Give yourself an A+ for reading this

Image result for teaching assessmentA few years ago I was filling out a mid-semester report for a student regarding eligibility for a Greek organization. She thought she was doing great with a strong “B.” As it happens she was reading the gradebook incorrectly and was squarely in the “D” range. It was a difficult conversation, but she rededicated herself to her work and ended up earning a “B-.” I often tell the story to students to illustrate the importance of accurate self-assessment and the real possibility of improving once you have a good idea about where you are.

A recent article from Faculty Focus takes the strategy a step further in suggesting formalized self-assessment in the first third of the semester. They suggest having students perform a basic assessment (which you can grade credit/no-credit) on attendance, their overall grade, set goals, and several other items. I love this idea as it compels students to be reflective, gives you a better understanding of their self-perception, and gives you a point of reference later in the semester. Of course there are limitations to this in large courses (an issue addressed in the article) or with students who elect not to do the work, but it is an effective strategy within a class and it has the potential to set up good habits for students moving forward. Overall, it is a nice companion to the tip from last week about identifying key markers for success in your courses.

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I am only X Points away from a higher grade

Sometimes assigning grades can be the most unpleasant part of the semester. Attaching summative value to a semester’s worth of work can seem reductive and dismissive of the growth and learning we see in our students. My least favorite part of the grading process has always been the request to “bump” grades based on effort, proximity to another letter grade, or an impassioned plea. In most of my courses I have go so far as to issue a Blackboaearning gradesrd announcement making it clear grades are not raised OR lowered based on criteria extraneous to the syllabus.I was also eager to use the “I don’t give grades, you earned them” zinger whenever possible. My justifications were always clear to me.

  1. Grade breakdowns along the guidelines specified in the syllabus are the fairest way to deliver grades. Anything else is unpredictable.
  2. If I were to bump grades up, students have to be ready for me to bump them down for similarly arbitrary reasons, otherwise the practice leads to grade inflation.
  3. Grades are a product of work and performance. If students want better grades, they need to perform better.

This may not be the perspective you take when assigning letter grades at the end of the semester. You may have even better reasons for your policies. My advice is to make whatever grading policy you have clear to your students. If you move grades up and down based on some additional criteria at the end of the semester, let your students know in advance. If grades follow a strict statistical model, make sure it is in the syllabus. We don’t owe our students good grades, but we do owe them transparency and honesty in the process.

Top 10 reasons to come to the Faculty Grading Oasis (open 8-5) in MLIB 458

  1. Get out of your office…where the walls are closing in on you.
  2. No one knocks on the door asking where the bathroom is.
  3. Free coffee and treats.
  4. Student help if you need exams alphabetized or data entered (as long as we are FERPA compliant).
  5. Bring one thing and focus on it rather than getting distracted at home or your office.
  6. Experience the magic of the 4th floor of the library.
  7. You are unlikely to run into that colleague who roams the hallway, complaining about how much grading they have to do.
  8. We are closer to Common Grounds than where you normally work.
  9. Our office is now is now 173 days since our last Chupacabra attack. You will probably be safe.
  10. We control our thermostat.


Grading, does it ever stop?

thanksgiving breakThanksgiving break has always been my time to catch up and get ready for the close of the semester. For most of us, that can only mean one thing–grading. I have used turn-it-in for years to avoid dragging hundreds of pages of paper with me everywhere and as a tool to encourage academic honesty. A few years ago I found myself typing the same comments over-and-over again “this sentence does not make any sense, try reading it out loud to yourself” or “this is great analysis, but it does not fit well with the rest of the paper” and so on. My fingers were getting tired and so was my brain.

This was about the time turn-it-in started supporting audio feedback. I decided to take a chance and give it a try. Then I explored the different options within the platform: pre-loaded comments to drag and drop onto digital papers, embedded rubrics for easy grading, and a wide variety of other options. It turns out there are built in options to grade a wide variety of assignments from calculus equations to creative writing with feedback from peers. There is also local support through TLP to help get you started. I found the initial investment in time to set-up the remarks for each assignment substantial, but worth it. Eventually, I ended up saving tons to time and the students loved the audio feedback as it contained more information than written feedback.

This is not a great solution for everyone, but the take away from this experience for me was not “turn-it-in is amazing!” Instead, I realized investing in the long-term and learning a few new tools can save you time and enhance the student experience. It can be worth it, even when you are at your busiest.

Looking for inspiration? Don’t forget about our 20 minute mentor subscription.

STEP 1: Activate your 20 Minute Mentor Commons subscription

  1. Go to
  2. Enter information in each of the required fields.  In the Authorization Code box, enter our group Authorization Code CSUCHICO587and click Submit

Please note: entering the Authorization Code is done only once.

STEP 2: Access the 20 Minute Mentor Commons library

  1. Go to
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  3. On the left side of the screen, under My Account, My Online Access, select Subscriptions. The online content you have access to will be listed to the right. Click the appropriate link to view the content.

Access to 20 Minute Mentor Commons is also available to registered members at

Come visit us in MLIB 458 we are open 8-5 five days a week while school is in session and have space for you to spread out and do work.


Put yourself in their shoes

Earlier this semester I was in a webinar about a project I was already pretty familiar with. I had participated in a similar program a few years ago and had done some reading in advance. I was excited to learn more about the program and sat down with the best of intentions.

Ten minutes in, I was completely lost. There were acronyms, complex questions, nuances, and personal histories I was completely unfamiliar with. I was so lost, I got bored. I made sure my webcam was not on and pointed my browser to to familiarize myself with the 49ers 49ers depth chart. 35 minutes later the webinar had ended and I had gained almost nothing. I started to do some catch-up reading to see if I could be less lost the next time there was a webinar, and then something occurred to me, I was a novice learner again.

This is the experience many students have in our classes. They are well intentioned, ambitious, interested in the subject matter, and overwhelmed by what we are talking about. The content seems obvious to us, key concepts jump off the page and are elaborated with ease for us, but not for them.

This process does not have to remain a mystery. There are several things you can do in and out of class to transition your class from novice learner status.

  1. Provide them with a preview of one or two main concepts from a class period, then reference them, then repeat them at the end. The goal is not memorization, it is providing them with a framework for understanding.
  2. Check in with them during class. Break up an activity or a lecture to re-center a conversation on a framework you find useful.
  3. Engage in perspective taking. Imagine (with help from them) encountering the material for the first time, what would you think?

A little outside reading never hurt. Check out “The Journey to High Level Performance: Using Knowledge on the Novice-Expert Trajectory to Enhance Higher Education Teaching” by Moore, O’Neil, & Barrett from The Changing Roles and Identities of Teachers and Learners in Higher Education as a good topic primer.

Just remember, every change comes with a cost. With increased attention on the course material, how will your students keep up on the 49ers?


Final Due dates

due datesAs due dates for final papers and projects approach, how do we respond to students who ask us to review drafts before turning in the final product? We know that writing is a process, and that formative feedback is critical to student learning. Many of us build in intermediate due dates along the way—project proposals, annotated bibliographies, outlines, drafts, etc.—to help guide students to successful outcomes. The Good Teacher in me knows this, and is gratified when students embrace the iterative write-and-revise process.  The Overworked Teacher in me sighs when yet another student email comes in asking, “Can you look this over before I turn it in?”

What’s the difference between helpful, directive feedback and feedback for a student looking for grade insurance or a copy-editing service? When does the extra review shift from productive to double-the-work exploitative, and how do we help students see the difference? Check out the recent entry on this topic from the advice forum in Vitae, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s career site. The range of answers is interesting, and offers some good practical tips for managing these requests. Not surprisingly, the major takeaways involve setting reasonable limits (I liked the “Rule of Three”) and making the role of (and process for receiving) feedback clear to students from the beginning of the course.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.


Developing a Good Rubric

One way in which my teaching has changed over the years is my increasing use of rubrics as a grading and feedback tool. I used to associate them with the “miserable love of system” with which the 18th century philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher Friedrich_Daniel_Schleiermacher
disdained the prevailing rationalism of his time. The rubric grid seemed to me to unnecessarily mechanize feedback and homogenize the students’ work, to disqualify any surprising, coloring-outside-the-lines approach to the given assignment. But I have come around, at first out of desperation to save a moment or two of grading time, later because I came to see their pedagogical value and their unlimited flexibility. Because really, a rubric is nothing more than a list of things that make for good work on a given project, and these can be defined however you like.

Rubric can be elaborate matrices that define multiple desired features of an assignment and assign points to varying levels of success in achieving them, or they can be as simple as a checklist of required elements. Developing a good rubric can help us clarify what we really want students to do, help us maintain consistency in evaluation, give students a sense of what to aim for and encourage them to reflect on their work, and actually increase the quality of feedback while reducing time spent writing comments.

Here are a few tips for using rubrics well:

  • Create the rubric when you design the assignment so that your instructions for the project or paper or presentation or discussion post are aligned with the desired outcome. If you’re looking for creativity and innovation, say so.
  • Give students the rubric before they begin the assignment. Even better, engage them in the process of creating the rubric, or of weighting its different elements.
  • If you can, personalize the rubric with a comment or two. Under a “visual presentation” heading, for instance, you might simply note “nice graphic—very effective!”
  •  Use student-friendly language. You know what “complies with discipline- and genre-specific conventions and demonstrates language fluency” means, but your students might not.

And because your colleagues have been at this awhile, you needn’t reinvent all the wheels. Your department may have common rubrics for given learning outcomes, and here’s a link to our campus General Education assessment resources that includes rubrics for written communication, oral communication, and critical thinking.  The AAC&U VALUE initiative has also developed a rich collection of rubrics on everything from informational literacy to intercultural knowledge and competence.  These offer models or at least starting points for the creation of your own assignment-specific rubrics.  And remember that rubrics can be created in or imported into Blackboard for online assessment.

* Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

Assessing Participation

Many of us list a category called “class participation” in the grading systems on our syllabi. In this era of carefully articulated SLOs and grading rubrics, that heading might be code for “I need to protect a little subjectivity in determining final grades.”  It’s natural to want to put a finger on the scale to help the student who made the extra effort to revise the assignment she botched that week when her grandmother died (it happens!), or to reign in the student who has accumulated a thousand extra credit points but only phones in the regular assignments.  If the touch is light enough, I would defend that practice.  But fairness and good pedagogy oblige us to think about what we really mean by class participation, and how we measure it.

Not surprisingly, there are rubrics available; check out this one from a recent post at The Scholarly Teacher. But you can develop your own system for assessing student participation pretty simply, once you think though what types of involvement are really important to student learning in your course.  Coming to class regularly? Smiling and nodding during lecture? Connecting reading with issues raised in class? Engaging others’ ideas? Once you inventory what you really want students to do (and why), you can develop a simple three- or-four-point scale that can be multiplied to reflect the appropriate weight in your grading scheme.  Maybe regular attendance and not being disruptive gets you a one, while a four requires evidence of preparation, regular contributions, and demonstrated listening skills.

And thinking about how to assess participation might prompt us to think about how to enhanceparticipation. For instance, must participation be verbal? Cultural and personality traits can make jumping into a lively class discussion extremely difficult for some students, who might nonetheless be completely intellectually engaged and have good ideas to contribute. Frequent mid-class quick-writes or anonymous index card responses—which you can read selections from or have them swap and respond to—can offer quiet students an opportunity to engage the material and each other without saying a word. (For easy assessment, you can collect any of these that you have asked them to put names on, stick them in a folder, and then simply count them at the end of the semester as one measure of participation. Very helpful for grading class participation when you haven’t learned all 85 names.)

However you measure student participation, it’s good practice to let them in on it.  Share the rubric or set of criteria you’ll be using, and explain why it matters.


*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.


Remember that resolution to Stay on Top of the Grading Load this semester?

Remember that resolution to Stay on Top of the Grading Load this semester? This is often when it slips through our fingers.  No matter how many times we re-count the papers left in the stack, or rearrange them in tidy groups of 5, or calculate how many we’ll need to grade per hour to make the latest self-imposed deadline, there they remain.  And a new batch is coming in any minute.  And the “stacks” that come in online seem to proliferate at the same frustrating rate.

Do not despair!

Here are 4 things to try to make grading assignments more manageable (and maybe more effective).

  1. Put the pen down. You are not a copy editor. Correcting every error makes for very slow going, and a paper overwhelmed with corrections is actually less effective in improving student writing than targeted feedback, especially when followed by revision.  If your students are submitting drafts before the final paper, try the “minimal marking” technique with the first go-round:  Read about two paragraphs closely, marking errors with simple check marks or coded marks explained on a handout, along with a few specific comments about the whole draft. Then return the paper asking students to find and fix the errors in the next draft. This will make for cleaner (read: quicker to grade) final papers.  Even if you only see one draft, a few very specific corrections will have a better chance of making an impact than a bloodbath on the page or screen.  And by the way, if your students submit Word or PDF assignments in Blackboard, are you taking advantage of the very handy inline grading tool? Check out this TLP grading tutorial.
  2. Before the assignment is due, do an in-class review of an sample from a previous semester.  When students actually see and discuss the difference between a topic sentence and a thesis, or how to fix a comma splice, they are much more likely to get it right on their own. I often also do a micro-writing lesson (3 minutes tops) when I return a set of papers, based on common problems in that stack. This assuages my guilt about not explaining each error on every paper and has the benefit of coming at them visually and verbally, instead of just in a small, marginally legible note on page 3.
  3. Regulate the flow. When planning your courses for next semester, make sure you don’t have assignments coming in from every class in the same week.  You can also stagger the delivery of papers in a single class. If you want students to do 3 short papers, for instance, try assigning 4 and letting them choose which 3 they will do.  That way you get 4 slightly smaller stacks spaced over a longer time. Clever, right?
  4. Change coffee shops every 10 assignments. Best advice my department chair ever gave me.

*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.