I get a good sense of what I still need to do as an instructor to help them succeed in their written summative assessments. This activity, together with the reflection the students perform, is excellent formative assessment towards better quality writing instruction. I have nothing to read or comment on after this activity until they turn in the final draft.

Blackboard discussions: Each week, in addition to in-person class discussions and activities, I put a discussion question on Blackboard to which the students must first make their own response, and then respond to the answers others have given. This goes into class participation, but is not formally assigned a grade. The questions are questions of interpretation, analysis, or application, often are based on what we did in class on Tuesday (I often use them to shore up problem areas in student learning gleaned from the classroom assessment techniques!) and students can use their answers to the question and to one another as material towards their formal essays if they wish. I skim through their responses to determine participation and whether there is anything particularly noteworthy that I can bring up in class.

 Summing Up

As you can probably tell, while I do value summative assessment, formative assessment is my instructional drug of choice, both because it is less threatening and onerous and because it gives me ongoing evidence of my students’ progress without requiring hours and hours of paperwork. I tend to keep my summative assessments to around 3-4 a term, and provide at least 3 different types of formal assessment to allow for differences in student strengths and learning styles (midterm and final exams, an essay or two, and either a portfolio or research project, a presentation, or some similar holistic evidence of student learning.) But I perform at least one or two formative assessments in every class session, because that way I always know where my students are, where they are going, and what I need to do to get them there; my students know where they stand (I try to let them know what I think of their progress, i.e. “You guys did a great job today! Really strong analysis of this poem!” or, “You guys worked hard today. Make sure you review the genres before the quiz Thursday”, or, “It seems like we’re having a little trouble with applying the terms to the reading, so review your notes and we’ll try again next week”)–and because this drastically reduces the amount of actual grading I am doing, i can still catch the latest episode of “The Walking Dead and meet my deadline for article revisions. :o)


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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1 Response to So Many Things To Grade, So Little Time….. (Developing Strategic Assessment Practices)

  1. Pingback: The Week In Review, 3/16-3/22, 2014 | Melissa Ridley Elmes

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