Monday, December 21, 2015

Compassion and The Circulation of Grade-less Judgments

As a way to reflect upon my first-year writing course this term, I want to share some student reflections on my class and think about them. All three students quoted below have given me permission to use their words and their names. The class was the first course in a two-quarter stretch sequence, so I'll see all these students in the next class next quarter, which is very exciting.

I've been thinking a lot about the ways in which value and judgments on writing circulate in the writing classroom these days. This thinking began with John Trimbur's good CCC article from 2000, "Composition and the Circulation of Writing." In short, Trimbur argues that writing teachers might pay closer attention to the circulation of writing in classrooms as a kind of commodity. I've taken his ideas a step further and been thinking and finding ways to pay attention to the ways judgments and assessments of student writing circulate in the assessment ecology of my classroom. What kinds of messages, ideas, and lessons accumulate as judgments from various people in the ecology circulate? But really, the classroom IS itself an assessment ecology (I've written an article on this topic for an upcoming collection on the political economy of composition, co-edited by Siskanna Naynaha, Wendy Olson, and Victor Villanueva, so I'll say no more about this).

A critical part of how I cultivate the assessment ecology of my classrooms is our grading contract, which I've discussed in past posts. I'm always interested in what my students say about both the contract and the ecology it creates. While ecology is more than the vibe or culture of the classroom, more than how students and teacher feel in the classroom, for many students, thinking about the ecology can begin there, since the culture or feel of the classroom is often what we all experience on a day to day basis. While not all of my students talk about the contract in their final portfolios, most do in some form, usually in reflection letters or reflective documents they include in the portfolio. Here's what three of my students said in their final portfolios about our class' grading contract and the ecology it helped create:

Lucas (an African American male):  
[T]his quarter has allowed me to no longer fear my own thoughts. Rather than assuming someone will hate my type of writing, and tell me to do it a completely different style, I’ve been given “gentle nudges” perhaps in certain directions. This has definitely allowed me to take risks with my personal style of writing, and not fear being punished for it due to reading compassionately. We weren’t here just to bad mouth each other, we are all here for help; this attitude has definitely helped me open my mind as both a reader, and a writer.
Angel (a white/Italian American female):

My Project 1 was definitely an improvement from my Literacy Narrative because in the beginning i wasn't quite sure if there was a grade and i was trying to add “smart” words in there to sound more intelligent and impress people, that didn't end up being the case, i learned this class was designed to help us feel cared for and not so pressured to fit to one person's standard of “correct”. Learning this I felt that my Project 1 became more personal to me allowing me to write what i feel and add my own experiences in there without having the feeling that it will be an F grade, this quarter with both the Literacy Narrative and Project 1 i noticed nobody ever says that something is wrong, they told me there opinions and what seemed to be confusing or even just asked me what something meant, everyone was very welcoming.
David (a Latino): 
[T]he grading contract was anything but an easy way out. I initially thought that the grading contract would devalue or trivialize the work I produce in class however, the contrary happened and the grading contract had caused my work to matter much more. The greatest change I think could happen in a learning environment occurred because of the grading contract, my mindset changed from the importance of a graded paper to the importance of learning. The papers and work that I produced in this course became a stepping stone in furthering my education rather than a step forward in GPA. It was through this change that I was able to focus on my potential, rather than my current abilities. With this new mindset I have found myself spending more time researching, analyzing, and taking risks over my work in and out of this course than I ever had in high school. 
I've highlighted in red the ideas in each that I think are at the center of each bit of reflecting on the ecology of the classroom. What I'm reading in these reflections that's helpful for me is how each writer moves from the ungraded labor of the course (which is regulated by our labor-based contract) to what that labor engendered in his or her own practices and sense of the class. Lucas references our descriptive feedback labors that consisted of "gentle nudges," which had no grades attached, and was mostly from colleagues, that led to his ability to take risks and not feel like he was going to be punished. A big part of generating our judgments on writing was a practice of compassionate reading, which we designed as a class after reading some materials on compassion. Almost all my students, like Lucas here, responded favorably to our work around compassion. I think our students -- all of us really -- yearn for compassionate response by others, gentle nudges that take us to new places, uncomfortable places, growth

Angel centers on the act of "caring for" each other though our feedback labors. Again, I hear her referencing our compassionate reading practices. Those practices could not be as effective if we didn't have a grade-less ecology. Grades demand standards, usually one standard, and at least for Angel, they seem to be opposed to caring for each other. That's interesting: The effect of eliminated grades on writing is to cultivate a sense of caring for those in the classroom. I'm reminded of the ancient Greek definition of a pedagogue (or paidagōgos), which was a slave who walked the student to and from school. The pedagogue was one who cared for the student in the most literal and physical way, so that the student could learn. Is this part of our jobs as college teachers, to care for our students? Why not? 

David looks at the larger picture of his learning in school. He focuses on his own ungraded labors as a writer and reader that helped him be able to change his focus to the labors of "researching, analyzing, and taking risks," the labors of learning. This moves him away from working for grades and toward the labors themselves. It's interesting to me that David begins by saying that he initially thought the contract (the absence of grades on writing) would "trivialize" his work. I think this suggests how educational systems that circulate grades tend to trick all of us into thinking that our labors of learning are worthless until they have grades attached to them. So learning only becomes circulate-able when the commodity of grades are attached. Learning is trivial otherwise. By default, then, there is no commodity called learning, but David argues that there is, or can be! Imagine that: an educational system where learning is circulated and commodified, not grades.  

All three have wonderful, valuable insights into our course's ecology, the circulation of judgment, and how that circulation creates particular learning products, all of which help create aspects of our ecology. I don't want you to think that everything was perfect in the course. I'm sure there is still some unevenness and doubt. I'm sure some students in my class will wonder about grades next quarter. But what these reflections show me is that the ecology is working in many of the ways I designed for it to do. Furthermore, I offer their gender and racial identifications because these are the kinds of students I design my courses for, students of color, the marginalized, those who have been beat up by conventional assessment ecologies. Part of implementing an antiracist agenda in one's courses, then, is to think about how one's assessment ecology affects all our students differently. That is, we must assume that it does affect each student differently, then find out how. This means my next step is to see what exactly have my white middle class male students taken from the ecology. What accumulates for them? 

While most of my students are not white, most are vulnerable students in college writing classrooms, because they often struggle with taking risks, learning, writing, or just doing the work required before one can even put pen to paper because of time constraints outside my classroom. In the academy, it can be and feel dangerous to show yourself learning, to fail, to risk, to write, especially if you are a student of color or a multilingual student. These reflections suggest to me that my students do this kind of dangerous work not in spite of the writing assessment ecology, but because of it. I think that's clear in these reflections. My students are not done learning yet -- but they never will be. We are all always in the process of becoming. The excerpts above are just snapshots of each student becoming at this moment, and next quarter they will move on to being something new. It's all beautiful, all becoming. As teachers, I think, we likely need reminding that all learning is beautiful. All learning is becoming. 

So I'm hopeful and excited about our work next quarter!   

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Higher Ed as the Oldest Plantation, Farber, and the Presence of Teachers

This post is going to sound like an encomium for Jerry Farber, and that's because it is. I've never met him, and as far as I know, he's retired from San Diego State University and now teaches at the University of San Diego. But we would do well to reflect upon some of his words. 

Those old enough to have been writing teachers or grad students in the late 60s or early 70s may recall Jerry Farber's infamous, "The Student as Nigger," which was published first in 1968 in the Los Angeles Free Press, then in various other places. It was a kind of manifesto on the way higher education had failed to do what it proclaimed to do, how faculty had failed, how students fail. There's lots to comment on in the essay, the use of the N-word to make a good point by a white, male academic who participated in civil rights work and the lack of response to this rhetorical move at the time (which Mary Rose O'Reilly mentions in her discussion of it in a College English essay in 1989), the plantation metaphor that grounds the essay, and his naming the sexualizing aspects of the student-teacher relationship, but for me, the center of the essay, comes late in his discussion, and it's worth revisiting today, since unfortunately it still applies to us. Farber writes: 
I like to folk dance. Like other novices, I've gone to the Intersection or to the Museum and laid out good money in order to learn how to dance. No grades, no prerequisites, no separate dining rooms; they just turn you on to dancing. That's education. Now look at what happens in college. A friend of mine, Milt, recently finished a folk dance class. For his final he had to learn things like this: "The Irish are known for their wit and imagination, qualities reflected in their dances, which include the jig, the reel and the hornpipe." And then the teacher graded him A, B, C, D, or F, while he danced in front of her. That's not education. That's not even training. That's an abomination on the face of the earth. It's especially ironic since Milt took the dance class trying to get out of the academic rut. He took crafts for the same reason. Great, right? Get your hands in some clay? Make something? Then the teacher announced that a 20-page term paper would be required -- with footnotes. 
At my school we even grade people on how they read poetry. That's like grading people on how they fuck. But we do it. In fact, God help me, I do it. I'm the Simon Legree of the poetry plantation. "Tote that iamb! Lift that spondee!" Even to discuss a good poem in that environment is potentially dangerous because the very classroom is contaminated. As hard as I may try to turn students on to poetry, I know that the desks, the tests, the IBM cards, their own attitudes toward school, and my own residue of UCLA method are turning them off. (6-7) 
The issue: the conditions that grading in the classroom create are dangerous for learning. It's not fairness that's at issue here, although that is a big issue in grading too. The issue Farber highlights is how grading, even evaluation (sans grades), changes our responses to the learning ecologies we are in. It changes teachers as much as it does students. The same non-school analogy (above it is dancing and crafts) has been used by Peter Elbow in versions of his grading contracts that he's shared with me, and that I've used. In Elbow's contract, he starts it by explaining why he won't grade writing, preferring to create a culture and learning environment like a "home studio," a collaborative and encouraging ecology very different from graded ones. 

Today, I think our heaviest problems in writing classrooms have to do with the ways we enact compassion and love, the ways we see diversity and our reactions to it, in the ways we expect our students to do the labors we ask of them, to read, to write in the standardized ways (aka. white, middle class ways). All too often, we don't even care about how students do the work we ask of them. We only care that they give us the product. We demand the product to grade, not the labor. This is the ecology we often create with grades. What else can we grade but the paper, or the exam, or the product that shows they've read, they've written, they've labored, and done so with some kind of results? But we don't really care about the labor, which some call effort. If we did, we'd grade it. We grade what we care about. When we grade, though, we create a harmful ecology, or as Farber suggests, a plantation ecology. We create slaves, and our grades are our whip.

In 1990, Farber wrote a follow-up essay in College English, "Learning How to Teach: A Progress Report." In it, he identifies the grading problem that persists, saying, "[f]or many of our students (and for some of us perhaps), grading constitutes a sort of Marxian base, a bedrock reality, compared to which the actual subject matter itself seems secondary and less real. The grading system tends to drive a class. What it does to students is in great part what 'The Student As Nigger' is all about" (136). And Farber's solution for his own classes? Get rid of grades by using a grading contract system. 

While he acknowledges that contracts don't solve all the problems, or magically make a class or a teacher better. They can open the classroom and writing teacher to seeing and addressing other problems in the classroom, such as seeing the Other, or the power dynamics that may harm learning further, something that O'Reilly laments in her discussion along with love, a part of the issue that she sees in Farber's original discussion. Uneven power relations and love "mess up" her classroom, she says. Farber offers a wonderful response to this and points to the "presence" of the teacher as something worth striving for, perhaps something that can resist the plantation mentality: 
No, we mustn't pretend that we don't have power. I can hardly see how power relations in themselves could be excluded from any notion of community, which is my own understanding of what a class or learning group, at its best, should approach. Nor are they incompatible with "love and admiration." Is love too strong a word here? Perhaps it is. But, though I have often been conspicuously angry at the foolishness of teachers, there have been teachers of mine whom I think I've loved: one whom I saw and heard once for a few hours, and that was all, and enough; one who used to work as a sort of housekeeper half the year and as a visiting professor the other half, moving from one university to another and leaving a trail of students behind her who would write her long letters and for whom she remained more present than the teachers whose classes they continued to attend; one who taught me English poetry and was so overwhelmingly my model of "the professor" that the enormous distance I have had to cover in moving away from him remains as a kind of tribute. (140)
If we are lucky, we all have a teacher or two like these in our pasts, maybe they are the reasons we do what we do -- and that is good, I think. I have more than a few good teachers from my past who have shown me good teaching, good response, kindness, understanding, compassion, and yes, I think, love. How else can I describe my work? I love teaching. I love my students. I don't need them to love me, even though I want for them what I want for my sons, and I want them to have it on their own terms. I want them to change the world for the better. I don't see how grades will help them do these things. 

Like Farber, I continually move away from my past good teachers in various ways as a teacher myself, because I'm not them, and they were mostly white and middle class, two things I was not, and they all graded. I also teach under very different conditions. Those teachers in my past who have exerted the most gravitational pull on me were men, because I grew up in rooms filled with women, and was afraid to talk to men until I was deep into college. I yearned for a father-figure to look up to, one who could be proud of me. What makes these good teachers so present in my own life and teaching is their compassion for me, and their human-ness, their willingness to show their faults to their students. I was not a slave, despite the grades, despite the contradictory messages in the educational system around us. 

So I'm very lucky, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't reflect upon my good fortune. I was a poor, remedial reader, a dad-less, confused kid from the ghetto of Las Vegas, who had some good luck with a few teachers when he needed it most. And all this despite the damage grades did to me early on. All this. What luck!

Perhaps what grading really does, as Farber's words suggest, is fog up the writing classroom, keeping the teacher and his students half obscured, hard to make out. What we see is the fog, the grades. What we can't see is each other, working for each other, doing things, suffering together in the ways that Buddhist philosophy says we all suffer (i.e. "life is suffering"). The fog of grades keeps us (teachers and students) from each other, keeps us from seeing how we work for each other. So I try each day, each semester or quarter, to walk in the sunlight or the rain with my students, not in fog. It's hard, because some resist, and that hurts (they are comforted by the fog), but others walk along, and that sustains me. Mostly, I think, it's the compassionate thing to do, to resist the fog, to walk in the clear of the day. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

On Assumptions of (un)fairness in Writing Assessment

Auckland, New Zealand
I'm heading off tomorrow to Auckland, New Zealand to present at the Symposium on Second Language Writing conference at AUT University. My colleague, Kelvin Keown, and I will present an on-going study that we're doing that looks at the effects of the material conditions of multilingual writers in upper-division W-courses (writing in the major courses) on their use of feedback on their writing. Perhaps on my return, I'll give a bit of that presentation here and the feedback we received from those who participated in our session.

For the rest of this post, I'd like to pose a few pedagogical questions to writing teachers, questions I've been thinking about recently while doing workshops and talks at various places on antiracist classroom writing assessment practices. At such events, I urge writing teachers to consider ways to explicitly cultivate antiracist agendas in their writing assessments. I explain the two main assumptions a teacher might hold in regards to the writing assessment ecology already in place in the classroom and academia generally:
  • Assumption of fairness: When a teacher in her assessment practices assumes that her main job is to be fair (often translated as consistency -- treating everyone the same), which tends to assume that the default settings for the ecology are fair, that all people in it operate equally and have equal relations to power (which includes the dominant discourse and standards promoted). 
  • Assumption of unfairness: When a teacher in her assessment practices assumes that her main job is NOT to be unfair, which tends to assume that the default settings for the ecology are unfair or unequal, that various people in it come to it with different relations to power (which includes the dominant discourse and standards promoted).
As writing teachers at all levels, we talk a lot about treating our students fairly, treating them the same, which I equate to being socially just. One thread of social justice is antiracist practices. Since there's no doubt that racism exists in society, in the academic, in our standards for literacy and writing, teachers should be thinking about the assumptions we make concerning the systems of assessment we cultivate and maintain that produce grades and feedback, among other things. Whiteness and whitely ways surely are a part of this racism by the nature of the way they are deployed to create standards, and through the ways those standards are used against diverse groups of students. So one way to combat such racism in our writing classrooms is through our assessment practices, through the ways we create and maintain assessment ecologies, the systems that sustain and interrogate value itself. How might explicitly assuming unfairness in our assessment ecologies change our practices, thus help our students?

Yes, I suggest we create writing assessment ecologies in classrooms that work from the assumption of unfairness and let our practices be reactions or responses to that unfairness. What would this look like? Well, perhaps we rethink how to use so called "quality" and dominant white standards in the construction of grades, feedback, or even our course goals and outcomes. Perhaps we see the ways our own standards and ways of judging, our own dispositions to judge (despite our good intentions) participate in racist projects that are pervasive in our society and academia. Maybe we engage students themselves in the circulation of assessments and judgments in the classroom. Maybe we reconstruct our purposes for assessing student writing to be ways of critiquing the system of grade-giving, critiquing the dominant discursive standards, while simultaneously valuing in real ways student's languages. 

In important ways, doing these things will promote students' right to fail at learning to write, acknowledge the important practice of reaching too far and not getting what you strive for, not because you aren't good enough but because you are different and in flux, because suffering even in small ways is a part of life itself. I think, writing assessment ecologies that do these things are more sustainable and socially just, leading to more compassionate writing classrooms. If there is one solution to the racism we see all around us in the world, it's systemic compassion, compassion that is built into the system. To be a compassionate assessor of students' writing I think means that we must see the larger assessment ecologies, which includes our own classrooms ecologies, as ones that are fundamentally unfair to students of color, working class students, and multilingual students. Once we can accept this assumption, we can build a socially just future with our students through our writing assessments. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Writing is Assessment (A Practice of Selection and Omission)

Before I begin my post this week, let me emphasize a change to this blog. It is no longer associated with the University of Washington Tacoma or its writing program. This blog was intended to be my personal academic blog, so I've tried to make clear on it now that it and all its opinions are mine as a private academic citizen, and do not necessarily reflect my administrative position as the director of the writing program at UWT. 

John McPhee
Now to what I've been thinking about . . .

Recently, I've found John McPhee's wonderful series of New Yorker articles on writing, called "The Writing Life." The latest is called, "Omission: Choosing what to Leave Out." I'm ashamed to say I just found this series, in which he's already written seven articles dating back to 2011. I'd like to respond to it, as it I think it offers writing teachers of all stripes something worth considering. The essay, as its title suggests, is about -- well, I'll let McPhee explain, since he says it better. From the heart of the essay, he says: 
Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.
And further down, taking another swipe at the “theory of omission,” which he attributes to Hemingway:
Or, in the words of the literary critic Harold Bloom, writing on Shakespeare: “Increasingly in his work, what he leaves out becomes much more important than what he puts in, and so he takes literature beyond its limits.”
It is the ideas of selection and omission that I find useful here. In portfolio theory, selection provides students with an authentic moment of reflection on their drafts, writing processes, and/or practices that are demonstrated in the portfolio. Without the opportunity to select pieces to go into the portfolio from the semester's work, a student doesn't have a rich opportunity to reflect on and self-assess her own work, or make any real decisions about what's good or bad in her writing and why. It's the selecting of some writing over others, the leaving out of things, the omission of some work and inclusion of other work, that allows reflection as a writing practice itself to be useful to students when learning to write, or learning about themselves as readers and writers, which is part of learning read and write. 

But this bit of portfolio theory isn't what I find worth writing teachers' time from McPhee's essay. What is worthwhile here is how he equates writing (and the reading of one's own writing as one writes) with self-assessment, with judgment and reflection. He doesn't say this exactly, but I read it in his words, in the way he describes selection, and in the idea of omission as a theory that guides writers. In order to select words and ideas, sentences and paragraphs, one must define the practice of writing as a constant flow of assessment, the assessment of words as they come, the assessment of ideas as they get laid out on the page or computer screen. While he doesn't offer any theory or practice for how to conduct such a flow of constant assessment as one writes, as teachers we might consider how to get students to first recognize their own constant flow of assessment as writing, then work with it, play with it, and use it to understand their own drafts and themselves as writers. 

For example, I can envision a typical writing assignment that asks students to do some reading and writing, then they stop and read their drafts again, maybe in class. In this reading, they are recalling what judgments they were making about each sentence or paragraph, each word or decision, perhaps the smallest unit of meaning they can recall making decisions on. So a writer might pause after the first paragraph of a draft and ask: 

  • What did I select these details or sentences for the first paragraph? What did I include in the first paragraph? 
  • Why did I select these things for the first paragraph? Why did I think they went first? 
  • What did I purposefully or unknowingly omit? What didn't I include? 
  • Why did I omit or ignore this other stuff? Why did I think it didn't belong there? 
These questions surely would be tough for some writers, but I think doing this kind of reflective assignment on drafts and then discussing what students found with each other, would be helpful. And doing it regularly might get many students to become more mindful, more conscious of their writerly decisions when they are drafting and revising.

And it's the mindfulness that I am after in this activity, since it's really a reflective activity that can help students become more mindful of their selections and omissions, of their constant flow of assessment as writing. If they can be more mindful as they draft, as they write, then they'll have more flexible tools for addressing a wider variety of rhetorical situations. And perhaps what I personally find helpful about asking students to pay attention to what they select and omit is that it reveals very clearly to students how their writing as a practice can also be understood as an assessment practice. Writing is assessment. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

New Year, New Syllabus, New Pedagogical Focus ...

It's now September and many of us in higher education have already started our semesters, or will begin our quarters near the end of the month. Here at the University of Washington Tacoma, we start our Autumn quarter on September 30. So many of us have been planning our courses, and writing or revising our syllabi (or syllabuses, depending on your feelings about Latin and English's migration of Latin plural endings). This has got me thinking about what makes for good learning, for productive learning, for meaningful and compassionate learning in writing classrooms, or classrooms with significant writing in them. My answer may not be as obvious as you may think.
The new "W" on campus at UWT. 

I've directed several university-level writing programs over the last ten years, from First-year writing  to Writing Across the Curriculum to Early Start programs. What I've seen in student populations are at least three common issues that I believe many college students continually face as writers. I'll offer them here as three questions that a teacher might ask herself as she builds or considers her up-coming course (writing or W course):

  • How do I encourage confidence in my students as writers?
  • How can students become motivated to write and revise in meaningful ways, ways I think are good for them? 
  • How can I help students become engaged and interested in the writing they do for our class? 
So the goals above might be shorted to ones about confidence, motivation, and engagement. These seem like personal traits that are outside the realm of teachers and our curricula, although I know there's plenty of scripted curricula for K-12 classrooms out there that say they offer these kinds of things. These are non-cognitive traits in people that are very illusive and even hard to measure (if we were so inclined), but more important, most schools, departments, and programs just aren't looking to explicitly develop such non-cognitive traits in their students -- although they might hope to see them occur. They care, for good reason, about the cognitive ones, those traits like mastering a particular dominant version of English, or a set of theories, or knowledge of a particular canon of literature, or certain skills and outcomes. These cognitive traits are easier to measure, and the things focused on in outcomes assessments. Do you want to know if your students can summarize and analyze a text or set of texts? Easy, ask them to do it, give them instruction on it, offer some models and feedback on drafts, then collect final versions of those drafts (or portfolios) and read them specifically for how well they summarize and analyze texts. But will students see the value in such work? Will they be able to transfer those practices to their future needs and contexts in creative, meaningful, and ethical ways? Or will they simply do what they are asked to do -- if they are good (at being) students -- and take their grades and move on?

Non-Cognitives Are Associated with Success
There are lots of  issues with assessing cognitive traits that make it problematic, but that's for another day. For now, my point is that in writing classrooms, cognitive skills are easier to measure, usually asked for by programs and schools (usually because accreditation agencies ask for such evidence of learning), but do not necessarily provide for the non-cognitive dimensions needed in learning, such as confidence, motivation, and engagement, things teachers usually worry most about and things that lead more explicitly to success. Success? Yes, success. Much research has shown that it is actually the non-cognitive dimensions around learning in college that are correlated to and casually linked to success in the workplace, whether one defines that success by achievement in a job or higher salaries. The same literature cannot offer any correlations or causal links between any cognitive skills and job achievement. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (authors of the seminal book, Schooling in Capitalist America, 1976) in a 2002 article in Sociology of Education provide a good summary of some of this research on non-cognitive traits and success in work and jobs after college.

While Bowles and Gintis in their review of the studies conducted on schooling's effect in the labor market do not show correlations between schooling and the development of non-cognitive traits in people, I argue we might begin doing this work in writing classrooms. Why? Because the research also shows more benefits for non-cognitive dimensions in students, not just in their future jobs but in cognitive outcomes measured in schools. And the literacy/writing classroom is the perfect place for such non-cognitive development. Other research shows this connection too. In fact, another summary of decades of research on non-cognitive traits in education, done by a British team, reveals several important findings. One finding pertinent here is this: "Children's perception of their ability, their expectations of future success, and the extent to which they value an activity influence their motivation and persistence leading to improved academic outcomes, especially for low-attaining pupils" (Gutman & Schoon, 2013, p. 2). They are referencing several non-cognitive traits in the literature, and while they are focusing on children (K-12), I do not think when a person reaches 18, her brain magically changes in the ways it functions non-cognitively.

Gutman & Schoon identify several non-cognitives studied in the literature that match up quite closely to those three goals I started with. The non-cognitives are these:

  • self-perception
  • motivation
  • perseverance 
  • self-control
  • metacognitive strategies
  • social competencies 
  • resilience and coping
  • creativity
The point I'm making is that when we rethink or revise our writing courses or assignments this fall, one thing to consider is how might we focus students' attention on their non-cognitive traits, perhaps first to notice them, and then to cultivate new or better ones so that they get more from our courses and the writing experiences we've designed for them. How can we do this work with students? Allow me to offer a few ideas.

Ways to Focus on Non-Cognitive Development 
Consider placing a heavier focus and attention on labor and work in the class, in assignment instructions, and in how such assignments are counted or graded (if you grade each assignment). I'm not just suggesting that you create new writing assignment guidelines that ask students to pay attention to the process of drafting or revising, but to consider ways to include moments where students stop and pay attention to the labor or work they are currently doing, how they are doing it, and how they feel about that work at that moment. In my classes, I do this paying attention in two ways. Each week, my students tweet their labor with a course hashtag, and I ask them in class at least once a week to look at those tweets and reflect upon what they notice about their own labor identified in the tweets and the labor of their colleagues in class. I also ask them to keep a labor log, in which they keep track of stats on their labor each week. Anytime they do labor for the class, they record that session of labor in the log (a G'doc), with date, time, duration, short description, and a quick engagement rating (on a scale of 1-5). We use these labor logs to reflect at midpoint and final. It's another way to pause just for a few seconds and pay attention to our labor and some key things about it.
Most surveys of employers show the same kinds of non-cognitive traits/skills wanted
in college graduates. 

Paying attention to one's labor is a way to pay attention to several non-cognitive dimensions like engagement and perseverance through another non-cognitive, metacognition (all that reflecting). Ultimately, seeing how we engage and persevere can increase students' motivation simply by noticing the work they have done and the manner in which they've done it. When we can see clearly what and how we're doing things, like reading and writing (and perhaps are prompted to consider the ways we engage and persevere in that work), I think engagement and interest go up, which means writers get better at writing. I think it also means that writers look at failure in writing very differently, but a discussion of failure is another post.

If the teacher has a contemplative practice, such as meditation or mindful breathing, engaging in contemplative practices regularly in class might also increase students' abilities to pay attention to what their doing as they do it and slow down to notice what and how they're learning. I use mindful breathing, and a simple search online can bring up many resources, most notably by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Heath Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. There are lots of others, but I agree with Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush in their very good book, Contemplative Practices in Higher Education (2013), that a teacher should establish a contemplative practice first before trying to use one in a classroom with students.

A teacher might also consider finding ways to NOT grade on quality. If you know me, and my research, then you know this is a hot button for me, so I won't rehash that research. I will say that there are easy and better ways to calculate a final course grade without the need for grading students' writing during the semester, such as labor-based grading contracts. You can see some of my research, which I've mentioned in other posts, if you visit my profile page. There you'll find my scholarship on this matter, which you may download. You can also see Alfie Kohn's good piece that argues against grading and why it does the opposite of what we think it does (i.e. motivation, provide direction to students, etc.).

A Final Note on Non-Cognitives and Success Through College
In closing, let me offer one more reason to focus on non-cognitives in writing courses. Last year, Gallup and Purdue University did a study of college graduates and their success in life generally. They were interested to know if where a student went to school (e.g. an elite private school vs. a public university) affected his success and feelings of success in life after college. They asked what factors in a school contributed to a student's later success. What they found out was that where someone went to school didn't matter a bit. What mattered were these things:

  • I had at least one professor who made me excited about learning (engagement through exercising social connections and competencies)
  • I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete (persistence)
  • I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom (creativity and metacognitive)
  • I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending college (self-perception and social competencies)
  • I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams (social competencies and motivation)
  • My professors cared about me as a person (social competencies, motivation, copingself-perception)

I bolded in parentheses the non-cognitive traits exercised in each comment from students. To me, this study gives further evidence that what we should be encouraging, and finding ways to assess, are non-cognitives. They offer much for students' learning.

Monday, August 17, 2015

How Can We Have Good Assessment in College?

Assessment is too often a dirty word in education, and for good reason. It's usually bad, done to people, and force upon faculty. It often serves no other purpose than because it is is required by accreditation agencies. Below, I hope to make the beginnings of an argument for why it may very well be necessary for good student learning. 

Recently, Erik Gilbert, an Associate Dean and Professor of History at Arkansas State University, wrote an opinion column in the Chronicle of Higher Education called, "Does Assessment Make Colleges Better? Who Knows?" It's a very good question, one I've asked myself several times during my career; however, I've usually asked it in a different way: "HOW can assessment make my college (or program) better? How can I know?" It seems, part of the answer would have to be student participation -- but I'm getting ahead of myself. 
Gilbert's column in the Chronicle

Gilbert begins his piece with his own search for colleges for his sons. The features of any college worth considering to him and his sons did not take them to college assessments or their results -- not that a parent or prospective student would be able to readily find such results on many web sites. When I think about how my sons and I will pick colleges in the near future, we'll likely consider the same kinds of things Gilbert describes: faculty interests, students' abilities to work with faculty on projects, extracurricular amenities like rock climbing walls and rec centers. We likely won't look at any program assessment results from, say the writing program, or a major of interest. Then again, because I'm in this field, I know where many of the good writing programs are. I know their directors, and I've read their published results.

Invisible Good vs. Visible Bad Writing Assessment Still, Gilbert has a point. What good is assessment? Does it do any good for teachers or students? How would we know? Recently on the WPA-L listserv, Galen Leonhardy asked about the role of the writing assessment theorist, which got a number of responses. Rich Haswell, a long-time writing assessment researcher (now retired), responded with a funny answer that has a kernel of truth to it: 
The role of good writing-assessment theorists is to regard history, ideas, and findings and come to conclusions that are disregarded by everyone else. 
The role of bad writing-assessment theorists is to shape history, ideas and findings to fit the druthers of their bosses. 
While Haswell's cynically humorous response doesn't answer the question of whether writing assessment (or any assessment) is good or not, it does point to why educators often see so much bad assessment. The good writing assessment is disregarded or ignored by everyone. We never see it, or it's off everyone's radar. The bad assessments are just supplications to higher ups, and they are the ones most likely visible, even if they don't factor into many students' college application decisions. 

Yes, Haswell isn't meaning his answer to be an actual answer, and I know he'd say in reality good and bad assessment is not so cut and dry. We often must do assessments with which we do not agree because we are required to. What is good and bad assessment is contextual and based on the unique place, people, and purposes of any school. What is important to hear in Haswell's response is the kernel of truth, that good writing assessment is often ignored or disregarded because it is assessment. Is it a case of everyone, including well-meaning teachers, parents, and students, throwing out the good assessments with all the bad ones? Guilt by association? 

Are We Using the Wrong Criteria To Assess?  Gilbert sees another reason to ask the question about assessments' abilities to make colleges better, which may help us develop one answer for why good assessments are so often disregarded. He says near the end of his article: 
And most troubling of all is that the fundamental premise of assessment is that the problems we need to test for and try to fix are found in the classroom and the curriculum. So while we are agonizing about whether we need to change how we present the unit on cyclohexane because 45 percent of the students did not meet the learning outcome, budgets are being cut, students are working full-time jobs, and debt loads are growing.
So we spend money on assessment, which only exacerbates the problems of cost in higher ed, where money can often be hard to come by for good programs and scholarships. We focus too much on matters inside the classroom, when factors outside of it matter just as much or more to students' present and future success. For Gilbert, what makes good assessment, then, is assessment that uses external criteria for validating its decisions. His examples are of "changes in a college’s reputation, ranking, or employment prospects for its students." These are surely good things to know, things worth measuring in some way, things parents and students care about and would find to be good measures of value and worth in schools. Of course, they are not the only reasons to go to school. They do seem to assume that the existence of a college (and the reason to go to college) is to prepare students for their roles in a corporate Capitalist economy. 

Still, to carry Gilbert's argument a bit further, assessing for academic outcomes won't tell you whether students have employment prospects after graduation (we all need to work and earn money) since the external factors that control those prospects are mostly outside of the students' learning and higher education generally. Beyond the fluctuations of Capitalist labor markets controlled by political decisions and other things, how can, for instance, a history or philosophy department control the socio-cultural narratives and values in our society today that devalue such worthwhile degrees, that see them as worthless? Is it not important to have a good number of citizens who have thought and can think carefully about history and ethics in just about every position possible? Of course, it is. But what job is there for a philosophy major or a history major today? 

Thus, I think good assessment in higher ed doesn't have to placate to the whims of the Capitalist marketplace, or of society, or current cultural trends. I'm not saying that education ignores such things, but it must offer a corrective, a counter voice to society, to the Capitalist marketplace. If we don't, who will? So good assessment might provide students with experiences to participate in learning and its assessment, to participate in judgment, which means they participate in meaning-making. Put another way: good assessment might ask students to make judgments on learning and have those judgments count in the classroom in real ways. This kind of good assessment can make colleges better because the criterion we are validating our decisions by are students themselves. 

What's Good Writing Assessment? 
So let me focus on good writing assessment, since that is what I do, but I don't think my ideas are exclusive to writing assessment. Writing assessment should not be primarily about measurement. That is, I don't think educators should design assessments in order to simply measure student value, proficiency, or accomplishments. These things require academic standards and yardsticks that by their nature are problematic when used with/against diverse student populations. I've discussed in various places this phenomenon, so I won't go into it here (for my most thorough argument about this question, you can read Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing for a Socially Just Future). But beyond this problem, assessments that measure, that look to find out who meets levels of proficiency and who do not, usually make students feel poked at, like lab rats being tested. In these instances, assessment is usually done last, an add on to the class or lesson/unit. It is often in the way, or something to get out of the way, so that the real work of the class can continue. Students feel this, and feel that they are not trusted to learn without assessments -- tests. This kind of bad assessment constructs an adversarial relationship between teacher and students. It assumes students will do what they can not to learn, unless they are made accountable through tests. 

On the other hand, good writing assessment is an entire ecology that involves students in processes of inquiry that build agency and stake in their learning. In this kind of classroom, students don't need to be tested, instead they test themselves through their learning processes. Assessment becomes central to the course and its pedagogy, to what students are doing on a weekly basis. It becomes the main reason students are there -- and students can see and feel it. This kind of good assessment doesn't even need to produce grades or rankings or numbers. What it produces is student learning, questions, dialogue, exchanges, problems, and contingent solutions. Learning is always contingent and complex, so why do we think its measurement will be anything but contingent and complex? In a simplistic way, I'm taking the old adage that we learn most when we teach others, and modifying that adage: we learn most when we assess each other. But don't misunderstand me. When I say assessment, I don't mean grade. Grading, by its nature as a ranking mechanism, is usually bad, harmful (see Alfie Kohn for a good argument against grading).

Testing An Assessment
A simple way to test or validate an assessment in a classroom, for instance, might be to ask: what does this assessment do for students and their learning? Or How does this assessment engage students in learning? Better answers for this validation question will suggest the centrality of students in all learning/assessing processes, and a deep, compassionate trust in them to do the work asked, which ironically results in higher degrees of fairness in the assessment system (a discussion of fairness is for another day). For instance, some answers to this validation question might run along the following lines and should have evidence to support them: 
  • engages students in processes of inquiry and exchange of judgments based on the content of the course and the students' interests or personal connections to course content 
  • helps students build/construct authority or confidence in what they are learning and its usefulness to them now and in their foreseeable futures
  • constructs power and ownership of the classroom's assessment ecology, which includes power to affect directly their course grades 
I could name other things, but the idea is that students, their processes of learning and assessing, and the power and participation that they construct in assessment processes are central to the classroom. These kinds of assessments make colleges better because they make students more critical or critically conscious (in the Freirean sense, see Pedagogy of the Oppressed) of themselves, of their learning, of how they judge, and how that all that learning happens for them. This kind of assessment, one that stays away from grading and ranking, provides students with better, intrinsic motivation, rather than less effective extrinsic motivation (grades). I like to say to my students: "we'll try to substitute your usual striving to earn grades for a striving to learn about writing and judgment." 

What would this kind of classroom writing assessment look like? That's more complex and dependent on the school, students, teacher, constraints, etc. But I've offered a few ways to see how I've done it in my classroom in my recent book. I'll offer just this one bit of advice here. Good writing assessment gets students to help teachers do it in significant ways. It doesn't produce grades or numbers. It produces student agency, dialogues and exchanges that are about the learning, and intrinsic motivation to learn. 

And to do this kind of assessment, it typically requires that a course be rethought so that assessment comes first in its design, not last, not something to get out of the way, but something to dwell on. I use a grading contract in all my courses to determine course grades. This gets rid of all the other grades on individual papers, and opens up the classroom for more critical discussions of judgment. I design processes of assessment with my students that they do, and that we go over afterwards. I ask them to continually reflect each week on these processes. And we think a lot about the contract and what it asks of us. To see my class in detail, see "A Grade-less Writing Course that Focuses on Labor and Assessing." 

So how can we have good assessment in college? I think, it starts and ends with us (teachers and administrators) getting out of the way, and letting students lead, engage in it, and showing us how it's all done. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Using Lectio Divina as Assessment

Teachers of all stripes who assign peer review or peer assessments often complain that students don't know how to give helpful feedback, if they give much at all. Even when we structure feedback by providing rubrics or other heuristics to guide student assessors and what they offer their colleagues, student feedback is often less than helpful, or perceived as such by writers. To complicate matters further, many students just don't trust their peers for a variety of good reasons, (e.g., their peers aren't grading them, their peers aren't experts in writing or the topic of the class, etc.). I have found, however, that there are practices that students can do that provide helpful feedback, and that can encourage a deeper attention to that feedback by writers.

Good Feedback Starts with Good Reading
Every act of judgment must proceed from an act of reading or listening. One measure of the thoughtfulness and helpfulness of any judgment of a text is the quality of the practice of reading and listening that produced that judgment. So to ask students to make judgments, or provide feedback, on their colleagues' drafts, no matter the kinds of judgments, means that we should provide students with ways to read.

I don't mean that we help students develop a purpose for reading a colleague's text when offering feedback. Yes, this should be an important first step in developing a feedback activity with students. It helps determine the goal of the reading (on the part of the assessor) and the application of any feedback (on the part of the writer). Feedback might be geared toward generating and revising ideas, or reconsidering key dimensions of writing (see my last post on using dimensions vs. standards in writing), or arranging and structuring ideas (organization), or proofing. But these are not ways of reading. They are stances readers take when reading texts, not methods to do so. Good reading starts with good methods for reading, so good feedback really starts with good methods for reading.

One Method for Reading: Lectio Divina
Too often, especially in the college classroom, we simply assign reading or assign feedback activities. We ask students to read and give their colleagues feedback on their drafts. If we are thoughtful, we give them some guidelines for what we expect the product of their feedback to take (such as questions to answer, issues to discuss, and minimum word counts of the text of the feedback), but we don't always offer many methods for reading the text. We simply assume that students will know how to read their colleagues' drafts for the purposes of the feedback we want them to provide, that they have a repertoire of reading practices available to them. We assume they know how to read carefully. For instance, two very good and robust online technologies for peer review, Eli Review and My Reviewers, focus most of their attention on the feedback students provide -- that is, the form and content of the feedback. You can tell this by where the technologies place their attention, particularly in the data available to teachers and students. Neither can, for instance, keep track of students' reading time. How long are students spending reading a colleague's draft? Do they spend more time reading later drafts in the semester? Time can be an indicator of the quality of reading method.

We also assume that the most difficult part of any feedback activity is the articulation of the feedback itself, the ideas and opinions expressed and their expression in words. So if we spend any time on helping students with feedback methods, it's usually (in my experience) with the nature and form of the feedback. Do we want them to ask questions or respond to ideas or make only observations? Do we want them to spend some time saying where the good stuff is, then say where the things that need improving are? But we don't spend much time, if any, on how students actually read a draft.

What if students changed their focus in feedback activities to the labor of reading or the practice of reading? This is what I suggest.

One of the most ancient forms of careful, close, and meaningFUL reading practices is the practice of lectio divina, which means "divine reading." Originally in monastic and other Christian traditions, it was a practice of slow reading of short bits of scripture, with pauses and time to reflect  and meditate, allowing God's Word to touch the reader, or not. Typically, there are four parts or aspects to lectio divina:

  • lectio: reading or listening
  • meditatio: meditation or reflection
  • oratio: prayer
  • contemplatio: contemplation
Each part of the practice is saturated in silence in order to allow God's Word to come to the person, since often, it is said, that God speaks to people in a "still, small voice" (I Kings 19:12). There's a good description of this practice offered by St. Andrew's Abbey in Valerymo, CA, as well as a short description of it by the Order of the Carmelites, which offers two short video explanations of the practice as well. And for a discussion of it as an academic practice and not a spiritual one, Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush's chapter 6 in Contemplative Practices in Higher Education is a good resource. I don't want to focus on the spiritual dimensions of this practice for obvious reasons, but I do think it is important to know that the practice was and still is a spiritual one, one that was meant to allow an experience with God without placing one's own purpose or intentions onto the text of the Bible. God's Word dictates to us meaning and next steps, not the other way around, goes the logic. This purposeless reading can be helpful to students in feedback activities, if translated correctly.

Reading without intention -- or rather, reading that allows intention to come from the text, not the reader -- which seems contrary to what I mentioned above about determining a purpose for feedback activities, is what makes lectio divina potentially powerful and useful to students as a method for reading to give feedback to peers. Why? Because if we let our judgments come from the intentions of the text, or at least our perceived intentions of the text, then students have a better chance at reading colleagues' drafts on their own terms, not placing too many expectations and values of their own onto it, and realizing that they have such expectations and values that automatically get placed onto texts when they read. This latter distinction is most useful and a good way to help students reflect later upon the feedback they receive from peers.

But lectio divina also offers a method for how to get students to experience diverse voices and ideas from colleagues, resisting the need or impulse to judge first, or to correct. This leaves only one purpose left that makes sense (in my view): to read for your colleague's sake. That is, I want to argue that if done right, lectio divina can give students a way to read with more compassion, from a stance of listening, not of judging, which ironically, I believe, is a more powerful and helpful stance for offering feedback. When we know we are being listen to carefully, we listen back carefully. When we think and feel that the other person just wants to hear himself talk or just wants to tell you what he thinks, then we are less inclined to listen carefully.

A Sample Feedback Activity
One way to use lectio divina as a method for students' readings of their peers' drafts is to give them the process for reading, making reading the first step in the feedback activity, giving it priority (not the feedback text itself), maybe even asking students to only read first without writing any feedback. Pausing between reading a peer's draft and writing feedback to the peer about it is critical. Remember, lectio divina required lots of pauses, silence, and reflection between steps or parts of it. This takes time, and so allow for the time, even if it is over a night or weekend. Here's one method that uses lectio divina that could be modified for use in a classroom, written as directions to students:

  • Read your colleague's entire paper quickly (do not mark or take any notes).
  • After you finish, pause for 2-3 minutes. Just let the paper's ideas sink in or drift in your head. Don't worry about order or what you want to say about it or to the writer. Just let the paper's impression sit with you. 
  • Take 3-4 minutes and write down your first impressions of the paper. What does this paper make you think about? Why?
  • Now, read the paper again more carefully, but this time, pause during your reading at the end of every page (so if the paper is 3 pages, you will pause a total of 3 times). 
  • When you pause at the end of each page, take 3-4 minutes and write your thoughts to the writer. This will be a short paragraph (maybe 100-150 words) in which you freewrite what you hear and see the writer saying on that page. Try to address these two questions each time: 
    • What is the main idea you hear the writer expressing on this page?
    • What are you expecting as a reader at this point for the writer to discuss? Why?
  • Repeat this reading, pausing, and writing until you finish the draft. 
  • Compile your paragraphs into one document, addressed to the writer. 

This process or method of reading can be modified or changed, but the important parts are the frequent pauses and writings that help the reader slow down and pay attention to the text. Notice also that the questions begin with observations. What does this reader hear or see on the page? When I give such instructions to my students, I make sure that we talk carefully about why we don't want to jump quickly to judgment, that we first want to make observations, and that often just doing that can be very helpful to a writer, if it is done in detailed ways. We also talk about how often time gives us answers or insights, that often we cannot and should not rush our thoughts or ideas, so the pauses are important. Just sit between papers for 30-60 seconds before you begin writing. It is amazing what 60 seconds can offer you.

Other versions of this practice can be even simpler. For instance, I've had students read a draft or a text in class, then we pause after each paragraph, and I asks students to write down one word or phrase that pops up into their heads at that moment. It might be a word that characterizes what they just heard/read, or a word from the text itself. We then quickly go around and just say our word or phrase aloud. No comments. No questions. We just listen to the bare words with lots of silence around them. Then we read another paragraph, and do it again. When we finish, I ask them to reflect upon their list of words, the text, the impression of other words they heard, etc. It's a pretty enlightening practice that uses the silence to call attention to words, which then lead to a discussion that can be judgment- or assessment-based.

Similar reading methods can be used in writing groups, when students are to get together and talk about their feedback to writers. In those activities, I usually focus students' reading on their assessment documents, the feedback as text. So it is the feedback texts or letters to writers that get the lectio divina treatment in writing groups. Since everyone in the group has read the draft begin discussed, it seems what's really at stake is how each reader read the text. Lectio divina offers a method for writing groups to focus on the text of feedback as an entry into the practices of reading by readers. The discussion becomes one about how we read and came to judgments, not which judgments are right about a text, or what to do next in the text, or what the writer should do in revisions. Those are questions the writer must decide, not readers. So discussions about feedback end up being ones about reading and reader assumptions that can deeply inform writers when they take home the feedback and begin processing next steps and revision.

No matter how you use lectio divina, it calls attention to the labor of reading. It doesn't let students take for granted the practice of reading, instead it helps students listen for the still quiet voice within their colleagues' drafts, and reflect back to writers that voice in compassionate ways, ways that say, first and foremost, "I am listening to you. What are you trying to tell me?"

Friday, July 31, 2015

Thinking about One Point Rubrics, Standards, and Dimensions

Yesterday (July 30), the UWP's first-year writing teachers got together and discussed the curriculum and changes to our new stretch program (TWRT 120 and 121). Autumn quarter will be the first quarter of the new stretch and stretch plus options for first-year students, which you can learn more about on our Web site. Because the courses are new, we got together to discuss them. We had an engaging set of discussions that ranged a number of topics, from our priorities around our program goals to activities we intend to scaffold our classes around.

Jennifer Gonzalez' Web site, Cult of
But our most interesting discussions, for me, were around grading. The new TWRT 120 course is a pass/fail course that uses a grading contract to determine course grades (CR or NC). I won't discuss contracts here, but save that for another day. During our conversation, one of our teachers, Caitlin Carle, offered us a nice blog post she found on what the post author, Jennifer Gonzalez, calls a "single point rubric." The article is on Brilliant or Insane: Education on the Edge, and Gonzalez is an education blogger and former teacher who runs her own web site and podcast for teachers (mostly secondary teachers), called Cult of Pedagogy

This rubric practice is one I've used since at least 2003-04, and published an article on the practice in Assessing Writing in 2005 ("Community-Based Assessment Practice"), which I've gotten many positive comments on over the years. The practice in my article shows how to build such a rubric with students in a cycle of assessment and reflection that is meant to involve students in every aspect of the assessment of their writing in the college classroom. I've changed my practice a bit since the article, but here I'd like to focus on the technology of rubrics, more specifically, what Gonzalez calls a single point rubric, and how it works with particular kinds of assessment ecologies (see my new book, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies, to learn about assessment ecologies). I'd like to close on a change or shift in how my version of the single point rubric works in the ecology. 

Typical Rubrics
Most teachers and students think of rubrics for writing assignments as a list or table of expectations that have a score, ranking, or judgment attached to each dimension. So there might be five dimensions that are often represented by each row in a table, while each column offers a description of writing along each dimension that fits each different judgment or ranking possible. In this way, a teacher might use the rubric to provide individual scores on separate dimensions of the writing submitted, or add scores together to create an overall score or ranking. Below is a typical rubric (from Pittsburgh State University) in table form that offers four judgments, which could easily be ratings or scores (1-4). Each row describes a dimension of the writing that the reader (teacher) will make a judgment on. Such a rubric can be given to students to help explain grades on writing in a general way.

Note that this rubric, if used to explain grades, only explains grades, not how a student is doing (or has done) in a piece of writing. And if offers grade explanations in generalized terms, that do not connect them (or the teacher's reading) to evidence in the actual writing. The rubric expects the writer to understand those connections, or demands that the teacher include additional information and feedback. As the sole use of feedback, it simply shows the judgment, but can do very little in justifying or arguing that judgment to a student (how did the teacher come to it?). Where in the essay is one's support for claims "inadequate"? What is the nature of inadequacy in this paper's use of evidence? What is inadequate evidence exactly? Where is the line between "adequate" and "entirely appropriate"? The rubric cannot answer these important learning questions that students need to know.If you're using  a rubric like the above, and then adding further feedback so students can improve their writing, then you may be doing more than you need to, if your goal is to help students write better (as well as working against your own purposes by assigning a grade/judgment with feedback). Studies have shown how grades negatively affect students' abilities to use feedback on their writing, and harm their motivations. Alfie Kohn has shown these connections quite persuasively, and has many of his articles available on his web site, but for my money, his best argument comes in Punished by Rewards. If your goal is just to measure, then providing feedback with a rubric also may be doing too much. No need for the feedback.

Single Point Rubric
One solution, perhaps, is the single point rubric. Gonzalez describes the single point rubric as follows: 
Instead of detailing all the different ways an assignment deviates from the target, the single-point rubric simply describes the target, using a single column of traits. It’s what you’d find at level 3 on a 4-point scale, the “proficient” column, except now it’s all by itself. On either side of that column, there’s space for the teacher to write feedback about the specific things this student did that either fell short of the target (the left side) or surpassed it (the right).
So a single point rubric simply defines or describes the second column from the left in the above Pittsburgh State rubric. This gets rid of the other distinctions (judgments), and focuses the teacher's and the student's attention on the teacher's feedback in each dimension. It can also be easier for students to figure out and use because it is simpler. Her example below makes it clear how a teacher might use such a rubric with students. 

Gonzalez' Single Point Rubric

Only having to make a single, binary judgment on writing saves time because a teacher doesn't have to pine over too fine distinctions that become more dubious or arbitrary as the distinctions multiply. This problem is clearest when one must explain the difference between an essay that "earns" an 88 as opposed to an 87 or an 89, or even a 90. The single point rubric gets rid of most those judgments, which are summative, and focuses on formative judgments, the comments and feedback. In some significant ways, this rubric offers teachers who still use grades to simplify the assessment process and help students focus on feedback. And I think most, if not all, writing teachers would agree: we want our students to focus on our feedback, not grades. 

From Standards to Dimensions
A single point rubric is much easier to create with your students because the purpose of any rubric generating activity is: what does proficient mean for us? This is like asking students to define or talk about what makes "good writing," which is always a good discussion to have with them. But of course, being able to identify and articulate what good writing is and practicing such good writing are two different things. In part, they are different because it's not the writer who primarily determines what is good writing, it is the reader, which in most classrooms is the teacher. So even with a good use of a single point rubric, the assessment ecology of the classroom will still bend toward the teacher as standard maker and standard bearer. Students continue to play the "how do I please the teacher" game, or the "give her what she wants" game. To avoid this, I have used writing dimensions, instead of standards in my single point rubrics. So they are rubrics that do not identify "meets expectations" as much as they are ones that identify the dimensions of writing we are exploring and trying to understand. And the only way to do that understanding is to get observations (feedback) from multiple readers, colleagues and the teacher. 

So I shift the rubric from standards to dimensions. Rubric building activities I engage in with students ask this question: What dimensions of writing do we want to work on or improve? Notice, I'm changing the focus of the above rubrics (both) from describing what is proficient or meeting expectations to a dimension of writing that we can argue and disagree about. That we should and inevitably will disagree about, if we are human. Let's take that "Development" row in the Pittsburgh State rubric above. Gonzalez' single point rubric would use the "meets expectations" column as the defining point in one row of her rubric, that would then help her as the teacher write about her "concerns" and "evidence of exceeding standards" for that dimension. Again, notice that her rubric focuses on pleasing the teacher, and only acknowledges her judgments. 

In my single point rubric, the point identified is a dimension of writing that is not a standard but a dimension, a question about the writing, in a sense. So here's how their standard and my dimension might look next to each other: 

  • Their Standard: Evidence and reasoning are adequate to support claims. The assignment is complete. 
  • My Dimension: How does evidence and reasoning support claims adequately? How complete is the draft?

Notice that the dimension encourages readers (judges) to explain their observations and demands that multiple readers read and provide observations. It also does not assume that there is a standard by which we can judge or rank any dimension of writing. Sally's essay and Jose's are simple different instances of discourse, and so should be responded to on their own terms. That's what we focus on.  

What's the advantage to mine over other rubrics? I think, the biggest is that it doesn't penalize subaltern discourses, multilingual students, students of color, or working class students who come to our classrooms with discourses that do not match well with the academic ones that tend to be a part of the standards on all rubrics (except mine). In fact, it uses them to create discussion, disagreement, and productive dissonance in the reading of student writing. So does this mean that my dimension-based rubric is not teaching some standardized version of English? No, we cannot avoid that to some degree, but we can be more critical and conscious of that standardizing in our judgments and rubrics as only one perspective, one reading, which I believe a dimension-based single point rubric does. Ultimately, focusing on dimensions in our rubrics and not standards moves our classroom assessment ecologies toward antiracist ends.