In part one of this series we looked at relationship as a prerequisite to assessment. In his book Norms and Nobility, David Hicks says “Knowledge – the activity of learning – gives teacher and student a common ground for friendship – while accentuating their unequal status.” This friendship, whether between parent and child, teacher and student, or mentor and apprentice, can offer a rich environment for the cultivation of knowledge and skills, and ultimately wisdom and virtue.
Part 2: Response – The Expectations During Assessment
How then can the art of assessment contribute to this cultivation? I would argue that the next thing necessary for assessment to take place is a response. As a way of communicating, assessment cannot be one-sided. I know what it’s like to spend hours “bleeding” red ink all over my students’ work, only to have it ignored and to see nothing change. Something had to change and that was my approach. In order to elicit a response, assessment needs to be incremental, individual, and interactive.
Most of what we teach can be broken down into smaller steps. Wouldn’t we all rather have a chance at a mid-course correction as opposed to a “one and done” final grade? By coming alongside my students, by walking the path with them, I am able to see how they are progressing, where they are in relation to the desired goal, and if immediate help is needed. One of my favorite parts of teaching The Lost Tools of Writing is being able to tell my class “I will never assign you an essay and ask you to turn it in tomorrow.” Writing is a process and each part of that process deserves careful attention. I encourage you, no matter what you are teaching, to see how you can assess along the way. Not only does this keep the mistakes from piling up, it offers you a chance to affirm and bless your students with honest praise. Virgil may have led Dante through Hell, but he was always right there next to him. Incremental assessment leads to good outcomes.
As the adage goes, we don’t teach material, we teach people. Each of these souls in our care, these image bearers of our creator, shares a common humanity with each other, but also shares that individual stamp. How can we as teachers honor this individuality and uniqueness without sacrificing our task to teach? This can seem impossible in a classroom where we have to teach one thing to many students! I would argue that assessment is the place for us to do this. For the student who yearns to race ahead and has the skills to do so, we may require a little bit more. For the student who is easily overwhelmed and needs a slower pace, perhaps choose fewer things – or even just one thing – to correct. This is where knowing our students is so important. Knowing strengths and weaknesses helps us decide what to focus on when we offer our thoughts on their work.
Finally, because we do have a relationship with our students, it makes sense that our assessment is interactive. Have you ever had this happen? You carefully mark a paper with comments that you are sure will be met with enthusiasm and will definitely elicit change. Instead, their eyes go immediately to the numerical score (or letter grade) and they shove the work into a backpack. So much for interactive. One way to address this is to schedule a meeting with your student to go over the work. Save the final grade for after the meeting, after you’ve both discussed the highs and lows together. Another approach is to give only a grade for “accepted” or “incomplete.” By teaching for mastery and requiring your student to fix any mistakes, you open the door for conversation and gentle correction. Ask specific questions such as “What were you going for here?” or “How do you see this example supporting your argument?. Give honest feedback such as “This sentence didn’t work for me because it made me stop and scratch my head” or “I smiled when I read this example” or “This figure of speech just sings!” I find that if I approach my students’ work as someone who is interested in what they have to say, then I can respond as a fellow reader. Thus, our interactions tend to be more productive.
I expect my students to do their best work, to ask questions, and to follow directions. In turn they can expect fair, honest, individual feedback. When I offer feedback for a student, I pray about my words. I consider carefully our history and how far we have traveled. I offer specific comments and, if needed, suggestions for getting started with revisions. Most of all, I enter into the assessment phase with an expectation of a response. When the student responds in return, everyone benefits.
- Make your requirements specific and achievable.
- Make sure your students have had the chance to practice with input from you before attempting to do this alone.
- Communicate your expectations clearly, preferably in writing. (Don’t rely on everyone hearing and processing your oral instructions, especially when fired off during the last few minutes of class!)
- Don’t be afraid to ask different things of different students. Not everyone is on the same schedule.