Ending the semester, Lessons Learned (Part 4: Assessment)

This entry is part 27 of 48 in the series Teaching Transparently


I have thought a lot about HISP 205 since the semester ended last May.

I think (often) about how I would like to do it differently the next time through. I make lists for myself, I read things, and I ponder.

I wonder what it would be like to teach the class two times a year vs just one. I see teaching as constantly re-tooling, tweaking, re-evaluating, scrapping, starting over..and I am eager to dive in as soon as the term is over.

I fear that waiting until February to teach it again will mean a loss of momentum, and yet I worry that teaching it twice might mean a loss of my own sanity. Teaching a course as intense and as personalized as I try to make (and hopefully succeed) this one and running a language center…and finding a happy medium… balance continues to elude me.

One of my goals for this class (and for me) was to see what student-centered assessment would look like in a conversation class. I took a big leap and gave the reigns over to them. The content of the class and flow of the class was based on their interested and idea. They were there because they had personal goals that needed to be acknowledged and realized… or at least approximated.

What would it feel like to teach knowing (from the beginning) that in the end they would be the ones determining their own grades? Would there be pushback from them? Mass hysteria? Would I be able to let go? What would they be willing to take on? What would happen if I felt they didn’t merit the grade they said they did? what if they all wanted an A+?

In terms of the ebb and the flow and the direction of the class, they did an impressive job of taking the lead. It took a little time to show them that indeed this is how I wanted them to lead themselves (and that it was okay to stop, and stall and dig deeper if needed…or totally change direction if something happened on campus that they felt we should investigate).

To review: This is what I asked each student to do:

1) create a series of three goals or metas, one progressively more complex than the other, and each building upon the other, that were to be accomplished his term. The first goal was to be done by the end of March, the second by the end of April, the third maybe by the end of the term…but probably not.

2) create a series of tasks that s/he felt would lead to realizing those goals.

3) blog about about his or her progress at least 2 times per week

4) At the end of the term: write up a final self assessment (in English or in Spanish), reflecting upon the progress completed, including the work done in class that would contribute to these goals, and assign a grade for the term. The students needed to evidence of their progress as a way of justifying their chosen grade.

CAVEAT: If the grade s/he chose was lower than one than I would have selected, they would get my grade and an explanation. If the grade was higher, we would continue the conversation and try to see what it was that I was missing. I was willing to be (and wanted to be!) swayed, given that this was the student’s assessment of his/her personal learning goals in Spanish.

Cut to the chase: Not a single student felt s/he deserved an A or an A+.

With the exception of three students, the grade they chose for themselves matched what I would have given to them. And the rationale for those grades was impressive. To a person they admitted that this was hard work, sometimes frustrating, sometimes maddening… but they felt themselves grow towards their goals and they set for themselves. More important still, I feel, they could articulate the specific tasks or situations that proved to them that they had realized those goals.

Some (but very few indeed) met ALL of their goals. Almost all acknowledged that they had set up unrealistic expectations for themselves (in terms of how much they could get done in a semester) and many used their self assessment as a way to set up future goals for their language growth. (Exactly the kinda thing you hope to see happen…learning extending beyond the limits imposed by the classroom).

One student felt his final grade should be a C. He was not happy with himself, he did not take the risks he saw others doing, he felt he had not met his own goals. What was particularly stunning about his evaluation was he wrote in Spanish, and he wrote about this complex topic ( i.e. whether he met his own personal linguistic goals and if so how) with grace and ease and fluidity and honesty in his second language that was astonishing.

He progresado en todas estas metas. Sin embargo, no merezco una nota tan alta, porque no he hecho todo lo que pudiera. Pudiera escrito más de 15 entradas en los blogs (si hubiera hecho 2 entradas por semana, ahora tendría más de 20). También, la verdad es que no trabajaba muy duro durante el semestre para buscar un compañero de Skype. Si hubiera buscado alguién más temprano, hubiera tenido mucho más de 3 conversaciones por Skype, y posiblemente unas con una persona de España. Intentaba a participar en clase, pero muchas veces no lo hacía.

La nota que he logrado: C

Needless to say, I disagreed with him. His self evaluation was one of several “artifacts” from the semester that showed his language abilities were improving even though he himself could not see it. A shy, timid young man, he did not mention in his evaluation the class discussion he led, and managed, and blogged about at the end of the term… nor did he see how any of this was helping him move towards his most lofty goal…to be able to travel with friends in Spain and to be able to communicate with ease and without anxiety. This was hardly “C” work.

Lest you think the end of the term was all milk and honey and without warts and bruises, let me share with you the story of one student whom I clearly could not reach.

I have come to learn in my old age that there will always be one student, maybe two, who will always be unsettled or unhappy no matter how often you try to meet half way. The reason for this is profoundly simple: the students have been taught, over the years, that teacher leads and the student follow. To flip that around, and to be the only class in their schedule that is doing things this way, is unsettling to many of them.

Each semester I always have one student who takes particular umbrage with this way of teaching and assessment. Alas, no matter how many times the teacher says they are free to go, they stay on…and complain, almost as if learning is meant to be a test of wills. This semester it was a student whom I will call Edie. She struggled mightily with the format of the class, with the idea of decisions being made by a community vs an individual, with the idea of her voice being one of many and not the only voice. Edie wanted to dedicate class time to educate her peers on things she thought they needed to know. Edie wanted to write reports. Blogging for her meant writing workshops, that is, the student writes and she waits for automatic feedback…vs writing something that compels others to come in and leave a comment. She wanted to inform others about her travels, because they were important to her…and yet she wasn’t intuiting that her classmates were trying to tell her (politely) ‘thank you, but, um, no thanks’

When it came time to submit her final self assessment of her work towards her goals, Edie’s remarks were quite startling….

…Unfortunately, I think I have trouble with such an unstructured format as no one seems to be very motivated. I would loved to do a final presentation on (the history of her country of interest) in Spanish for the class, but everyone was complaining how there was already too much “serious stuff” so I didn’t suggest it.

…Seriously, I don’t really know how to write a blog the way your think I should write a blog. I guess, if it were up to me it would just be some short interesting stories about history and some random things about class and my life. I do not really know how to involve my opinion and tell the story I want to tell at the same time (or this is something I am just beginning to learn).

It pains me to read this, but not because of the critiques she makes about me, the tools, or the class. It pains me because Edie passed on an opportunity to try something new, experiment, take a calculated risk…all things she will eventually have to do when she travels in another culture. It’s sad because she was the only student who did not “let go” of something during the semester and instead just held on tight to how she wanted this class to be, vs how it really, truly was. Unstructured to her meant undirected. Allowing the group to decide the flow of the class frustrated her, because the cadence of the class was not one that was controlled by the teacher and therefore predictable

Edie’s classmates, as the semester inched along, were loosening up, trying new things, stretching their ideas and accepting that making meaningful connections with native speakers takes time. The class was creating its own culture, its own rules, its own direction. Instead of trying to adapt, Edie stiffened. She kept trying to lead them her way, but they weren’t interested. As she said in a later comment in her self -evaluation:

..All in all, this class and the plans I had for it did not work out quite like had intended.

Her final comment, and her self-selected grade, were equally perplexing:

…I am very passionate about a lot of subjects and I feel like because of the time limit for this class as well as certain formats of this class that I struggled with, I was not able to pursue those areas as thoroughly as I would have liked…..I think I deserve a B+ as I have put in a lot of effort, but keep finding myself at a lot of dead ends. I do not feel I should be punished for that. And while I struggled with the blog format, I should have posted more about history and politics, even if I couldn’t say it the way you wanted me too.

As I read this, and the other parts of her evaluation, it dawned he wanted a B+ for what she felt the class had prevented her from accomplishing, vs what she had actually accomplished.

Juxtapose this with the third student who was equally frustrated by the dead ends she encountered (in trying to get a Skype partner to meet with her consistently) and in the end she met only one of her goals (to overcome her fear of speaking with native speakers in Spanish…). But she persevered. She chugged and she chugged and she chugged along.

In the end, she presented me with a chart that logged over 40 hours of Skype conversations with a native speaker she eventually found, and 110 pages (!) of chat transcripts with others with whom she tried to make regular contact. In class, as a result of her out of class experiences, she became more involved and engaged, eventually leading a class discussion about her interests in music, but doing so such that it wove itself in with the topic the class was discussing that week. She thought she merited a B. Uh no. In my mind…her work and her efforts earned her an A.

The final breakdown of grades?

A 1
A- 7
B+ 2
B 5
B- 1

Next up: reading their evaluations of the course.

Series Navigation<< Teaching Transparently: Scuba diving in 2nd year college SpanishEnding the semester, lessons learned (Part 3) >>

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures 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 making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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  1. Lauren Rosen · July 28, 2009 Reply

    Thanks for sharing this. As I think about the kids that I have taught and the 2 that live in my house, I wonder if you might have hit on a learning style that gets ignored. Or perhaps learning style is the wrong reference. Perhaps it is personality for learning. I wonder if Edie, while appearing on the outside through what she wrote, as a leader is really a follower, and those who are often followers were given an opportunity to lead. All this was as a result of the structure of your course, not just the shift in expectations of the role of a student but also in the opportunity they were given. I see these great personality differences in my children. I can imagine that my “follower” would struggle but the experience would be good for her if she could get past the difficulty. However, if she couldn’t muster enough confidence to succeed she would look to blame the environment for her failure and throw up her hands rather than taking on the challenge and doing the best she can regardless of the outcome. My leader, on the other hand, would grab the bull by the horns and love every minute of the experience and the opportunity to move from a passive role into an active one.
    Thanks for giving your students the opportunity to grow and show their true colors. Thanks also for encouraging the rest of us to do the same. It truly is making a difference and I suspect down the road these students will remember this much more than what they learned in that 350 person lecture they took, even Edie.

    • Barbara · July 28, 2009 Reply


      Thank you for your comments. I am glad to know that what I am trying to do here has some relevance for others elsewhere.

      You mention the learners in your house. As mine get older (and eerily closer to the very same age group I am teaching) I find myself thinking about them and their learning when I teach. One of my sons, while reviewing possible colleges to visit this summer, dismissed one school by saying “they don’t have requirements and each student is supposed to find his or her learning path…and that’s not for me.” Secretly, I gulped. While I am glad he knows what works for him, I find it sorta comical that (in the case of my own child) the apple is falling farrrrrr from the tree.

      What is hard (for me) about teaching this way is that you don’t get to see the students again. You never will quite know if such an approach to learning effected some kind of change (for them, as learners, and for the better).

      I did have one student curse me once and say (with a smile) “Damn you, I will never be able to take another language course here because you’ve made me see how my voice really matters in the learning process…”

      Heh. The cycles of disruption and repair roll on…

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