How do we grade reflective work?

It’s marking season here and I’m working through the portfolios for my module on Negotiating Politics. In these, I ask students to reflect on what they have learnt during the module, contextualising it with their wider readings.

It’s an unusual piece of work for most of them, since it explicitly asks them to talk about themselves, rather than take the usual, distanced, ‘dispassionate’ standpoint that academics so like to use. Much of my work during the module has been to reassure them that they not only can use the word ‘I’, but actually need to use it.

For me, it’s a good way of getting students to develop their skills of reflection, to talk about all that they do for the module (not just what I see) and to make a connection between academic work and more real-world experience. Despite the odd concern about “you’re not telling us what to write”, students seem to respond well to it too.

However, it does all raise the question of how to grade the work.

In the module handbook that students are given at the start, I do spell out in some detail what I am looking for: evidence of self-reflection, of engagement with the literature and – if possible – development of practice over time, through use of the first two elements. Thus a student might identify that they lack confidence, they read about how to manage this, they try out some things in practice and then reflect on how they work. Success per se isn’t measured, but rather the extent of the student’s awareness of their situation and their efforts to make the most of it.

By necessity, this means that each portfolio is very different in its focus, since each student has different points that they take from the module. That’s precisely what I would want, since I cannot gainsay what they should learn, but it does make for issues of comparability.

For example, if a strong, thoughtful student feels they learn nothing more, because they already know it, then will they do better than a previously weak student who makes an obvious advance in their practice?

Such contrasts are actually very rare, since I have yet to read a portfolio that doesn’t demonstrate some reflection and development (even if only indirectly), but it is a useful question to consider when designing assessment.

At its root, this is a matter of one’s personal preference and learning objectives [look how I’ve slid back into academic-speak!]. For me, I wish to create as open a space for personal learning as possible, which means setting wide objectives. Others might wish to focus on something much more specific.

As a case in point, I’m toying with the idea of recasting this module for next time. That might mean moving to a single, multi-game simulation, but also changing the portfolio into something more practically orientated. One idea that takes me as interesting is to ask for a single-page negotiating brief for the game, submitted after the game, with an essay that explains how this brief would have helped the student to operate more successfully within the game. The formative work would then be a brief written before the game, which students would actually use. This strikes me as less vague and more practical, but potentially at the cost of the breadth that the current assessment offers.

Assessing simulations is one of the most difficult aspects of their use, so I won’t pretend that this is a panacea, but perhaps it might stimulate you to think some more about what you do. If you have good ideas (or even just ideas, or questions), then do post below.

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