March 23, 2009

Something to Think About

I picked this up last night from a teachery site (basically rants about our beloved higher education experience--so cathartic). Couple that with a book I've been reading, L. Dee Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences, and I'm starting to bend my mind around a new thinking about higher ed.

I have resisted mightily all this K-12 "drift-up" of assessments, Student Learning Outcomes, scorings, reading other classes' essays and the like, feeling instead like I was the one being scored. It's partly true, I realize, because we as teachers are the one constant in education. A good teacher, according to Malcolm Gladwell's piece, teaches up to a year-and-a-half's worth of material; a poor teacher accomplishes about three-fourths of what is expected.

But this video hits on my level of education, and my fondly-held beliefs are sliding away, inch by inch. I resisted the idea that we move away from content-centered teaching to student-centered teaching because it all sounded so, well, chaotic. I had this vision of a classroom of hepped up freshmen, tuned into iPods, throwing pencils or Twinkies at each other--basically the inmates running the institution (unfortunate metaphor, but it works). But Fink's book is wising me up to a different thinking about how I approach my classroom experience. I think of some of my students who are relying on me to present good content, as well as assist them in getting through the research paper/English 101. That responsibility weighs heavy some days.

I'm looking forward to summer, where I can really dig into my syllabus and (perhaps) even make some changes.

I've already started one new thing: minimal marking. For those who are English profs, the grading is the complete and utter drag. The students write essays; we hook a ball and chain around necks and give up our nights and weekends.

I've switched to a technique called minimal marking, putting Xs in the margin where I see their errors (sometimes writing down what I see on the side), not correcting their errors or their syntax. I then total up their errors on the grading rubric that gets attached to their essay. We had a class record on Saturday of 63 errors in a 4-page essay. I mark their grades down in MY book, and hand them back unscored. While I do have to look over the revisions again when they come in, it's a much quicker process and I'm not bleeding ink all over their essays. Overall it does take less time.

I'm also not bitter ("I spend so much time and you're still turning in this. . . this drivel?"). They have two weeks to get the revised essay back in, or I'll retain the (usually lower) provisional score. Email me if you want details at e(dot)eastmond--at--gmail(dot)com, or do a search on Minimal Markings.

The wind is blowing here, it's my husband's birthday and guess what? He's downstairs at the kitchen table--grading student homework (he's a professor of science at Big U). So whistle Happy Birthday in his honor!


  1. It does create a moment for one to think how to improve the educational experience in higher ed. You got me thinking!


  2. I agree with your grading methods, Elizabeth. I put slashes in the margins and let them find (and revise) their own errors. If I "bleed" all over their paper, they rarely read it. Mostly they dash toward the grade at the end and ask each other "Whadyu git?" Arggh...
    ps. I was on a roadtrip yesterday...kinda like a vacation. You had it right!

  3. I am out of this burden in teaching but what was a wonder for me was the collaborative sharing with the National Writing Project. Are you a part of that Elizabeth?

  4. I am out of this burden in teaching but what was a wonder for me was the collaborative sharing with the National Writing Project. Are you a part of that Elizabeth?

  5. It makes sense that there would be a more fluid continuum from elementary to higher ed, but I understand your dilemma balancing the teacher-driven and the student-centered curriculum. The way I settle it in my own mind is to recall the adage "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear." As teachers we have to have a sense of what our students are ready for, otherwise we're wasting our time.

  6. I think this sounds like a good way to mark. I think it allows them to really find their mistakes and figure out how to revise them. I do the same thing with spelling. I just put a check mark in the margin and the kid has to figure out which word is misspelled. Except they always know which word it is. They just thought they could sneak it past me. After a few weeks they realize they might as well figure it out in the first place.

  7. Gladwell's article - was just reading it on break! Made for great reading. His description of the observations of the different K-12 teachers really stuck with me - especially the math teacher who taught a concept and made a full circuit of the classroom in 2 1/2 minutes. Hoping to grow those eyes in the back of my head that he mentions one of these days!

    And, I'm definitely interested in the minimal marking. I'd love to hear what your students think about it!

    I've gone to a sampling approach. I read one set of papers and identify the 5 most common errors usually related to structure, organization, citation, whatever it is we're hitting hard that unit. And I give detailed comments on that set of papers. I write up a one page handout reviewing the concepts and providing some suggestions for revision. Then on each students' paper in my other section, I insert a comment that only identifies which of those 5 things they need to revise. I find that they all generally make the same major errors, and I remind them that proofreading is something everyone needs to do. I had no complaints, but that doesn't mean it was/wasn't effective.

    Sorry, this was a loooong comment. I just poured myself a cup of decaf and the smell fooled me into thinking it was morning and I needed to be super productive!

    -Carrie F.

  8. I will have to google minimal marking. I will be teaching 2 critical reading courses next fall with a lot of essays to grade, so I will need to make some changes!