Reflective Essays, Student Self-Assessment, and the End(s) of Grading
Trevor Hoag, Christopher Newport University
December 29, 2017
Abstract: In this essay, I share my recent experiences with assigning students to write reflective essays about their own learning, and to use those essays to engage in qualitative self-assessment/self-grading. Having long sought alternative methods of assessing student learning, I am inspired to share my prompt given a recent resurgence by scholars to challenge typical assessment practices based on teacher-centered judgment. The piece opens with a few anecdotes regarding my reservations about grading, followed by an outline of the initial model that inspired me to adopt an alternative (The Learning Record Online). I then delve into a more nuanced exploration of why grading and teacher-centered learning are problematic, deploying recent pedagogical theory, while taking up questions concerning motivation/punishment, risk-taking, honesty, and social justice. I close with some remarks on future directions and suggestions for the assignment, along with sharing the writing prompts themselves, that, although shown here in the context of a 2nd-Year writing seminar, one could easily repurpose for other courses.
Keywords: reflection, qualitative, assessment, grades, grading
Reflective Essays, Student Self-Assessment, and the End(s) of Grading
The saddest and most ironic practice in schools is how hard we try to measure how students are doing and how rarely we ever ask them
– Amy Fast (2016), Twitter
[G]rades are the biggest and most insidious obstacle to education
– Jesse Stommel (2017), “Why I Don’t Grade”
I [want] students to believe that this education is for them, not me. I can never go back!
– Susan Blum (2017), “The significant learning benefits of getting rid of grades”
This class, this freedom, this leadership we were given – I hope is the future of education
– Student (2017), Learning Reflection
For as long as I can remember, I have never felt comfortable grading (and for ten-plus years it was never dictated to me how I should go about doing so). During graduate school, this sentiment likely derived from feeling as though I was passing moral judgment on students, hierarchically “ranking” them, knowing full-well the practice clashed with my worldview. Perhaps I’m still resentful of busting my tail to get a 4.0 GPA in undergrad, then initially being rejected from graduate school thanks to mediocre test-scores on the GRE. Perhaps I tire of comforting crying, sleepless students regarding sometimes nearly “clinical” or “pathological” grade-based anxiety, battling emotional insensitivity on the part of fellow instructors. More recently, however, spurred by a tide of scholars who’ve (again) dared question the practice, I myself have felt ethically compelled to search out and experiment with alternative modes of assessment. This would seem “unnecessary” since “we have literally decades of research and insight which demonstrates the disconnects between grades and learning” (Warner, 2017), yet nevertheless, grades and teacher-centered classrooms persist. What follows, then, is an attempt to share some of my own experiences with “(un)grading,” specifically those related to having students write reflective essays about their own learning and self-assessment of that learning.
The primary vehicle for my experiments, one linked to the specific assignment-prompt that follows, is inspired by the Learning Record Online (LRO), a qualitative self-assessment platform introduced to me by Margaret “Peg” Syverson during my time at the University of Texas at Austin. In its initial form, the LRO involved making numerous but brief auto-ethnographic observations about one’s learning, which were eventually synthesized into three “reflective” essays that attempted to encapsulate what one had learned during the entire semester. Finally, one advocates for one’s own grade in the class, using evidence provided in the observations and reflections—i.e., the sum total of the portfolio—and at the graduate level, students are tasked with applying a model akin to Lev Vygotsky’s theories of learning to enrich the analysis (e.g., independence, skills, understanding, experience, reflection, imagination).
In my own classes, I have taken advantage of the LRO ever since being introduced to it, even as I have made continual modifications—e.g., I eventually dropped the “observations” portion in favor of having students share findings on Twitter (#challengenormalunderstanding). This helped them remember to make the observations in the first place, and likewise share those observations with others in the course (and beyond). I have always retained Syverson’s strategy of having students write three reflective essays, one at the beginning, middle, and end of the class (along with accompanying student-teacher conferences); however, I have tailored prompts to each of my courses as opposed to leaving them entirely open-ended. I emphasize that the “reflections” function very dynamically, and that students should have fun, be brave (or even vulgar/humorous), and tailor the LROs to their own goals for the course.
[The Learning Record] forces us to really sit down, and not just contemplate what we learned, but how it affects us, how we can apply this knowledge, and how this knowledge changes things. This kind of interaction in a class is very rare…
– Student LRO
Until this semester (Fall 2017), I wasn’t brave enough to have students assign their own grades, but after finally taking the plunge, the results were fascinating—and worth sharing here since the specific prompts through which they were reached are often absent from venues wherein scholarly debates on grading, etc., take place, such as Inside Higher ED. I will share as well the “rubric” I wrote for students as a guide to self-assessment, as this was not part of Syverson’s initial model. The particular rubric derives from my “2nd-Year Writing Seminar” focused on ethics and literature; however, as the LRO is a more “meta-level” assignment, throughout I focus less on the specific course and more on the Learning Record itself.
Before proceeding to the LRO prompts themselves, permit me to share a few key insights from scholars to provide theoretical-pedagogical background. Perhaps the primary motivating factor behind having students reflect upon their own learning and engage in self-assessment derives from the question as to whether colleges and universities actually foster “learning,” period. Or as Blum (2017) neatly summarizes, “[c]olleges promote credentials, obedience and the sorting of haves and have-nots, but not necessarily learning.”
Indeed, it has become increasingly clear to me, especially after talking with innumerable students, that most classrooms are about inculcating obedience; that is, they are “carceral” or “disciplinary” in the sense famously coined by philosopher-historian Michel Foucault. Learn what and how I tell you to, else be punished. This strikes me as antithetical to the supposedly “emancipatory” aims I imagine most educators outwardly espouse, along with being an insidious formula for producing an unthinking labor force and docile polity. And speaking of Foucault, sadly, students have been subjected to this pedagogical approach so thoroughly that when the specter of grades is replaced by self-reflection/assessment, many never overcome the anxiety of wanting to know what you (the teacher) want rather than caring about what is important to them. When your primary motivation is fear of being judged such that “[e]verything is focused on pleasing the professor” (Blum, 2017), it’s little wonder many students are deeply apathetic/resentful when approaching writing or education more generally. Hence, why I agree it is absolutely vital to have “students move away from the idea that they may be writing to please me, the teacher, as quickly as possible” (Warner, 2017).
When professors grade you, it seems to me like we do it more to impress them or be on their good side rather than just doing the best we know we can do for ourselves. I really appreciate the feeling of knowing that my work will be judged only on how hard I worked on it – Student LRO
But how will students learn without external rewards and threats? In a word, says John Warner (2017), “[b]etter.” For one, it seems rather cynical to think that, for example, curiosity, joy, and the quest for justice aren’t far better motivators than grades. Basically everything interesting/of quality I’ve ever seen a student accomplish was grounded in this way. And I don’t consider it naïve to contend that most students can find intrinsic drivers to learning, such that struggling, uninterested students can ultimately become outstanding. Moreover, speaking of exemplary work, it seems clear that grades stifle creativity/invention, deter students from working collaboratively, and “encourage a fear of risk-taking” (Blum, 2017), all of which have longer-standing effects than mere collegiate performance. When your primary goal is to please the teacher/boss, why go out on an limb, spend time worrying about the performance of “lazy” group members—which is especially problematic given the importance of digital collaboration—or try something that might result in (even productive) failure? All too often, people neglect that “mistakes” are information, too, and vital to the production of knowledge; and emphatically, that students are fully capable of producing/co-producing knowledge themselves.
This classroom gave me the confidence to try something new and challenging and put my best foot forward. Any other class, I’d take the easy way out so that I had no chance to fail – Student LRO
But if students are permitted to assess their own learning, won’t they just lie and/or “cheat” the system? Coming from an institution that takes especial pride in its honor code, it is ironic how often I hear this retort. Never mind that “[c]heating, shortcuts, [and] cramming … make sense if the only goal is points or winning” (Blum, 2017). Let me pause, then, by noting that this semester, students awarded themselves grades that were quite similar to distributions I’ve previously provided, and their work was of equal (if not superior) quality. If anything, they were tougher on themselves than I might have been, sometimes requiring an intervention to tell them they were being too hard on themselves. Thus, I heartily agree with rejecting the paternalism often found in the academy, and adopting instead Jesse Stommel’s dictum: “Start by trusting students” (2017). Part of this trust comes from simply viewing them as bourgeoning adults, who benefit less from being normed than developing their own interests and values. Indeed, in Blum’s words (2017), “[i]f the genuine goal of college is prepare students for life, then it’s vital that they develop their own standards,” perhaps most importantly, that which they “stand for.” Which is the greater “disservice?” Not (harshly) subjecting students to various discursive conventions and canonical texts, or discouraging them from becoming intellectually curious, even rebellious?
I believe that being the holder of my own grade allowed me the freedom to be who I am, write freely and express myself through writing. … [A]ll of my work came naturally. … [T]his class allowed me to express myself and write stress free – Student LRO
In order to get there, though, teachers are going to have to do something that will likely make many of them uncomfortable, namely, give up the notion that they have greater knowledge of whether students are succeeding or flourishing than students themselves. For as Stommel (2017) explains, “[w]e have created increasingly elaborate methods of assessment, all while failing to recognize that the students themselves are the best (and always resident) experts in their own self-learning.” This isn’t to suggest that students are transparent to themselves in some naïve Cartesian fashion, but rather to posit something of the reverse, that students are largely opaque to teachers, and it’s literally an egotistical supposition to suggest otherwise. The same goes for having teachers heavily dictate the content of courses as well. A certain professor may think Don Quixote is the greatest novel ever written, but that doesn’t justify them demanding equal enthusiasm from students or punishing them if enthusiasm is lacking. In short, “[g]ive students something [they think] worth doing and they’ll do it. Not all of them, but even for those who don’t you’re doing an additional service. Rather than being able to offload the responsibility for their non-engagement or failure onto an authority figure, they must confront their own shortcomings” (Warner, 2017). In other words, rather than making classes less rigorous, students becoming responsible for their own learning and assessment can dramatically increase the challenges of the pedagogical enterprise, especially when they are considered capable of (co-)producing knowledge.
I realized that it would be my personal responsibility to make sure I did everything expected of me in order to get a good grade in the class. It amazed me how this motivated me to do the work … [S]tudents will slack off, but I didn’t find that the case here because I was eager to do my part to get the grade I wanted – Student LRO
Regarding challenges, so far I have only hinted at the question of justice, so it is vital that I address it before moving forward. As Stommel (2017) succinctly puts it, “[g]rades aren’t fair. They will never be fair”; but “fairness” here goes far beyond being subjected to a teacher’s arbitrary whims to encompass a range of critical social and political concerns. For one, grades and primarily teacher-dictated content involve a rejection of “difference,” another supposedly enshrined value in contemporary academia. And it’s not merely an issue of rejecting differing student interests, but of those regarding aptitude, learning styles, and previous ed.-training. As Blum (2017) explains, “[g]rading requires uniformity. It assumes uniform input, uniform process and uniform output. … [But] students don’t start out the same. They don’t have the same life experiences. … They don’t go the same places afterward. They have different goals.” Indeed, grading and teacher-oriented judgment not only presuppose students should mostly learn the same things in the same way, with little regard for personal interest or student-centered goals—I fiercely contend what is at stake here is something philosophically profound, namely, a lingering humanism that basically ignores that “who we are” is a social production and that thought/imagination are machinic in nature, pre-programmed for “success”/“failure.” A “liberal arts” education, for example, is primarily that: liberal in the historical sense, grounded on the notion that Humans are perfectly free to control their own destinies such that consideration of race, class, gender, sexuality, psychical/emotional health, etc., are moot, and that student behavior originates from within the students themselves rather than outside forces. When teachers assign grades or do not allow students to personalize their learning experience, they ignore more than a century of critical thought dedicated to dismantling the humanist ideology in favor of a posthuman one.
Consider the example of race. Along these lines, Stommel (2017) notes the chilling fact that “when institutions try to ‘control’ grade inflation, the results are disturbing, and perhaps also unsurprising. Require teachers to give more B and C grades and they give more B and C grades disproportionately to black students.” It would not surprise me, either, if this observation held for most if not all minority groups as well as women. I explain this by pointing out that minority subjects have been shaped and judged by society in different ways from their straight white male counterparts, yet since academic norms are largely based on supposedly-universal “majority” ideals, it’s little wonder biases towards these ideals result in hurting the most vulnerable students, “punishing” them for things for which they cannot possibly be responsible. Do we really want to callously respond to those “others” with different values, bodies, and levels of opportunity with: too bad you weren’t born a straight white male? Because this is implicit when student self-reflection/assessment are subordinated to grades; thus it’s delusional to think they have anything to do with, in bell hooks’ (1994) terms, “education as the practice of freedom.”
Successes, Failures, and Futures
In terms of “successes” and “failures” regarding implementation of the LRO and qualitative self-assessment, I would emphasize the importance of feedback. There is a difficult balance to strike between giving students maximal freedom and having them meet certain expectations. But certainly, “[h]aving high expectations and giving good grades [or none at all] are not incompatible” (Stommel, 2017). As expected, sometimes students will not live up to their potential; thus it’s up to educators to “push” without punishing. Perhaps this is another way of saying that when the LRO “fails,” it tends to be because a student needs more input, or guidance in learning to become increasingly self-guided (Indeed, many described the LROs and self-assessment as initially “jarring”). Moreover, significant feedback is especially vital given my previous observations about minority groups, as they tend to assess themselves more harshly than those in the “majority.”
This task to me was the most eye opening, most intriguing, freest form of learning I have ever experienced; [yet] all we were asked to do was document how as an individual we have grown in our thinking and understanding – Student LRO
By contrast, however, once students “get it,” I have the found the Learning Record to be an invaluable pedagogical instrument. Students increasingly delight in learning, and after a time, typically learn to thrive within their newfound freedom. Hence, I would invite any adventurous teacher to give it a try, and that invitation likewise extends to disciplines like the sciences/math. Even if students are solving calculous equations or memorizing anatomical structures, there is still much to be gained by simply asking them to reflect upon their own learning. And I would likewise invite teachers to write their own LROs alongside students, as it is a goal I have set for myself and have the hunch it will lead to better learning/teaching for all involved.
The Assignment: LRO Reflections for “2nd-Year Writing Seminar”
Part A: Personal Reflection
Reflect upon your own ethical development throughout your life so far. That is, how do you conceive of right and wrong, good and bad? What theories, thinkers, philosophers, religious leaders, etc., do you refer to when making ethical decisions? Do you think that your ethical positions are well-developed? Why or why not?
Length: (At least three strong paragraphs!) Granted, length is less important than a good outline of where you stand.
Part B: Midterm Analysis of Learning and Course Evaluation
Consider your development in the course so far. How are your ethical positions changing or remaining the same? What might you do to maximize your learning development for the rest of the course? Which philosophers do you like and why? Which literary texts do you find illuminating and why?
Also, please use this opportunity to reflect on the course. What is working for you and what isn’t? What would you change or keep the same?
Length: (At least three strong paragraphs!) Again, length is less important than an outline of your development.
Part C: Final Analysis of Learning
Consider your development throughout the course as a whole. How have your ethical positions changed or remained the same? Which philosophers or literary texts have affected your development the most and why?
Length: (At least three strong paragraphs!) Again, length is less important than an outline of your development.
Part C2: Final Evaluation and Self-Assessment of Learning
(Please email section C2 to the instructor. Do not respond to it here.)
*Remember to ground your discussion in what you’ve learned more than “proving” you’ve earned Grade X!
–The syllabus clearly states attendance is 100% mandatory. How’d you do, especially prior to holiday breaks or movie-days?
–Did you read EVERY philosophical/literary reading? If not, what amount? Which text challenged you the most?
–Did you actively contribute to the #challengenormalunderstanding Twitter feed?
–Did you actively participate in class discussion, even on days you weren’t a “leader”?
–Did you officially lead discussion on three or more occasions?
–When you were a leader, did you prepare substantive materials to share with the class? Did you get up in front of everybody?
–Did you complete all three LRO reflection entries? Were they each at least 3 solid paragraphs?
–Did you complete Paper #1, Post #1, and Presentation #1? How’d you do? What could you have done differently?
–Did you complete Paper #2, Post #2, and Presentation #2? How’d you do? What could you have done differently?
–Did you complete Paper #3, Post #3, and attend your final professor meeting? How’d you do? What could you have done differently?
**For all of the above:
Did you follow the “paper”/blog-post rubric? Did you get/give 2 SUBSTANTIVE peer reviews? Did you respond to prior student blogs? How much TIME did you spend revising?
How multimodal were your posts/presentations (e.g., images, links, video, tags)?
How successful were your presentations? Did you ask the class questions (or get asked them)? Did you employ media-tools like Voyeur?
–What other considerations not listed above would you like to discuss?
–How do you think your learning benefited or not by being the steward of your own grade?
–How did it feel to have as much freedom as you did in this course? Would you have preferred “less,” e.g., by receiving scores based on grammar, MLA, etc.?
–Finally, given all of the above, what grade would you assign yourself in the course? (Use a plus/minus scale.)
Blum, S. (2017). The significant learning benefits of getting rid of grades. Inside Higher ED. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/11/14/significant-learning-benefits-getting-rid-grades-essay
Fast, A. (2016). Twitter post. https://twitter.com/fastcrayon/status/791431803949223936
Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (Myra Ramos, Trans.) New York: Continuum.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional graded school. Cleveland: Hack Learning Series.
Stommel, J. (2017). Why I don’t grade. Personal Blog. Retrieved from http://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/
Warner, J. (2017). On Banning things in classrooms. Inside Higher ED. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/banning-things-classrooms
Warner, J. (2017) Do Faculty need an automated grading tool? Inside Higher ED. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/do-faculty-need-automated-grading-tool