Am I unduly fixated with my students’ writing skills?

I had an interesting moment this semester. A wonderfully bright and hardworking student came to me, frustrated with their grades on written assignments. I have to admit, I was frustrated too as they should have been earning higher grades based on their work ethic, intellectual curiosity, and knowledge of course materials. I knew they had a deep and clear understanding of the readings and lecture material based on our discussions in office hours and their contributions to class discussions. To be clear, the student had been achieving good (around or often above average) grades and was at zero risk of failing. The grades they were achieving were grades to be proud of and grades that I’m sure many of their colleagues longed for. I’ve also no doubt that this student will succeed at UBC and professionally once they leave us. But, in the meantime, they should have been achieving great grades. I wanted to be assigning them higher grades, but out of ‘fairness’ I felt I had to mark ‘what was on the page’, even though I knew it was not representative of their understanding of politics.

So, late in term I had a bit of a petulant teen-ager moment and thought “wait a minute I don’t ‘have to’ do anything!”. Part of my job description and (tenure decision) will be based on teaching innovation, my willingness to think outside the box and find better ways of advancing teaching and student learning. So, I decided to experiment. For the next small written assignment I decided to allow this student to respond to the question orally. I arranged a time to meet with them in a separate room with me and one of my TAs. After the student being given a few minutes to gather their thoughts, the three of us had a conversation. The TA and I were able to ask follow up questions, where the student again displayed advanced and often critical insights into the problem at hand. OK, so it wasn’t a totally ‘controlled experiment’ (apologies to my positivist friends) but the grade I gave on the oral presentation was around 10% higher than their average on the written assignments of the same ilk.  This was a pretty small stakes assignment, so the impact on their grade was, overall, negligible. But still…..

What was more interesting to me was the debrief afterwards. I wanted their reflections on how it had gone, what the difference was to them in terms of being able to display their knowledge of politics, and why they believed the differences occurred. Without going into all the details, it became clear that the mechanics of writing, the stresses over getting the grammar/tense/punctuation correct were preventing them from displaying what they had learned. For me, thinking about the purpose of this set of assignments (5 reflexive learning logs over the course of the term) I realized that the way I have structured the assignment might actually be masking what I am trying to assess! In the description of the assignment I am asking students to give me a ‘snapshot of what they have learned’. Yet, sticking with the snapshot analogy, they are so fixated on the lighting, shade and focus of that image that I might not actually be getting a real picture of what they have learned.

This is perhaps more of a problem for international students for whom English is a second (or third!) language, but I am also now wondering if the same goes for my domestic students, for any students for whom the written form is their largest struggle. Looking at my own courses this year, written work accounts for anywhere from 70-80% of their grades. Whilst writing is an extremely important skill (both academically and in terms of wider professional skills), I’m left wondering if I am over-assessing the written form. My primary focus is for students to learn about politics, not (just) write about politics.

I am left asking myself, am I favoring students who for whatever reason have superior writing skills whilst students whose intellectual skills rest more in the oral form or non-verbal creative forms are penalized?   If what I really want to assess is their knowledge and critical thinking skills in regards to political science and communicating that knowledge, is relying so heavily on written work really appropriate? This is not to say that writing is not an important skill. Indeed, some of the writing intensive courses in my home department have proven very popular amongst students. And for students who are maybe grad school bound or seeking out careers in certain occupations, developing these skills is extra-essential. However, can there be more room or at least options for alternative (ie non-written assessments). One of my wonderful TAs has pointed me in the direction of other university programmes where a recognition of problems with written literacy skills in student cohorts and biases towards written literacy in assessments has been addressed; I will investigate further!

Of course, regardless of the potential pedagogical advancements, I have to be realistic. A change in assessment structures to more verbal or more creative modes of assessment does not come without serious repercussions in terms of time. Making a switch would be difficult to do in most undergraduate level courses in terms of human resources—with over 100 students in my own class in how on earth would I manage conducting and offering formative feedback on a series of individual oral assignments? Furthermore, how would this impact them moving forward or in terms of taking future classes where the written form remains dominant? Should I not just continue training them primarily to communicate political arguments in the written form to ensure success in future courses? These are all the questions I will keep struggling with as I rework my courses for next year over the summer. I will report back in future blog posts about my progress on this, but for now will simply end with a thank-you to my student who allowed me to run this small experiment (and allowed me to write about it!) and who has really challenged me to reflect much more carefully on my approach to assessments more generally.

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One thought on “Am I unduly fixated with my students’ writing skills?

  1. Pingback: Thinking Visually: Assessment via Infographic | From Behind the Lectern

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