Flipping your assessment practices

I was asked to give a talk at a regional language and technology conference last month.  When I last blogged about this,  the plan was for the preso to be a keynote, and I was making plans to flip it.  The organizers’ plans had changed and I ended up doing something slightly different.  No worries. It all worked out in the end. I was happy to have been a part of the event regardless of where I landed in the program.

What follows here therefore are the slides and the notes from the featured presentation I gave on flipping your assessment practices.   (The slides are all fine and good, but as my dear colleague Bryan Alexander once said, it’s not the slides we should be sharing with one another but the notes behind them…the real thoughts that make the pretty pictures possible).

It has taken a while to get this post out, but here she is.  As always, should you have questions or comments, please leave them in the comment section!

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I am curious how it is that  in all of the conversations I have had with colleagues about flipping the classroom, it seems that there is a crucial element of  the learning experience for our students is being ignored or overlooked… and that is the assessment and grading of the work that is being done by their students via this new learning paradigm.   On the one hand, teachers are quick to embrace student-centered teaching and learning in the classroom, but on the other hand it seems like the creation of grades  remains out of reach of the learners. I have heard many excuses: “This is the teacher’s job”  or  “This is why they pay ME to do this” or  “It would be chaos”  or “They will just give themselves A’s.”

But here is something  I learned from 10+ years of teaching a student-centered curriculum and also using student-centered assessment and grading:  When given the chance to take the momentum and the enthusiasm that the student-centered (flipped, if you will) classroom provides them and apply that  to evaluating their own progress as learners, the learning that happens is as remarkable  as what happens in the classroom.  In my opinion, and based upon what I have seen happen with my own students, student-centered assessment is the perfect complement to student-centered learning.

And yet, when I suggest this idea to others, invariably what I get in response is pushback. It is hard for many teachers, I think, to give up the role of judge and grader, because that is what it is understood that is what teachers are paid to DO…that their years of expertise have earned them the responsibility of being the sole arbiter  of a student’s level of knowledge in a particular discipline.

My thoughts are this: teachers teach…and lead…and cajole… and model learning.  And yes, ultimately, they are the ones who are responsible for telling the Registrar what the final grades will be.  But the process of assessment and determining that final grade need not be solely the teacher’s task. It can be shared and it can become a very important and powerful part of the learning process.

This quote from bell hooks, I believe, sums up the resistance I have experienced around this idea.

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My perspective is shaped by the experiences I have had teaching Spanish language courses in a small liberal arts college somewhere in the middle of a corn or soybean field in the middle of the U.S.   This semester, the conversation course I am teaching  has three parts.

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The in-class work refers to what we as a class do together, as part of the course.  This is -not- a participation grade or an attendance grade.  I loathe the fact that some teachers still have  a participation grade in their syllabi.   I don’t believe in them. I wrote about my antipathy for participation and attendance grades here a few years back.  Take a look if you want but I won’t take up space or your time here.

What I do believe in is low stakes assignments (recordings, readings, presentations or leading discussions on things we have worked on together) done throughout the semester….followed up immediately by my comments and suggestions and how that work has improved over time throughout the semester.  THAT is what in-class work is for my class.

The Radio Show:  I need to pull together a separate post out about how we used our mighty college radio station, WOBC, as part of our curriculum this semester.  I talked about it here during one of our LLU Live sessions. I would love to pull together people who would be interested in talking more about ways to use radio in the language  curriculum. Leave a comment if you are interested.

Student self-assessment, or the flipping of the assessment practices happens in the third bullet point: the Personal Project.  I ask my students to create a project for themselves that will be accomplished outside of class,  requiring 5-7 hours a week of contact time in the language, about a topic that interests them.  As they mull over possible topics, there are three questions that I ask them to answer for themselves and for their project:

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For many students, this is a terrifying challenge.  They are being given the opportunity to pursue something in the language that matters to them, and just to them.   And to then evaluate their efforts in that pursuit.

Much like the push back that colleagues have given me about “losing control of the class,” some students push back because they are über conditioned to having teachers tell them what to do and how to do it. Some students need several weeks of one on ones with me  to come up with a topic.

For most of my students, however, this is a liberating experience .

For everyone, including the teacher…this means lots and lots of work.

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As I mentioned, student projects coupled with self evaluation and self assessment have been a part of my teaching practice for 10+ years now.

Here, then, are some of the upsides I have seen in this practice:

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At least 10 of my students have used their projects as a basis for Fulbright, Compton and Watson Fellowships…all organizations that want to see that the applicant has thought deeply and constructively about their topics, as well as made contacts in the area prior to applying.

I also mention to my students that in the Real World, quite often you have to evaluate yourself every year.  Often you set goals for yourself in the workplace and then you evaluate whether you have met them or not.

Here is an example: Google and Zynga track employee effectiveness using employee-created OKRs (Objective and Key Results) or stated goals.  OKRs are measured in percentages… a 60 or 70% is considered a good OKR.  An OKR of 100%, however, isn’t good…it means your Objective is set too low…and that you could achieve more. (my thanks to Ryan for finding this tidbit)

My point is this: These are real world skills that our students sometimes don’t know how to do because they are not given the chance to do it in Academia.  And this, I believe, should change.

But yes, there are downsides to this process too:

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What follows here are some excerpts of the self evaluations I have received from my students.  At the end of the semester I ask them to write a 1-2 page letter to me in which they evaluate their work on their project (in English).  This semester my students also created their own rubric for evaluating their work.  What follows are some of the excerpts I have received.

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Some times they get creative and use visuals.  This is one of my favorites 🙂

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But that is the self evaluation part.  The part that really mystifies people about my teaching practice is that I allow my students to GRADE THEMSELVES on these projects.  In fact at the NERALLT presentation I was confronted by a French teacher who wondered if my administration knew I did this…implying, I guess, that I should be fired for abdicating my responsibility? You decide.  As I said, these ideas are really hard for many colleagues to embrace.

But here is what I have learned doing this. If you let students chart their own course based upon what they want to accomplish, ask them to identify what they think excellence will look like, and if you provide a supportive environment where errors are seen as part of the process but also where accomplishments are celebrated and encouraged,  students realize how messy and deep and multifaceted learning can be. They come to understand the importance of set backs and challenges as part of that process.  They see learning as a long-term, holistic, never ending process that must be seen in its entirety and cannot (and should not) be distilled into staccato, individual moments.  Learning is all of those moments (and more!) and is seen as points along a long term, 16-week spectrum.

So when it comes to evaluating all of that, something interesting happens.   Students appreciate  how complex this process is, and that the A that they so often want is not always what their efforts have earned.  They also come to understand how much more there is to learn about a subject or topic… something they often aren’t in a place to realize way back at the start of the term.

At the end of the semester I read their self-evaluations very closely and without looking at the grades they have chosen.   I make a list of what I think their efforts have earned.  And then I look at the grade that they chose for themselves.

Below: the left column is the grade I chose, the right is the grade they chose. This was from 2 semesters ago,

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Below:  This is from the semester that just ended. The grades highlighted in green have no disagreement, those in yellow have a slight (+ or -) disagreement, and in those in red have a whole letter grade disagreement.

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Each semester, there is one student (out of 18-20) where it is clear we are not seeing eye to eye.  And that means we need to talk a bit more about the learning that happened there.  For the ones where there is a slight disagreement, notice how in many of the cases the grade I think they earned is higher than the student’s. 

So much for the students all giving themselves easy A’s.  🙂

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I chose this slide to close the presentation.  Not because I want to disparage the work that we all do in the classroom day in and out, rather,  to make sure we mention of  and celebrate the learning that can happen by the students on their own and while following their interests, alongside our teaching.

If you are interested in reading more about student-centered evaluation as well as assessment, let me direct you to this article I wrote with a colleague who teaches Music Theory and follows these very same practices.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Barbara has been working for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for about 15 years. In addition to teaching Spanish she runs a somewhat unconventional language center. Prior to this adventure in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!

2 Comments

  1. David · January 8, 2014 Reply

    Thanks for a great post on self-assessment. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and a bit of writing on student self-assessment in advanced Spanish courses and would love to talk more about this topic with other language teachers.

    I’ve learned the following over the course of 3-4 years of asking students in upper-intermediate and advanced courses to formulate personal goals and assess their own learning:

    1) Students, like most of us, are not terribly good at assessing their own learning. I need to spend considerable time helping them see what constitutes good self-assessment, especially the difference between demonstration of effort and demonstration of learning. Self-assessment is a very valuable skill, though, so the time invested in helping students gain proficiency is well spent.
    2) As with other coursework, students need early feedback on their self-assessment efforts. Their first attempt at reflecting on their own learning — despite my best efforts to help them see what constitutes a good written reflection — is almost always mediocre or poor. So they need opportunity to fail, receive feedback, and try again. I need to keep the stakes low on the first self-assessment.
    3) Setting personal goals and monitoring progress seems like a highly transferable skill based on my observations. Students sometimes continue work on personal goals after the semester is over. Is it possible that the more the student has been able to shape her work in the class the more likely she is to continue that work beyond the final exam?
    4) Related to #3, student self-direction and self-assessment practices don’t fit well with the parameters of a traditional, 3-4 credit, semester-based class. Your points above about the messiness of learning and the time required to engage students in self-directed learning are right on target.

    Again, thanks for sharing the slides and notes from the presentation.

    • Barbara · January 17, 2014 Reply

      Thank you for your kind comments and for sharing some of your own practices! I am excited to know that there are others out there who are thinking about some of the metacognitive processes that happen as students learn a language, and how personal projects and self-assessment/grading can enrich those processes as well.

      I agree with all of your comments. I daresay that students are not the only ones who struggle with self assessment. We the old folks have already spent so much of our lives being evaluated by others, we almost tend to believe that we can’t do it for ourselves. And yet when it is time to do an annual review of your professional activities, for example, it has to happen and it has to happen well. Often I find myself wishing I had been taught these skills when I was in college!

      Yes to feedback…especially in the critical first two or three weeks of the term. Students are used to comparing themselves to others to figure out where they stand. Self directed learning means you can only compare your efforts to, well, yourself…and that is unnerving for many. Encouragement, cajoling, nagging, redirecting: all very important facets to helping students gain that needed proficiency.

      And agreed: the best projects are the ones that transcend the boundaries of the semester. When a student is struggling to find a topic for a project I often ask: what is something you wish you had time to explore in Spanish but you never had time. When they find that thing I reply: Well, this is your time! Enjoy it! THOSE are the projects where the learning never ends…nor should it!

      I hope you will come back and share your thoughts and comment more!

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