The project of assessing what and how students are learning in the classroom interested me in two distinct ways. I was curious about what students were getting from their classroom experiences, as opposed to what they got from the reading and writing they did outside the classroom. And I was curious about how I could assess their learning processes in the classroom, as opposed to grading their papers (etc.) outside the classroom. I wanted to make the classroom learning visible to me and to them: to me, so that I could refine my classroom techniques and use the methods that worked the best to encourage student learning; and to them, so that they would see the value of class time and would want to come to class. One measure of my success appeared in an unsolicited student comment on the last day of class: “I really liked this class, because everyone kept showing up!”
In my English 3665 course in the spring semester of 2010, I tried 3 specific techniques directed at illuminating classroom assessment. The first I’d used many times before: asking students to write daily questions. The second I’d done in smaller ways before: asking students, working in pairs, to lead class discussion. The third was new in medium but not in concept: asking students to do weekly response postings to our course website.
Some background on the course itself. English 3665 is a majors-only survey of American Literature from the Civil War to World War II; it is targeted at junior English majors, but open to sophomores through seniors. It is presumed that students in a 3000-level course have taken 2 introductory courses, in close reading and in literary theory, but that is often not the case, so one can’t assume a particular knowledge base common to all students. My course had 38 students—all that the classroom could hold—and thus felt crowded. Though the seats were moveable, we didn’t have enough room to arrange seating so that everyone in the class could see everyone else during discussions; this meant that discussions were necessarily directed at a central focal point (the “teacher” spot) rather than free-flowing around the classroom. The content was straightforward, based on covering a large amount of material; we read a short story, essay, or poem for each class period, and focused classroom time on discussing the day’s assigned reading.
The first assessment method I tried was having the students write a daily question, which I collected at the end of the class period. These daily questions served as an unobtrusive way to take attendance. Students earned 1 point toward their final grade for each question they turned in, up to 40 possible points. Thus they got rewarded for class attendance rather than punished for absence. The question was entirely open, and could be on any topic they chose; they could ask questions generated by our class discussions, by the readings, or by their own wandering minds (such as “what am I going to have for lunch?”) Because I have a loose and personal style, they also felt free to ask me questions, like where I went to grad school and how old my kids are. This freedom helped create a sense of community in the classroom. The main purpose of the daily question, however, was for the students to see how they each were thinking, and to have an ongoing record of the kinds of questions each was asking. They handed in the questions at the end of class, and I typed them up, without attribution, and then handed out copies of their collected questions at the beginning of the next class. This gave me a ready-made opening for starting discussion, as I could point to one or two of their questions to prompt their thinking. More importantly, seeing the daily questions enabled the students to see what and how their peers were thinking. I could see and assess (in a non-punitive way) their level of engagement and the places where they needed clarification and expansion, and they could see how their individual questions meshed with those of others. When I typed up the questions, I grouped them into rough categories, so that questions referring to the same topic appeared together on the page; I didn’t edit or censor any questions (aside from correcting egregious grammatical and spelling errors) so that the students knew their individual voices would always be represented. This grouping helped students see that other people in the class were thinking along the same lines they were. They didn’t feel like isolated learners; they could see that “I’m not the only one who doesn’t get this” or “I’m not the only one who thinks this way.”
I think this created a sense of continuity and community in the classroom. We were in this together, rather than each of them being connected only to the teacher who was evaluating them. Questions began to refer to and answer other people’s questions, and there was even a kind of competition for whose question would be last—the space reserved for the wackiest question—and whose question would be first, in the space reserved for the question most likely to launch a rich discussion. The students could see their own learning process as their questions evolved, and could see that others in the class were asking similar questions. Engagement with each successive literary text became thus a collective project of interpretation, rather than an individual search for “the right answer.”
The second method I used was to have students, working in pairs, lead class discussions. I had done this before, in a limited fashion; this semester I asked that students lead discussions every other class period— with 38 students, that meant 19 sessions led by students out of 42 possible class sessions. Before the class began, I thought this was pretty risky—what if the student discussion leaders didn’t cover “the important points”? My safeguard here was that I would lead discussion every other class period, and could do damage control if needed. It proved unnecessary.
I assigned the students to pairs, and assigned the pairs a specific date on the syllabus when they would be responsible for leading discussion. The pair had to take a minimum of 15 minutes of the 50-minute class period, and could have the whole class period if they wanted to. The other students were required to write a brief comment to the presenters about the effectiveness of the discussion in facilitating learning, and to give the leaders a score of 1-20 points. I then collected the scores and comments, averaged the scores together, and typed up the comments (without attribution) on the daily question sheet. Everyone got to see everyone else’s comments on any particular discussion pair; this helped set a visible community standard for what was effective in using classroom time. That the evaluation came from peers instead of from the teacher also gave students a picture of what learners could achieve and expect—the “expert” wasn’t setting the standard or evaluating the outcome. This, in fact, proved to be the main strength of the student-led discussions: students modeled for each other what to do with the text under discussion and the classroom activities around that text. Rather than listening to the teacher/expert explain the text, students had to do it for themselves, in front of the audience of their peers. The presenters showed the other students how one moves through a text, thus taking the “magic” element out of the distance between novice and expert. (This also had the added advantage of creating student empathy with the “teacher” position—most discussion leaders commented afterward on how hard it is to lead a good discussion!)
The “expert” position was available to the class during every other class period; I would give a mini-lecture with background material, and then show them how to move around within a particular text. Since we spent a lot of time on modernist writings, it was helpful and necessary for me to show them how to read modernist texts. So the student discussion leaders were not thrust onto center stage without some guidance; I modeled for them how to approach a text, and then the presenters modeled that for the rest of the students. Having student-led discussions also meant that the students were always talking to each other, rather than having a unidirectional conversation with me. This too encouraged a sense of collective responsibility in the classroom: we are all in this together.
My third method was to ask students to post weekly responses to our course website. The responses were entirely open; the students were required only to post a paragraph or two talking about something that had come up in class discussion. So as not to overwhelm them or me, I split the class into two groups; each group was required to post a response every other week. Each student earned an automatic 10 points for each response, with a maximum of 6 over the course of the semester. I didn’t grade or comment on the responses, but did ask that everyone in the class read everyone else’s responses. The idea behind this requirement was to make student thinking visible to me and to everyone in the class, as well as to get the students in the habit of putting their thoughts into writing.
The responses worked well as writing exercises; students often used their responses as rough drafts for the 2 required formal papers, and the quality of these papers was subsequently higher than I had previously experienced. The postings gave me a good sense of how students were thinking and how their interactions with the literary texts was becoming more sophisticated, but that learning wasn’t necessarily visible to the students themselves. I don’t think the posted responses worked as well to create a sense of collective intellectual engagement, however. The ideas from the postings rarely made it into the classroom conversation directly, in contrast to the ideas from the daily questions. Perhaps that was because the postings were done online, and people read them individually, in the isolation of their individual lives, rather than in the classroom itself. Though the postings were visible to everyone, they felt distanced from the engagement of the classroom activities and interactions—they were “canned” rather than live, and felt like it. Were I to use this method again, I would try to integrate postings more into the ongoing daily classroom activities.
In sum, the methods I used helped me to see student learning evolving. More importantly, perhaps, these methods showed me that making student learning visible to the students is a crucial part of my pedagogy. They need to see each other at work, and to work together, rather than to watch me work. That is the core of active learning.