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New Semester’s Resolutions: Faster Feedback for Students (Spring 2020)

I don’t usually do New Year’s Resolutions (this year is a slight exception), but I do do New Semester’s Resolutions. I like the rhythm of fresh starts so regularly in academia . So let’s talk New Semester’s Resolutions this semester, Spring 2020.

First, the philosophy of New Semester’s Resolutions: as teachers (and when we were students—they work well for students too!), we are always looking for ways to improve, new things to try, and so on. When we stop moving, we stagnate and die, if I may be a little dramatic. I’ve taught the same basic course sequence for nearly a decade, with some brief breaks, but I’ve never taught it the same way twice. I doubt I’m alone in that.

This is not to say that we’re always getting better. Some things work, and some things don’t. Sometimes what we try out turns out to be a step backward. But the important thing is that we’re trying.

So what am I trying this semester? One major goal: better grade/feedback times.

Like many instructors in my rank in the academe (that is, not tenure-track), I have simply too many students. My composition courses, of which I typically teach four in a semester, are usually capped at 25 students. This is simply too many for a writing-intensive course that requires an extensive annotated bibliography and what amounts to a graduate level conference paper in a freshman level course, but I work with what I have, like all of us in this rank.

Like many instructors, I hate grading. I get massive anxiety about it. I can give feedback, conference, etc all day. I like that. But putting a number or a letter on a paper gives me crippling anxiety, which only seems to get worse each semester. I think it’s a Pavlovian response, because when you give students ungraded feedback, students either ignore it or listen to it, but when you give them a score or a letter grade, almost instantly at least some of them fight the grade rather than focusing on the feedback. I’ve talked here before about some of the problems with grades, but one of the problems remains that, by the time I get students in my class, they’ve been trained for 12+ years to respond only to grades because they know (whether rightly or not) that’s the only way to advance in this game. But I didn’t learn to write in a classroom, or with grades. I learned to write in a critique group, where the only thing that mattered was subjective, qualitative feedback. But years of having the grades be a flashpoint with both students and supervisors have made me flinch every time I click “submit” on a grade. But every time I try to do more ungraded work in my classroom, I find that the students resist it, devaluing anything that doesn’t wind up with a letter or a number on it.

Consistently my course evaluations are scoring high in nearly every category I care about—students are saying they feel respected and that the content is explained well, for instance—except feedback time. I’m consistently suffering there. And every semester I think I can do it right this time, and every semester I get to about halfway through the semester doing great, and then something breaks inside me and I get buried in the work and spend the second half of the semester trying to claw my way out like a revenant buried at a crossroads desperate to feed.

As I stared at my ever-looming grading pile at the end of this past semester, and worked with the endless procedural requests for things like extensions and exceptions, I got to thinking seriously about what the actual purpose of deadlines might be. After all, part of the anxiety surely comes from suddenly, at exactly 11:59:00 pm (because Canvas is that cruelly precise), having a pile of nearly a hundred essays glaring at me. And what good was the deadline doing for the students?

Deadlines have a couple purposes, I decided:

  • They keep the students organized. They know when to do what.
  • They get work done. I know I don’t get anything done without hard deadlines.
  • They keep the course moving at a uniform pace, which is an administrative necessity when courses are overloaded.
  • They help me schedule my own end of the work.

However, my deadlines weren’t succeeding in these purposes, especially the last one. So something has to change.

This past semester I quite successfully experimented with an assignment in which students chose their own deadlines using a Google Docs sign-up sheet, and in each class just one student had their project due each class day, and we spent 10-15 minutes each class period (out of 75) discussing that student’s submission in class. I had very few late assignments, and even fewer disputes over the deadlines. It was a great project, really.

So I thought: How can I apply this to deadlines more generally, while still meeting the goal of keeping the course moving together?

So, this semester, in an effort to meet my goal of turning around feedback faster on core assignments, I’m going to try something new with deadlines: due weeks rather than due dates.

Let’s try having students set their own deadlines!
Image by Wilfred Iven via StockSnap

In this system, students will sign up for an individual due date within a range. I’ll cap the number of students from each section who can choose a certain date at five. 5 students, 5 business days, 25 papers, 1 week. Four sections gives me up to 20 papers per day, which is… ok, actually a lot, but less than 1 section per day. Realistically, I know I’ll fall behind. But it’s worth trying for a few reasons.

  • Students get more agency over their coursework. At my institution, we have a lot of students who work full time, who are non-traditional students, or who have other demands on their time than just being students for whatever reason. I don’t know their schedules, but they do, so if they can choose their due dates within a range, they can make due dates that work for their other commitments.
  • It may reduce my own grading anxiety. By limiting the number of assignments I receive on a given day, I eliminate the “suddenly 100 papers!” problem, and eliminate the decision of where to start on the pile.
  • Students will receive their feedback closer to the time they submit their papers. I have up to this point generally graded papers in the order I receive them (an option on Canvas), so that students are rewarded for submitting early with timelier feedback, and punished for submitting late with later feedback. But the effect is really random, because most of them submit at the last minute. However, although I might spend the same two weeks grading in this system, students will more likely receive feedback within a couple days of their own due date, rather than within a couple weeks.
  • Students who are less confident writers for whatever reason can rely on the more confident writers to go first (as with last semester’s assignment with individual due dates) to get models, or they may use the time to seek out Writing Center or office hours assistance.

As with any pedagogical experiment, I honestly have no idea how well this plan will work. I’ll have to report on it toward the end of the semester, in April or May. However, that’s the beauty of using New Semester’s Resolutions rather than New Year’s Resolutions—if this fails, it’ll only be 16 weeks of failure, rather than 52 weeks. So, it’s worth the try!

So, what are your New Semester’s Resolutions?

5 thoughts on “New Semester’s Resolutions: Faster Feedback for Students (Spring 2020)

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