Grading and assessing, while far from being the same thing, are tangled together in much of education, but particularly higher education; while we keep hearing that grades don’t really assess student learning, we keep creating offices of assessment, assessment metrics, assessment plans, we keep assigning grades at the end of the semester, informed by the students’ perceived performance on a number of metrics we assign and evaluate throughout the semester. The students, they don’t see the difference. As faculty, we often don’t either, beyond different lines in a ledger.

Two years ago, I wrote:

What if assessment and grading and evaluation were seen instead as the most important part of the learning process? Because where does learning really happen? When we are confronted with the limits of our knowledge and push ourselves past them. How do we know if that confrontation doesn’t take place? And that it takes place as a conversation, an iterative process, rather than a something we are all subjected to?

What if we approached grading as an opportunity? What if we saw it as the most important parts of our jobs? What if the institution saw it as the most important part of our jobs, not in offering us new ways of avoiding it, but actually supporting the work? What if students saw it as the most important part of their learning, rather than the most important part of their eligibility, legitimacy, identity?

I want to push that even further, and ask today, what if assessment was our way, as educators, to show students we care? Because isn’t that, at the end of the day, what we’re actually looking for from our students? What are those points of frustration that we most frequently vent about — that students didn’t follow directions, didn’t properly format, didn’t have the requisite number of references, didn’t meet the page limit, didn’t proofread, didn’t even appear to try.

We wonder whether students care.

And what are we asking students to care about when it comes to our grading? Discrete units of measurement, details, that we know make a difference between good and great work. Or poor and good work. But those details are a simulacra for care, for effort, for attention… for learning. But they are our simulacra, not the students’. The markers teachers make represent what we care about, what we value, what we look for as we work through, machine-like at times, our students’ work.

What if, instead, we cared about our students, and not their products. The essay is no longer the simulacrum for learning, for the student, but instead what if we make the student the thing we care most about. Not that the assessment goes away, but it is not the most important thing, and instead the secondary thing in our assessment. Grading and assessment become conversations, instead of two competing monologues. Learning becomes the thing, instead of stand-ins for what learning could superficially look like.

It is also one of the reasons we struggle grading or assessing what we call “non-traditional assignments” – those pieces of work our students produce that lack the trappings of the simulacra we are so accustomed to seeing. When the assignment is stripped bare of those trappings, what are we left to look for to see if the students, in fact, cared? And how do we show that we, in fact, still care, that the work the students do matters?

It is a place of vulnerability for us, as instructors, to also be laid bare in these situations and confront what is not yet known or understood, what is outside of the ordinary. Because we still matter, as well, in our attempts to help the student, through these assessments, to help them learn and make sense of their learning. If we remember what matters about us – our expertise, our experience, our insight, our care for the discipline, our care for the students’ learning – then we can start from a place of confidence, instead of deficit, when we start to think about how to grade and assess.

Join me next Tuesday, December 6th, from 4-5pm in HCC 407 to strategize how to grade and assess non-traditional assignments. The goal of this session will be to think through some of the complications of assessment and especially to think about what happens when our assessments are directed at complex projects in sometimes unfamiliar media. Specifically, how do we assess digital projects, web sites, blog posts, or more elaborate creative experiments, while keeping the student central in the process. This is the last Design Sprint as part of the Digital Liberal Arts series for 2016, and I hope to see you there, to continue this conversation.

Image by Tom Ezzatkhah licensed CC-0.

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