Beyond “the Grade”: Teaching Students to Assess Themselves

Feedback for students can—and ideally does—come from several directions at several stages of an assignment, rather than “from above” and “at the end” and “as a grade.” Here are a handful of pedagogically sound and practical strategies for diversifying feedback and grading in your course.

Informal or Ungraded Feedback

Written comments and/or grades are common forms of feedback on assignments, but they’re of course not the only forms. In fact, even if you’re planning to provide those kinds of feedback for major assignments, the roles of your comments and/or grade will be clearer if students have been getting ongoing feedback throughout the assignment, much—if not at all—of which might be less formal and ungraded.

Informal feedback can take any number of forms, and it’s often happening when we’re not necessarily aware of it. Here are a few examples:

  • A short quiz or poll during a lecture can provide feedback about how well students have understood material or how confident they feel about an upcoming exam.
  • A “muddiest point” minute paper at the end of class can allow students to share a question they have at the end of class or at some point during an ongoing assignment.
  • Small group think-pair-share activities can allow students to a) think about their response to a discussion question, b) discuss their response in pairs, and then c) share out insights or questions they might have
  • Journaling allows students to follow their own experience of learning in ways that can often, otherwise, get lost in the moment.
  • Short check-in meetings during section or office hours can allow students to share work in progress and get immediate thoughts from an instructor about how things are going and next steps.
  • Practice exams offer lower-stakes, ungraded feedback heading into higher-stakes, graded feedback.
  • Drafts or proposals for writing assignments or projects allow students to approach drafting in a less intellectually conservative, more open-to-risk manner.

Like all formative feedback, these kinds of informal or ungraded feedback are a win/win for everyone in a course:

  • For instructors, they provide opportunities to “look under the hood” and see how students are learning before “the exam,” when, to some degree, it’s too late to make changes or help students who are struggling.
  • For students, they bake “failure/revision” into the process of learning and normalize it by taking a more iterative approach to bigger, higher-stakes assignments.

Peer Review

Depending on the size of a class and the size of the teaching team, giving students feedback on drafts of an assignment or every step of an assignment isn’t always feasible for instructors. That doesn’t mean, though, that students can’t get that kind of formative feedback or that instructors should feel like they need to cut down on formative activities that would “require” feedback. Peer review is one way to approach this, and works because

  • Getting feedback from peers who have been doing the same assignment is a valuable way to get out of one's own head and see different—and often better and/or worse—ways to approach one's own writing.
  • Giving feedback to peers allows students to adopt the perspective of an instructor, which can help them see their own work "from the outside" and through the same lens that an instructor will later use to give feedback—perhaps graded feedback—on an assignment.

Most versions of peer review can work really well as an out-of-class activity, or as in-class workshops,  where students are paired off or work together in small groups.

Self Review

We often wonder what a student’s experience completing an assignment was like. Cover letters for essays or journals and “artist statements” for non-traditional assignments allow students to talk to the reader about that experience, which gives them an opportunity to reflect on

  • various aspects of an assignment process, e.g., why they made certain moves in a draft or approached revision a certain way.
  • where they see moments of success with an assignment or challenges.

These kinds of self review make instructor feedback part of a shared dialogue about each student’s work (rather than just an isolated “judgment” of success and/or lack of success).

Specifications Grading

More soon!