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Evaluation Without Grades: A Suggested Activity

I’m wrapping up finals week for what, unexpectedly and excitingly, is my final semester teaching at my current institution. Several years ago, on the advice of my colleagues and supervisors, I abandoned final exams for my writing courses, and although I miss my tricks to check that the students read the directions, it’s been overall and improvement.

If you’ve been around here for a while, you’ll know that grades are the bane of my existence as a teacher. I think they’re a distraction from learning because they focus students on an extrinsic (and ultimately rather unimportant) metric of success. This might be because I learned a lot of my basic pedagogy principles from my art teacher mother, who generally and happily operates in spaces without grades. However, I’m also the sort to follow policies to the letter, and generally institutions of higher learning still want a grade at the end of a semester, so I am continually trying out new ways to handle grades.

Oh hey, the apples are back!

Today I want to talk about some ungraded things that I’ve been doing at the end of the semester to assess learning without the students even necessarily being aware that they’re being tested. Do these exercises have any impact on their grades? Not at all. Do they tell me (and the students) what they’ve learned? Definitely.

On the last day of class for my research-based composition course, I asked my students to draw diagrams on the board as if they were teaching someone else the research process. This is, of course, what we’ve been working on all semester. I haven’t given them any single diagram to work with, nor have I drilled them on a specific model of the research process. But nevertheless, we’ve been learning to research.

The diagrams were varied. Some were very linear, others were more like a flow chart. They used a lot of different terms and emphasized different parts of researching, and modeled different end goals for researching. And all of them demonstrated learning.

This activity had no grade attached to it. The students did it because I asked them to, and no other reason (the authority of a teacher in her classroom does have a lot of weight, though).

So, how does this evaluate learning better than an exam? It allows the students to express freely what they’ve learned. It shows you their understanding and allows you to correct confusion wherever it might exist. There’s no guessing. It allows for immediate feedback.

How could this be used elsewhere? Pretty simply. Asking students to diagram any process or concept that you’re teaching is flexible, takes very little planning, and requires very little supplies.

I did this exercise on a chalk board with only white chalk. That’s just what was in my classroom.

If you need daily exercise grades, a substitute for an exam, or something like that, you can have students do this on construction paper (or whatever you have) with crayons or markers and post them around the room when you’ve marked them complete and given feedback.

This is suitable for any age. I teach college students. They’re adults. But this is still an age-appropriate skill; it’s a communication skill that helps in other fields as well. And it can work just as well for any age, although the youngest students should be invited to explain it to you as they present it, as it’s likely to require some explaining.

If you try this, I’d love to know how it goes for you!

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