Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Grading and Measuring Learning

The pile of blue books and final papers that were decorating my office desk have been filed away.  I submitted my grades earlier in the week, and now it comes time to join Ben in thinking about what lies ahead for next semester and reflecting on the one that has just past. 

It was my second time teaching both of my classes this fall and I enjoyed being able to tweak my syllabi to make everything run more smoothly this time around.  The biggest changes I made were in my interdisciplinary course, Social Science Approaches to the American Past.  This is a small class (25 students) that meets four hours a week in two two-hour blocks.  The students are from all over the university, as this fulfills a graduation requirement.  I am supposed to teach them how social scientists think.  So we spend the semester reading academic articles about race and gender, and talking about what sorts of questions historians and other social scientists ask, how they gather and interpret their evidence, and why this matters to people who aren’t themselves historians or social scientists.  

Last year I gave frequent reading quizzes and a final exam that included an essay question asking them to bring together some of our major themes.  I thought it went fine.  This term, though, it was not working.  I wanted to give us more time for discussion, so instead of the reading quizzes, they wrote more reading responses.  So far, so good.  The midterm, which was similar to the quizzes I had given the year before, did not go as well.  Some students, of course, did very well.  But others, students who attended class regularly, were active in discussion, and kept up with the readings, did not get grades that reflected what I knew that they were learning.  And it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t their fault: the test I had written was not actually measuring what I hoped that they were learning. 

I ended up changing my final exam completely in an effort to let them show me what they really did learn.  It was now a take-home exam.  Since one of the major goals of the course was to get them to think about how history and historical analysis affects their lives today, I had them read one of two contemporary articles (one on race, one on gender) and reflect on it in light of the readings and discussions from our course.  Here’s the prompt:


For this take-home exam, you have two options below.  In either case, you will read a contemporary article and write a response (approximately 5 pages, double spaced) in which you connect the article with the readings, lecture, and discussions in class this semester.  You should plan on mentioning AT LEAST three specific references to class readings.  In both cases, your response should reflect on one of the following major issues that we have dealt with this semester
  1. What is a fact?  How do we evaluate evidence, and what sorts of evidence is most useful?
  2. What is the importance of the past in the present?  How do we use history to understand where we are today?  What are the implications of this?
Option A: “The Changing Face of America”  In the 125th Anniversary issue of National Geographic this year, the magazine and website ran a feature article on "The Changing Face of America".  In it, photographer Martin Schoeller’s portraits of mixed-race Americans are featured alongside an article discussing the implications of the Census Bureau’s adoption of a mixed-race categorization in 2000.  Read the article and view the accompanying gallery at the website below, and write a response that reflects on this contemporary issue in light of the materials that we have read and discussed in class this semester.  What issues are raised in Funderburg’s writing and Schoeller’s images that bear on the history of race and diversity in America?  How can historical knowledge help you make sense of these materials?  What sorts of questions might a social scientist ask when looking at these images?
Option B: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”  In the summer of 2012, The Atlantic published a controversial essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter, titled "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" This article included Slaughter’s discussion of her own career path, and her thoughts about why women still had not achieved equal representation in the highest-ranking positions in government and business.  Read the article, available at the website below, and write a response that reflects on this contemporary issue in light of the materials that we have read and discussed in class this semester.  What issues does Slaughter discuss that bear on the history of women and work in America?  How can historical knowledge help you make sense of what she’s talking about?  How does she evaluate the evidence in front of her, and do you agree with her evaluations?  What sorts of questions might a social scientist ask when reading this piece?

I am very pleased with how the exam went.  The students did very well, always a good thing, but they also were able to demonstrate what they had really learned here.  They were able to draw together a wide range of topics in their responses and ask important questions, particularly in response to the thematic questions I asked them to think about.

The most important thing for me in all of this is that it’s led me to really think about testing and grading more deeply.  What is it that I really want students to learn, and how can I tell that they are doing so?  This is what I’m thinking about now as I begin to play with my spring syllabi.  The readings are just about set.  Now it’s time to think about papers, exams, and what skills I really want them to walk away with.

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