Monday, April 4, 2011

Assessing student papers

I will never forget the night that my brother, who was then an art student, called me and said (as I recall):
"I have to write a paper on Sartre for class.  Where do I start?" 

"When is it due?" 

Fortunately, he is a successful artist who can write a mean artist's statement.

Reportedly, less and less of us are giving our students written assignments (just refer to Academically Adrift for a current conversation on this issue).  So, when we do assign papers--and students will start turning that work into us soon, as the semester approaches a close--how can we help students make the most of that experience?

One idea is to create a feedback loop with the student.  We comment on a nearly complete draft and students send us a response before they do a final edit. We may even incentivize this exchange with some extra credit and achieve several good results.  Students are nudged into writing a draft earlier in the semester (not the night before that paper is due) and they get a peek at their grade so that they have a concrete idea of what they need to do to finish their work.  In an email back to us, they have to articulate the steps they need to take before they do the work.

For us, the benefit is that we will have helped that student by doing the assessment on a nearly complete draft--our grading process for the final papers will be much faster, with the need for much less feedback at that point.  We also can identify students who are struggling--and recommend a trip to our office or the writing center.

Sometimes the process of providing written feedback in and of itself is a chore.  One recommendation is to record (audio or video) your feedback for the student.  The theory is that as your feedback is given linearly, as you are reading, rather than all at the end.  Feedback should note positive aspects as well as areas for improvement (thus students avoid changing something that was already working!)

If you are interested in an interesting alternative to written feedback, see the method below.  I have also used Jing and found it easy to use.

Short Screencasts Provide Personalized Feedback about Student Writing
Submitted by Francine Glazer
Assistant Provost and Director, Center for Teaching and Learning
New York Institute of Technology

One of the factors that faculty often consider when assigning written work is the time it will take to grade. Whether the writing is an essay, a draft of a longer paper, a lab report, or a project proposal, it requires a considerable amount of time to write comments for each student – and often, students don’t read and/or incorporate them.

An alternative approach is to create a short screencast for each student, in which you talk to the student about his or her paper. Prior to starting the screencast, make a couple of brief notes on the paper, or highlight the areas you want to discuss. After a couple of trial runs, you’ll find that you can scroll through the paper and talk about the major items you want the student to consider.

The screencast technology is free (you may need to buy a microphone if there isn’t one on your computer) and easy to use, the time investment is comparable to what you’d spend writing comments, and students respond very positively, appreciating the personalized feedback.  The five-minute limit imposed by the software helps keep the focus on the most essential points.

There are a number of free screencasting programs available. My favorite is Jing, produced by TechSmith. There’s a small piece of software that you download to your computer (yes, it comes in both Windows and Mac versions), and register for a free online account on their server where the videos will reside. It’s easy to use – when Jing is running in the background, you simply go to the Jing icon in the system tray or the dock and select “capture.” A grid opens to allow you to select the portion of your screen you want to capture. The control pane has “capture an image,” “capture a video,” “redo selection,” and “cancel” buttons.

If you capture an image, you can edit it by adding highlights, arrows, boxes, and text to call attention to specific areas of the photo. If you record a video, you can mute the microphone, pause and resume, or restart if necessary. Once you’ve completed your video and clicked “stop,” you get a chance to preview it and decide if you do in fact want to save the file.. The url for the video is automatically placed into your clipboard. You can then open an email to the student, paste in the url and write a brief note, and off it goes!

Resources: (download the software) feedback video)