Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Live, from Wildacres, it's 2010's CWPA!

Yes, it's that time of year again, folks. I find myself up in the woods-covered mountains of Western North Carolina, spittin' distance from the Blue Ridge Parkway, hanging out with a gaggle of composition theorists and rhetoricians with only nominal control of their drinking impulses.

Seriously, these are wonderful people, and as was the case with the previous two years of this shindig (my first time was in 2008), by the dawn of the first full day (now) I've already had a dozen wonderful and insightful conversations. I've gotten a few pointers for my book from the point of view of my friends in writing centers and first-year composition programs, having asked several of them pointedly "so...what would you want to get out of such a book?" I've gotten a few nibbles of interest for the poetry conference, including a few from the writers' workshop that's going on across from us in the other lodge. Mostly, though, I've been talking assessment. (w00t.)

Assessment is the theme of this year's get-together, and we started things off last night with a keynote presentation from none other than Chris Anson, writing assessor extraordinaire. Of course, ever in teaching mode, all through the conversation he instigated I thought not only of the programmatic assessment we're undertaking with the Writing Intensive program but also my own assessment of my students' performance. Am I assessing what I claim to value as learning outcomes for my courses? Am I applying suitable methods in order to help my students achieve those outcomes, both at the micro (assignment) and macro (course) levels? And are my outcomes measurable, reasonable, and meaningful ones in the first place?

I think that the answer to all three of those questions, fortunately, is "yes." I feel confident that I'm doing the right thing, more or less, by this point in my career.

But I could be doing better, and after last night's conversations I am more firmly convinced than ever before that portfolios are the right way to go.

I was complaining to my colleagues Cammie and Nico (both of whom teach rhetoric at Western Carolina University) about how in mathematics assessment of student mastery is all too-often tied to completion of a particular course with a suitably high grade, with little behind that grade other than similarly high performance on exams and quizzes which essentially test rote memorization and unthinking application of various formulas and algorithms. For context: this followed a rather lengthy conversation stemming from Chris's presentation that began with his assertion that it was difficult to assess a student's knowledge of the works of Shakespeare by asking whether the student got a B or better in a course on Shakespeare's writing. Nora (from UNC-Charlotte) countered that such a measure could be an effective one, depending on what exactly you were measuring: it all depends on how it is that B was arrived at.

It was interesting to note that during that earlier conversation Cammie and Nico were musing about how nice it must be in mathematics, where quantifiable outcomes lie so thick you can't but trip over them.

No, portfolios are the way to go. I'm already so repulsed by assigning numerical values to single iterations of students' work that I don't know how much longer I can continue to do it. It almost made me physically ill yesterday to put numbers on the "final" drafts of my Linear students' papers on the geometry of linear systems.

What needs to be done next, if I plan on taking big steps in that direction? I need to convince my students that it's worthwhile and doable (I don't think this will be too hard a sell). I need to firm up each course's learning outcomes (which I already have for most of them) so that they're clear enough to explain to students and solid enough to be measurable. I need to make sure every assignment or activity I craft is explicit in its intentions (I'm already doing this). I need to more cleanly codify the way in which the students' portfolios would be put together, added to, and ultimately assessed.

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, much of this I've already done. I just have to be more purposeful about it, take a deep breath, and jump.

Okay, the first bell rang about ten minutes ago...I should get ready for breakfast.

More to come!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the students are aware of the teacher's responsibility to place some kind of "value" on their work. I feel that you have the right notation to NOT place such values on one's work, as it may indeed be based off of so many different ideas. However, the students, (I think), not only expect this type of review, but they may almost welcome it as it gives them insight on whether they understand the material and what they can do to improve their learning habits.

The students know their responsibility to not only learn in class, but also engage in the material outside of class. This could mean anything from studying to meeting with the professors, after all, that's why you guys are here right?

I wouldn't worry about placing numerical values on students' work. Its one of those facts of life, you do work and you get a grade for it. The same is true for a job, you get paid for your quality of work. Sure some students struggle, but ultimately they can only help themselves to get better. There are dozens of resources available to students (peers, professors, the internet, books, etc.) and IMO, anything can be done if you want it badly enough.

Bottom line, if you don't like placing numerical values on students' papers (and I fully understand this, as a student myself) then simply place letter grades based on quality of work, or even leave them a note to come seek help if needed. And if they REALLY, honestly want the help, they will come find it.