Self-Assessment = Getting them to Think about their work

There is a lot of chatter in the education community about Self-Assessment. In feeling somewhat dissatisfied that my rubrics are often more useful to me than to my students, I decided this fall to institute more consistent self-assessment into assignments. This assessment has taken two forms – the most obvious is actually giving them the rubric and asking them to complete it and turn it in with the project (the hope here is that this will provoke them to actually read the rubric!). The second is providing them with a series of questions about their work. The goal for me with self-assessment is that they think through what they are doing, rather than waiting for a longed for, but often mysterious grade from me. In the past I have asked them to write a self-evaluation with their projects, building up to an overall statement by the end of the semester. My new approach is giving them self-assessment questions tailored to the assignments.

It’s nearing the end of the semester and what has come of this new approach? Some students have been diligent in their responses, some slackers, just as I imagined. The real bonus has been getting a fix on whether they actually understand the assignments – they may be doing it right, but are they connecting the dots? Ultimately, their self-assessments have been more valuable all along the way than the end of semester course evaluations that at my school at least, are an agony of filling in bubbles and navigating obtuse data. If I ask a student “Which aperture gave you consistently shallow depth of field?” not only am I getting them to think about the result (rather than just look at it), I am also getting a sense as to whether they understand what they have done. It’s helping me to see on an assignment-to-assignment basis whether I am an effective teacher. How carefully or thoughtfully they respond, helps me to also understand whether my students are diligent learners. An obvious lesson is that those who skip the assessment are often the most problematic learners. A corollary bonus is that I get a sense of my student’s expectations. By offering them the opportunity to score their own rubric then match it to mine, room opens up for a conversation about those expectations.

Self-assessment takes time and for me is always a work in progress. I highly recommend incorporating it into assignment delivery and course expectations.

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Art Professor as God

Critique process has changed a lot since the makers of Six Feet Under went to school…. the art professor/art star strutting around dropping pearls of wisdom to his protege’ is amusing, but not terribly useful. There’s a lot to love here, however, and heck, why not do something that might surprise students, like, “everyone get on the floor…. now!”

Six Feet Under art school clip 1

Six Feet Under art school clip 2

What’s wrong with “Like”

I’ll admit it, I’m an anti-like evangelista.

My students all learn that it is a pet peeve of mine to begin a critique with, “I like…” Not only is it unproductive, but it makes the critique personal, and that’s often not helpful. Overuse of like makes for lazy critiques.

Helping students to learn that although we may enter the conversation based on our personal attraction (or repulsion to) an art work, for the conversation to be useful to the maker (and to the rest of us) we need to delve beyond that personal attraction and explore what makes the work successful (or unsuccessful).

My classes may laugh about my seemingly futile attempts to get students to drop this use of like, but I do make a concerted attempt to get the students to find different ways of approaching the subject such as: “I respond to that work because….” It’s the because that is important. If we don’t strive to explain why we respond the way we do, then critique becomes merely an exercise in personal preference.

Ask your students to exercise their minds and go a little deeper when undertaking the critique process.

The First Critique

My current critique practice, especially in my intro classes involves teaching students how to critique. I try to make each successive critique a step towards effective critique, which may take an entire semester to develop.

Several years ago I started having students put their first projects up on the wall randomly and instead of critiquing each student in their turn, I ask students to pick out the images they find most effective, no ownership attached. What results is a shorter critique session (so far no one has fallen asleep!), more attention paid to what’s working with successful images, and a greater incentive for students to be involved and pay attention at each stage of the process. I expect the students to be doing the bulk of the talking, my responsibility is to round out the critique, or provide indepth feedback that they might not yet know how to express.

Now that I am teaching a digital photography curriculum in intro, I have the students drop jpg copies of all their photos from the first assignment into a general folder. I project them as a slideshow and students yell stop! when they see an image of interest that they want to talk about. In this way, we emphasize that critical learning is for everyone’s benefit, not just the individual maker of the image. I have found that students are more likely to ask or answer questions about technique this way, especially as the images are so large and immersive when projected.

Making Groups Work

When I first started to have students work in groups, I made a huge mistake: I assumed that, once the groups formed and I told them what their task was, they would go out and do great work. Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way!

In fact, I became so discouraged at how dysfunctional the groups were and how bad the work was that they handed in, that I abandoned groups for a while.

After doing some research, however, I realized that, with pre-planning on my part, there was no reason why group work could not be an energizing, efficient, and positive way for students to function. I no longer hesitate to have students work in groups.

For me, there are three components to making group work a success:

1. Form groups in such a way that they will be more likely to function well (see the “Forming Effective Groups” post),

2. Train the groups how to function effectively, and

3. Create a system for evaluating group work through each stage of the work process.

Yes, this means doing a lot of “set-up” work prior to the class, but if you do it well, the rewards are huge. I no longer hesitate to have students work in groups.

Using Student Questions as Learning Tools

Student questions are often the most important drivers of learning. A question indicates the desire to “know”, as well as an interest in the subject of the question. Teachers can harness the power of questions in a variety of ways. Here are three:

Variation #1: Ask students ahead of time to bring to class one or two questions they have based on their homework reading. Have them frame it as follows: “I have always wanted to ask …..(fill in the topic)….?” Have them submit the questions on a card at the start of class and use them to lead discussion. They can also post them on Blackboard in order to get responses from the rest of the class.

Variation #2: Have students write down a question at the start of class. Address them throughout the course of class period.

Variation #3: With 10 minutes of class time remaining, have students write down one question that they still have about the day’s topic. You can also have students formulate questions in pairs to do this. Answer those questions at the start of the next class period.

The Usefulness of Small Group Discussions in Class

Small group discussion is a tried-and-true method for getting students engaged in the class content. To be maximally useful, a small group of 3-5 people should be given a task that fulfills the following criteria:

  1. The purpose of the task is clear.
  2. The group knows what to do specifically.
  3. The group knows the time frame for completion.
  4. The group knows how to complete the task.

It’s particularly useful to pose a question to the entire class. The best kind of question is one that requires students to make judgements and choices between various alternatives. Here’s one example:

“We have just discussed the origins of Postmodernism. In the next ten minutes, I want your group to discuss the question: “Which 2 artists had the most direct influence on what became the Postmodernist movement? Explain why you chose those two artists.” Write down their names and a brief justification for your choices. One person from each group will report back to the class as a whole.”

One key to success is making sure each group has a “reporter”, in other words, a person who keeps notes and is willing to report the results to the class at large.

You can then use the results of that discussion to continue with a lecture, or as a lead-in to another point or issue.