Sunday, August 07, 2011

Assigning and grading essays this year? How old school of you.

As I begin to think about assignments for the semester, I find myself torn between the tried and true--assignments I've given before--and fancy new possibilities. Just in time to help, "Professors Cede Grading Power to Outsiders—Even Computers" at the Chronicle describes a couple of models of teaching wherein you assign essays but never grade them yourself, and Cathy Davidson at the New York Times questions whether we need essays at all.

The first is the model of online-only Western Governors University (there's no possessive apostrophe in that name, which may be a sign all in itself). WGU assigns students to a faculty mentor and "[n]o letter grades are given—students either pass or fail each task. Officials say a pass in a Western Governors course amounts to a B at a traditional university." All the grading is done by a cohort of adjunct professors, who never see the students and thus aren't swayed by issues of how hard the student worked or other external factors. It sounds like a no-classes version of the AP exam or maybe a CLEP exam.

This model of splitting instruction and assessment into two different areas is actually one that most of us are familiar with: exit exams, portfolio assessment, and programs like the first-year writing program at Texas Tech all use a form of this model, and as in those examples, the instructors participate in norming sessions to ensure consistency. Since the exam is everything in this model, what happens to all the pressure for instructors to evaluate students in multiple ways?

The second model gave me pause: using a program called SAGrader to grade the students' essays and give feedback on them. I remember seeing programs like this touted a few years ago, and they were easily fooled by both the bombastic say-nothing five-paragraph essay ("Weather is very important in this our world today") and the "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" variety of nonsense sentences. Here is what gave me the most pause:
When she announced to her class that software would automatically grade the essay tests, many students were wary. "The students said, I'm being graded by a robot?" she remembers. "I said, Anybody who doesn't get a 100, I will look at a machine, and I will see if the machine made a mistake."
So a perfect score--not just an A, but a perfect score--is the default grade for these essays? I went to the site, and apparently the model there is that students submit essays until they are perfect in some terms or other, though I'm not sure that creativity and critical thinking are part of those terms.

The third model is Cathy Davidson's in Now You See It. In "Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade" at the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan quotes Davidson as suggesting that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not within ourselves or in our underlings but in our assignments:
What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?”
If we assigned tweets, blog posts, and wikis instead of essays--and quit teaching old-fashioned writers like Thomas Pynchon--we'd be doing everyone a favor, including our students, she concludes, because we're trying to prepare them for jobs that won't exist in the future instead of the 65% of all jobs that haven't been invented yet. Incidentally, in the comments to the article, I learned that some students are using an easier way to read online: Visual-Syntactic Text Formatting, which sets up a sentence to look like a poem.

There's something attractive about having students experiment with different forms of writing, but speaking as someone who has taught or used with students a lot of technologies only to see them fall by the wayside, I'm not sure but what she's missing the point. (Example: do you still teach them or have to teach them how to write HTML in Notepad? How to observe listserv etiquette? How to write an email address? I didn't think so.)

But technology aside, can't each of these forms teach something different? Is there something inherently better about a 144-word message or a 600-word blogpost than a short research paper where you have to synthesize, group, and critique ideas, adding some of your own?


Anonymous said...

Not inherently better, no, but I've had really good luck with blogs. The idea that they are writing for the whole class, not just for me or some "teacher," really does seem to improve performance.
And, you can assign the same topics, and so on, same essay questions.

Anonymous said...

But, this year, I have decided I will not let any underclassmen write essays. Freshmen will write sentences, and sophomores, paragraphs. It is what they can handle. Papers 3-4 and 5-6pp junior year, and 7-8, 8-10, and 10-12 for seniors, 12-15 at the M.A. level and PhD students max at 20, no more allowed and NO PADDING.

undine said...

I use blogs, too, profacero, but usually as a more relaxed form than essays. I like the writing I've seen there.

I'm thinking of assigning shorter but more papers this year.

Kellen said...

Profacero - our English professor freshman year had us write a 10 page draft, and *then* had us edit it to a 3 page final essay. That way, the 10 page draft had some fluff, but it was all cut out to get down to 3 pages, while I believe that if the assignment is 3 pages from the start, it always seems like you have 2 pages of something real to say and then a page of fluff anyway.