I am an adjunct English instructor, so during any given semester, I am grading all the time. My friends and family tease me about this often. I usually shoot back at them with one of two retorts: “Quiet! I’m trying to go fast enough here to make $2 an hour!” Or, more often: “I haven’t found a way yet to teach people how to write better with a multiple choice test – until I do, I’m stuck grading papers!”
Much research has been conducted and much has been written and argued about evaluations – I won’t go into all that here, but the takeaway to me is that good evaluation of what actually needs to be learned and incorporated into the student’s “tool box” is very hard to do right or well.
Most “tests” and even essays simply don’t cut it.
So in my classes, I incorporate what I call a “Lessons Learned” essay at the end of each module. I don’t call it a “self-evaluation,” or students probably wouldn’t do it. But that is exactly what it is: A “reflection” essay on what the students learned about the writing process and/or about themselves in the last module we just spent several weeks of their lives on. In short, students review what they did to produce their latest final paper or project, ask themselves what worked for them and what didn’t, and then tell me whether or not they were “successful”– and support their answer.
In good essay form, of course.
I don’t limit the content (say, to peer review or prewriting or outlining or any other step) because, how do I know what they learned? This keeps the evaluation open-ended and lets the students be “response-able,” i.e. able to respond to their fullest extent possible.
This is a sneaky way, perhaps, to get students to become critical thinkers, to turn their thoughts inward, to analyze what they did, to place some value on their actions, to decide which are important enough to include in a paper, and to present their ideas in a proven and tightly-controlled manner.
It works better than any test I could come up with, and it is more often than not very gratifying to watch them grow.
In addition to the “Lessons Learned” essay for each module, I also require a “Lessons Learned” essay for the course. I assign a final exam from students using the same method as the “Lessons Learned” assignments for each module – the final requires more words (500 versus 250 minimum) and covers a longer time span (the length of the course versus module). The final essay is again an open-topic essay, and students can use their books and/or any previous “Lessons Learned” essays they want. Once more, students must take themselves through the process of brainstorming, listing, analyzing, choosing and prioritizing points to present in their essays. And present them in good essay form.
In preparation for this final essay, I have students write their own “My Writing Process Today” essay in the first week or two of class, where they present (as honestly and openly as they can) the steps they go through when they are given an essay assignment – one that often entails panic, stress, tobacco products and junk food, but one that sometimes also includes music and sharing with family and friends and otherwise getting themselves into a “good spot” to write.
Almost everybody at that point talks about procrastinating and doing the final work the day the assignment is due (tendencies we work to eliminate throughout the course). Their final essays are often a comparison of their individual process in weeks 1-2 with their process in weeks 16-17. They talk about such things as prewriting, outlining (who knew?!?!), peer reviews, and growing confidence in themselves as writers.
I’m not a research or educational scientist, and have no data on hand to prove this – but something tells me open-ended self-evaluations like these help students make the material presented and practiced in class their own, and that they’ll use those “lessons learned” themselves more readily in the future than those that take tests or simply write the required reports.
But if anyone has that multiple-choice test I’m looking for — the one that teaches people how to write better without actually doing any writing — please let me know.
I could use a break from all that grading!