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A Better Balance Between Grades and Learning

Excerpt from Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, Second Edition by Maryellen Weimer

Doing the work required in a course gets students grades, but it’s also an opportunity for them to learn. The challenge is to acknowledge the importance of grades but retain a focus on what’s being learned through these experiences.

Self-Assessment: Discovering What I Do and How Well I Do It. Being able to look critically at your own work is easier once you’ve looked at the work of others, especially unknown others. If students aren’t doing well writing essay answers, let them “grade” several (hypothetical or anonymous) essay answers. Maybe they first do this individually and then compare their assessments with others. I have found that given three answers at different quality levels, students do see the differences and do correctly identify the answer that is good and the one that isn’t. They can use those sample answers to start identifying the specific things that make one essay excellent and another poor, and from there, with the teacher’s help, they can begin to generate criteria for good essay exam answers.

Peer Assessment: Discovering That I Can Give and Get Useful Feedback. Even though many teachers have been disappointed with the quality of feedback students provide when they peer-review each other’s writing, the problems can be remedied with better design of activities and a recognition that giving useful feedback is not a skill most students bring with them to college courses. To prepare students to do peer reviews of writing, E. Shelley Reid (author of Shelley’s “Twenty-Minute Rule”) recommends you start by generating and discussing criteria for evaluation, share and discuss “model” texts and include time for students to practice with those texts, and share and discuss appropriate comments.

Implementation Issues. One implementation issue involves the careful and creative design needed if students are to play a part that counts in the assessment process. It’s necessary because the emphasis on grades compromises students’ objectivity. But it’s worth pursuing because when their self- and peer-assessment activities count, students take those activities much more seriously. Letting their assessments count is a great illustration of harnessing the motivation to get grades and moving it in a more productive direction. There are ways to get students involved, but the activity must be carefully and thoughtfully designed.


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