Color-Coded Grading

Following Chad’s post earlier this week about using rubrics, i thought I would share a method for grading papers that a colleague shared during a workshop.

Following the stoplight method of green is good, red is stop, and yellow is caution, this method involves marking up papers with colored highlighters to provide a visual cue to students as to their overall performance on the paper.  Sections where the student is doing well are marked in green; grammatical errors are marked in yellow, and substantive problems are marked in red.

The use of colors has a number of benefits.  The use of green balances the standard practice of using red ink to indicate problems, and using a separate color for grammatic problems allows us to note the problems without having to explain the problem in detail.  I find that it reduces the amount of time I spend making comments, as the color often suffices to indicate to students the nature of the problem or success without having to generate individualized comments. I find it particularly useful for the grammar comments, which I usually want to note but not spend a great deal of time on. This type of grading is also easily adapted for either hard copies (where you use actual highlighters) or electronic papers (using the highlighter in Word).

The color system is easily understood by students and only requires a few moments to explain when turning back the first paper.  I haven’t yet looked into whether this method works better for students than the traditional commenting method, but I do find that it reduces the amount of time I spend trying to generate comments for papers.

More on human nature

Following on last week’s discussion about when do people learn, as against their nature, I found myself after class having exactly the same conversation with a student.  The assessment for my module on ‘negotiating politics’ is a reflective piece, where students consider their development as negotiators, in light of both the literature and their own experience through the weeks.

Today’s class was about principled negotiation, taking Fisher and Ury’s classic “Getting to Yes” as the key text.  The student was bemoaning the idea that it was necessary to analyse one’s own actions and that over-analysis was the likely outcome.  Indeed, he claimed that now we’d covered the model, everyone in the class was just going to stick to it and no one would really learn anything.

I reminded him of the second round of Victor’s card game, where a student had just ploughed on because “it’s nice to have more than one card.”  I then also remarked that even though I’d closed today’s class with a reminder about the centrality of good (or indeed, any) preparation in being an effective negotiator, I was confident that not everyone in the class would prepare, not even for the session in a fortnight entitled “preparation in negotiations”, which I have flagged repeatedly as requiring preparation.

The student took the point, but it was apparent that he didn’t quite buy it.  And it’s here that the experiential model will really kick in.  In a few weeks, I’ll be able to go back to students and ask them how the theory they’ve learnt has helped them and shaped their actions; not because I think it will have changed much, but because it won’t.  Likewise, even though they know they should be keeping notes to help them produce their reflective piece at the end of the module, most will not have been particularly assiduous about it.  By making them confront their natures, I hope to make it more likely that they will change (or at least modify) them.

Then again, I’d not bet on it…

The Advantage of the Long Course

Last night my 8 week US politics course finished up–its the same credits as a 16 week course, but we meet once a week for 4 hours for 8 weeks, so everything is condensed. These types of courses are primarily aimed at the non-traditional student who works during the day, although many traditional aged students take them as well.

Three or four hour courses are not uncommon in colleges today, and when we tell job candidates about them, the reaction typically varies from mild horror to ‘thanks, i’d rather not have a job right now’.  My reaction was similar at first, but I’ve come to love these courses.  Here are my top five reasons to perk up at the chance to teach a long night class.

5. It counts as part of your load.

We have a 3-3 teaching load, with no more than 25 students per class.  The 8 week class counts as part of the load–which means that the other 8 weeks, I only have two courses.  Teach two night classes a semester, and you either have a 2-2 the entire year, or if you teach them at the same time, the odd 3-1.  And if you want to pick up some extra cash via an overload, a night class in your ‘off’ term is the way to do it.

4. You Can Take Advantage of the Down Time

You have to break up the time anyway–the best lecturer in the world is not going to keep students on their toes for 4 hours week after week. Sure you can give them ‘breaks’ but why not take it further?  In the middle of each class I give the students a 15 minute break followed by ‘current issues discussion’.  The break is long enough for them to scour the local food options for dinner; then we sit down and eat while talking politics for 20-30 minutes.  Each week 3-4 students are responsible for choosing the issue and leading the discussion, which has the added bonus of giving me a break and time to eat my own dinner. Its a great way to take a ‘break’ from the class while still giving the students time to talk and learn.

3. Active Learning Bonanza

Four hour classes offer an amazing opportunity to try out active learning principles.  There is so much room for simulations and games in these classes–finally you have the time to brief, play the game, and debrief.  You can get the students out of their seats and moving around, and still have plenty of time to hit the highlights of the week’s topic.  In a four hour class, active learning becomes a necessary part of the course.

2. Students Can Really Learn The Material

I don’t find any difference in student learning in the 16 and 8 week version of my US politics course.  As previously posted, I use the US citizenship test as a pre- and post- test in this class, and the 8 week students do just as well as the 16 week students (last nights crop was no different: on the pre-test only 1 student passed; on the post-test everyone passed).  Students sometimes feel that they are missing out by only having 8 weeks instead of 16, and indeed they have to learn the material twice as quickly.  But I can be confident that these students aren’t being cheated in any way.

1. They Push You as a Teacher

I may feel exhausted both before and after I step into the classroom, but while I’m there, I’m completely energized. Four hours isn’t a hardship: its an opportunity–an opportunity to figure out the essential ideas of each content area and how to deliver it to the students.  I can experiment with new types of assessment, with new games and simulations, with readings, and with different technologies.  The challenges of this kind of course have led me to engage in more reflection on my teaching than any other course.

Are there downsides?  Sure.  Its exhausting.  The students are sometimes late to class due to traffic or work or kid issues; and sometimes they power down despite your best efforts.  But these hassles are no different than those faced in day time classes.  So my advice?  If you get a chance to teach a non-traditionally timed class, jump at it.  You may be surprised at how much you enjoy it!

 

 

Leaving the Room Open to Unexpected Learning

Several weeks ago while playing a few rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma I came across an opportunity to learn from my students.  The game went in this way: Students were to play one round of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (rat out your partner in order to win more, or cooperate to reduce a prison sentence).

A pair of women in the corner simultaneously cooperated.  For those unfamiliar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the standard of the game is for both people to rat out their partners.  Sometimes people do cooperate but normally they don’t.

We discussed the gave at some length and then I began the standard social scientific move to iterated repeat games.  I asked the students to play 9 rounds of the game. After 9 rounds the two african american women were still cooperating though they had never talked before in class prior to this game.

Here is where it got interesting.  I explained that in general we should expect people to cooperate some but not all the time.  The students nodded along.  The two women in the corner looked at me quizzically. So I knew there were potentially different explanations for why cooperation and defection were good or bad strategies.  So I asked the students: “ladies, why were you constantly cooperating?” Another student, a while male, tried to explain to them how they were being irrational.  That they needed to realize that they weren’t maximizing their opportunities.

And one of the pair said, “You people don’t really know what it is to grow up in an environment where security really is a problem.” She said: “In my part of town you don’t cheat people or rat them out.  You can’t, no matter how much money you might get from it, because you don’t know if the person you cheat is going to show up and shoot up your mom’s house, or kill your brother.”

The classroom recoiled in horror.

I could have shut this down.  Clearly we had entered a space in which the student offered up a lived experience to question the theoretical conclusions. A lived experience that ran close to being socially, economically, and racially charged.

It is at these moments that we must decide whether to let it ride or to embrace it and try to dig deeper into it.  At once, here were two women presenting the room with an entirely different perspective.  One that most had never been privy to.  The learning was shifting immediately beyond the theoretical importance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to understanding a diversity of perspectives, to how to think about who was in the room, to try to consider what truth and the imperatives of action really dictated.

I was reminded that active learning isn’t always planned learning.  Control is the purpose of the rules in a game, but what exactly we are trying to control is the question.

My challenge to reader is to consider the way in which control is leveraged in active learning, and to question just how much we really need and for what purpose.

My thoughts keep going back to that awkward silence and the exasperation of the male student toward the continued cooperation of the two females. It was such an eerie and powerful thing to say….so much so that I’m not even certain what we learned exactly, and I suspect that this is the point of exposure to new perspectives.  Not so much that we come out with clear conclusions, but that we throw them into a controlled disarray.

A is for ‘awful’ or ‘awfully good’?

One of the joys of the teaching process is that you tend to get your feedback at a point when you can’t really do anything with it until the next time you run the class. You might argue that students get the same deal, but that’s another matter.  So here’s a quick and easy way to do some mid-stream modifications, using an “A-B-C” exercise.

After a few sessions of your class, when things have bedded down a bit, take 10 minutes to do this.  Give everyone in the class 3 post-it notes (other brands are acceptable).  Ask them to put one idea (anonymously) on each note as follows:

  • One note on something that they want to Abandon in the class;
  • One note on something that they want to Begin;
  • And one note on something they want to Continue.

Once they’ve written them, they can post them on the whiteboard/blackboard/wall.  With all the notes, you can then do a quick review with them, grouping similar points together and giving your first impressions.

The next class, you need to come back with some constructive feedback, to show that it’s not just been an exercise in raiding the stationery cupboard. Think about what’s reasonable to change, both in terms of effort and benefit, and about the reasons for not changing something (rather than just dismissing it out of hand).

This all works surprisingly well, it’s timely and it shows students that you do listen to their constructive input.  Even if it doesn’t result in big changes, it’s still a valuable group-building technique.

The only word of caution is if you have a class that is not working in some major way: because this is quite public and open as a process, it might cause more instability than it solves.