Wrapping Things Up

A UK city street lined with stores. On the sidewalk running down the left side of the image stands a bike stand with a bike wrapped in blue paper with the words The Electric repeated all over it. A similar bike is on the right side of the street as well.

Wrapped by morebyless on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

After writing yesterday’s post, I read up on group assessment, reviewed some materials on contract grading, and revisited some information on ungrading. I’ve been collecting references in Zotero for years now, so it was relatively easy to pull up the relevant information.

All this reading and rereading resulted in resetting the effort expectations table. I’m essentially using the same chart as in the past, though the assignments and the feedback system are changed slightly. Here’s an excerpt from the chart as it is now:

Grade Level Effort Expectations
A Earn a Complete on the following:

  • Five Major Project Submissions
  • 95% of the Project Wrappers
  • 95% of the Check-In Surveys
  • 95% of the Weekly Activities (including Try-Its & Self-Checks)
B Earn a Complete on the following:

  • Four Major Project Submissions
  • 85% of the Project Wrappers
  • 85% of the Check-In Surveys
  • 85% of the Weekly Activities (including Try-Its & Self-Checks)

The numbers now follow the grade level numbers: A=95%, B=85%, C=75%, D=65%, and F=64% or less. The number of major projects is also restored to the previous version: A=5, B=4, C=3, D=2, F=less than 2.

Dealing with Ghosting Students

The one nagging problem with the setup has been the ability of student to ghost their group and still get credit. That scenario could potentially give a student a C or better even though they have done little to no work. That bugs me. I want to trust students and believe that no one would do this. As much as I want to, I just can’t do it. This phenomenon is frequently called “the free-rider effect” in the articles I have been reading (e.g., Chang & Kang, 2016; Cherney et al., 2018).

It’s occurred to me in the last hour that the solution isn’t in changing the effort expectations chart. Rather it’s to change the way I manage the groups. A number of the articles and chapters that I reviewed focused on group sizes from three to five students. Some folks say more; some say less. I’ve done some work on how to form groups online (in a project that I was never able to maintain, which is a long story for another day).

I’m thinking that I should aim for four to five students in a group. With that number, even if a student does disappear, there should still be enough folks leftover to complete the projects. Groups of three would be problematic in that scenario. I’m also thinking of using the method of forming groups that I tried in the past: groups are composed of students who like to work in similar ways and (as possible) at similar times. For instance, students who like to work ahead of time and be finished in advance are grouped together. Students who like to wait until the last minute are in groups together, and so forth.

I’m grading for completion, not quality, so it doesn’t worry me that (in my experience anyway) the students who like to work ahead usually do better on their work. The other groups aren’t at any disadvantage. They just have to complete their work. They don’t have to knock my socks off.

What I’m adding is a practice that I found mentioned online and among some of my colleagues on Facebook. To put it bluntly, a free-riding student who disappears from their group or does not contribute can be kicked out of the group by the other group members. That student can then either work on the group projects independently or join a group of other students who have been removed from their groups. If I adopt this system, no student should pass the course while doing none of the work.

Assessing the Project Management Work

With all that sorted out, I just need to figure out how to focus assessment on the process of managing the project, not so solidly on the project itself. I’m worried about the workload, so I don’t want to add onerous reflections.

I’m also not a fan of asking students to use on of the strategies where they grade each other by assigning points or percentages based on the work each person does. See the “Student Assessment of Group Product” section of the Grading Methods for Group Work page from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for examples. Such systems work, but they can put students at odds and can be unfair to students who do not fit the demographics of other group members (whether because of race, class, gender, LGBTQ status, and so forth.

I think the answer is to add project wrappers to the major projects. Somehow as I was reading yesterday, I happened upon exam wrappers. I’ve heard the term many times before, but had always thought they were a way of adding information when you turned in an exam. I assumed that they were similar to the draft letters and memos that I have used frequently, where students tell me about their project and what they want me to comment on as I add feedback.

In other words, I missed their full potential. Exam wrappers are also used after an exam, when students receive the feedback on their work. They typically ask students to look at the errors, figure out the correct answers, and reflect on what went awry. That process is similar to the Revision Plan assignment that I have used in the past. In that assignment, I ask students to return to a project from earlier in the term and write a description or instructions for revising the project. Depending upon the course, I might also ask for storyboards, outlines, or other kinds of mockups. I liked that assignment as a final exam because it allowed students to explain what they’d do if they had more time without asking them to do all that work while they were swamped with other finals.

Somehow, despite knowing about exam wrappers, I didn’t see the connection of using them both before AND after the exam. You’d think that the work wrapper would have tipped me off—it is an active learning strategy that wraps around another assessment. Yes, I’m feeling a bit daft right now.

I realized that adding something when a major project is submitted and then after the feedback is returned allowed me to structure reflection in a meaningful way that avoided asking students to write long reflections and to come up with deep thoughts about their work. I can ask some basic survey questions about the time spent on the project, which portions they focused on, how group members coordinated, and so on in the wrapper they complete when turning in their work. After I return the work with feedback, I will have similar survey style questions but also some short answer questions that will ask them to reflect on what they did and how them might change in the future to improve their writing and collaboration.

Asking multiple-choice and short-answer questions, I can limit the amount of effort that students have to expend. Coordinating the pre- and post-wrappers should trigger reflections on cause and effect (or perhaps impact) of the strategies they have used. Asking for a revision or revision plan focuses the work on the project (the product). Asking students to think about why their work habits resulted in the performance and how they might change it in the future focuses the task on the process. It feels like the perfect solution for paying attention to the project management aspect of the work that they will do in the course.

FINALLY, I think I have things figured out. None of it is written up or published in Canvas, mind you, but I think I know what I’m doing. I see a lot of long work days between now and Monday, when classes start. On the chance that you aren’t aware of the practice of exam wrappers, I’m including three links to basic information on the strategy:

Temporary Signs of Progress

A cream colored billboard interrupts a cloudy blue sky. The billboard reads, Temporary Sign.

Another beautifully random temporary sign from TFL by WithAssociates on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA license

On Friday, I ordered Ellen Carillo’s The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading (2021). It arrived today, and I read it quickly. It’s a short but very useful book. I was especially pleased to have some of the questions that I have about contract grading as Inoue (2023) defines it validated in Carillo’s argument.

I’ve been worried that I’m asking for too much work to earn the various grade levels. Admittedly, I’m at a point I typically reach when I’m working on assessment and assignments: Everything feels completely random. Why 95% for a B? Why all five projects for a C or higher? Why any of this? The only thing I can say is that I know why there are five projects–because that is set (more or less) in the department’s new course template. Everything else is just a well-intentioned guess.

I mentioned last week that from my perspective, some of the measures of labor in Inoue’s system have the potential for ableism. Carillo amplifies my concern, bringing in discussion of the inequality of using the number of hours of labor to measure assessment. I’ve been worried about students who have less time to commit to coursework because of other obligations (such as work, parenting responsibilities, and requirements of scholarships). Carillo addresses those concerns and further argues that different people need varying amounts of time to complete a task. What takes me one hour may take someone else two hours. She points out how this system is particularly troubling for students with disabilities, who may face “access fatigue” (Konrad 2021) and, therefore, may need more time to complete their tasks. See the concept of “crip time” (Price 2011) for more information.

Where does all that leave me? The randomness of assessment systems and the inequality of focusing on the amount of work students are able to complete land me back where I began. I’m no longer feeling all that confident about the grade expectations I posted yesterday. Asking students to do everything for a B feels wrong now. Asking them to do even more work for an A feels even worse.

Now I think these are the plans and questions for the Fall:

  • I’m rearranging the effort chart from yesterday to set most of the numbers back to the previous version, from the Spring 2023 course. 95% of the work is required for an A. 85% is required for a B, and so forth.
  • I’m still unsure on the number of major projects that are required for each level. I am (currently anyway) keeping the changes to the assessment of a piece of work to reduce some of the specifications grading I was using (Nilson 2015). Previously the system was all five required for an A, four for a B, and so on. What confuses me are the group projects.
    • Are all projects the same (individual and group)? So the scale from the Spring works as is?
    • Should there be some analysis of how much work each group member puts in to determine when a group project “counts”?
    • Is there a way to count the group projects AND require some additional project management assessment that counts separately?
  • Should I add some projects (like those previously required to move from a B to an A) for students to use to increase their grades as needed? Honestly that feels like extra credit, and extra credit is a move back to grading practices. Though if I’m honest, ALL of this is about counting things. Maybe they aren’t grade points, but they’re still numbers being counted and compared. I guess I’m leaning toward no on this question.
  • I feel as if I’m not assessing project management at all. As it’s set up, I’m assessing the product created by a group, but that’s not the same thing as project management. Even an unhinged and dysfunctional group can turn in a project that meets criteria. I hate to add more work to the course, but there needs to be some reflection of the group and report on its accomplishments.

It would really be nice to settle on all these aspects of the course. I think I’m off to research the assessment of groups and assessment of project management. If I can figure out those issues, maybe the rest of things will fall into place. A girl can hope anyway.

A Tentative Effort Expectations Contract Chart

A white sign with black text labeling the path as Effort Street (SW17)

Effort by secretlondon123 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

I’ve spent the day reading (and rereading) on contract grading, including all of these resources:

  • Inoue, Asao B. (2019). Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/labor/
  • Stommel, Jesse. (2017, October 26). Why I Don’t Grade. Jesse Stommel. http://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/
  • Stommel, Jesse. (2018, March 11). How to Ungrade. Jesse Stommel. http://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/
  • Craig, Sherri. (2021). Your Contract Grading Ain’t It. WPA: Writing Program Administration, 44(3), 145–146.
  • Blum, Susan D. (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead) (First edition). West Virginia University Press.

I stand by the short list of goals that I shared in my last post. If anything, I feel stronger about them. I am set with focusing on Completion meaning that “you do all that is asked of you in the manner and spirit it is asked” (Inoue, 2023, p. 327). Less of a specifications grading system (Nilson, 2015), the system checks to ensure that the basic things that are asked for are there. I’m leaning on the explanations from Inoue’s work here. There’s much more explanation in the book (which is available free from the WAC Clearinghouse), but I particularly liked the three questions he included for assessing the work students did during a week in FYC:

Each labor assignment is complete and counts if it meets in the affirmative the following questions:

  • Is the labor product(s) posted on time and in the correct place?
  • Does the labor product(s) include everything I asked for and meet the minimum word count?
  • Is there a labor tweet/Slack(s) posted as instructed (if applicable)?

(Inoue, 2023, p. 196)

My class will have different framing questions, but the idea will be the same:

  • Did the student turn in the work before the end of the grace period?
  • Does the work include everything listed in the criteria for the activity?
    • Is it the right assignment? (e.g., Is it a memo?)
    • Is it on the right topic? (e.g., Is it a good news memo about employee holidays?)
    • Is it a full draft? (e.g., Does it include memo headings and a memo body?)

I may be addressing some specific issues that arose in the past with my questions 😉 You know, like that one time a student responded to the assignment for a pitch presentation on their proposed report topic with a presentation that argued Lionel Messi is the GOAT. Um, no. That is not a Complete. Nor were the Recommendation Reports that were only outlines. Yes, that was a submission, but not a Complete.

I feel reasonably comfortable that this kind of framing questions will address to check student work to ensure that students are on track and doing what they are supposed to. Further, I see what I’ve come up with as more rigorous than what I was doing in the past. Students have to do all of the work with attention to its expectations to do well in the course. It wasn’t really a goal to increase the rigor, but I’m happy that it has turned out that way.

I’m also going with the essential idea of Inoue’s grade levels, though I am phrasing my system in terms of work completed rather than work that is missing to avoid the deficit focus. Like Inoue’s system, my tentative plan allows students to earn a B by doing everything in a way that meets basic criteria. To earn more than a B, I will follow Inoue again and provide a list of additional tasks that students can complete. Each task earns 1/3 of a grade. For instance, if a student with a B does one task on the list, their grade will increase to a B+. This extra work for grades higher than a B also increases the rigor in the course.

The table below shows the tentative contract for effort in the course. Naturally I will need to add a lot more information. In particular I need to include an explanation of what it means to earn a Complete as well as sketch out all of the tasks that are available for grades above a B. I want to adopt Inoue’s practice of allowing students at any level to improve grades by completing these extra tasks as well (2023, p. 330–331). So a student with a C+ could complete a couple of extra tasks and move up to a B. That gives students more options so that one bad week doesn’t ruin their chances.

Here’s that setup so far:

Grade Level Effort Expectations
A Meets all of the expectations for a B, and earns a Complete on up to three of the following (each raises your grade 1/3 step):

  • Earns a Complete on 100% of the Check-In Surveys and Weekly Activities
  • Substantially revises two Try-Its (?)
  • Writes a Midterm Assessment of your work in the course.
  • Substantially revise the 1st or 2nd major project
  • peer reviews?
  • what else?
B Earn a Complete on the following:

  • Five Major Project Submissions
  • 95% of the Check-In Surveys
  • 95% of the Weekly Activities (including Try-Its & Self-Checks)
C Earn a Complete on the following:

  • Five Major Project Submissions
  • 85% of the Check-In Surveys
  • 85% of the Weekly Activities (including Try-Its & Self-Checks)
D Earn a Complete on the following:

  • Four Major Project Submissions
  • 75% of the Check-In Surveys
  • 75% of the Weekly Activities (including Try-Its & Self-Checks)
F Earn a Complete on the following:

  • Fewer than four of the Major Project Submissions
  • 64% or less of the Check-In Surveys
  • 64% or less of the Weekly Activities (including Try-Its & Self-Checks)

Weighing Student Work

Gold colored scales of justice sitting on a wooden table

Scales of Justice by Michelle Grewe on Flickr, used under public domain

I’m definitely doing too much thinking about contracts and how to set up the expectations fairly. So much so that I’ve realized that I’m stuck on the very essence of grading. I’m no where near ungrading. I’ve lost all track of where I should be.

Fooling Myself

To start, what are my beliefs about assessment? I would be easier to point to the people whose pedagogy I try to work within: Jesse Stommel, Alfie Kohn, and Susan Blum.

Grades don’t work. They cause students to focus on the wrong things. In my contract, students may still be focused on the wrong thing. They are counting (and obsessing) over writing tasks. I’m fooling myself to think that the counting of Completes is immune from the curse of focusing on the elusive grade.

My great confusion on how to count (or not) the group work should have tipped me off sooner. Trying to figure out what would count as effort in a group is the wrong thing. I’m trying to invent a system where I decide how the quality and quantity of work determines the ultimate grade.

I’m still acting as the arbiter of course knowledge and assessment since I am the judge of Complete or Incomplete. I decide whether the effort that students put in counts. If I were truly faithful to the ideals of ungrading, I would be powerless. Students would determine what and when they have learned.

So what if I scrapped it all? What if I counted only submissions? Did the student turn the task in? Yes? Then it counts toward the expectations.

A Model Contract

So what if I go back to Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contracts system? I don’t like it for reasons I’ll get into, but it is a starting place. Here are his contract expectations (p. 127):

Grade Level # of Non-Participation Days # of Late Assignments # of Missed Assignments # of Ignored Assignments
A (4.0) 3 3 1 0
B (3.1) 3 3 1 0
C (2.1) 4 4 2 0
D (1.1) 5 5 3 1
E (0.0) 6 6 4 2

First, let me get my problems with these guidelines out of the way. I don’t like counting attendance, which is what the # of Non-Participation Days essentially does. I believe it’s not only ableist, but also inhumane to students stretched thin with other obligations. The system does have exceptions for excused absences, which could reduce some of the ableism. Still in a time when COVID still exists, I do not want to encourage any system that would ask a potentially sick student to come to class to avoid slipping down the expectations chart. Since my courses are all asynchronous online classes, it’s also irrelevant. There is not such thing as an attendance day to count at all.

I’m not a big fan of punishing students for late assignments either, so that column of the chart is problematic for me too. I believe in a more humane system that trusts students to put in their best effort. If they need an extra day, they should have it. I do recognize that Inoue’s course is highly interactive, and if students do not bring their work to class, they miss getting feedback from others. Peer review is a tough problem to negotiate in a due date system. I may not like this portion of the chart, but I understand why it’s there and critical to the way his classes work.

What counts in this contract model bugs me the most though. This is a deficit model. It counts failures and devalues the idea of failing as a critical part of learning. I’ve read enough of Failing Sideways to know that it’s more valuable (to me anyway) for students to be allowed to fail, to try again, to take risks without being punished.

Toward My Own Contract Model

I need to articulate my own model, and this time, I want something that is more in line with the spirit of ungrading. I haven’t worked out the details yet. Honestly, I haven’t even begun the work of determining what I expect students to do to demonstrate their learning. I do know that I have these goals in mind:

  • I want a positive model that counts things students do rather than things that they don’t. Such a thing should be more Canvas-friendly anyway. As far as I know, Canvas cannot use a system that counts failures.
  • I’m going to have to work in more self-reflection and group reflection. The challenge will be to add that reflection work without over-burdening students. They already have a lot of writing to do in this course.
  • I need that reflection to be authentic, which can be a challenge. In my experience, students are so over reflection. They have been writing reflections on their work their entire academic career. As a result, reflections can look more like an exercise in busywork instead of showing any deep recognition of who and when their writing has changed.
  • I still have to find a way to check student work to ensure that students are on track. I know that I should just trust students to do the work, and not feel compelled to check that they are not turning in blank files (yes, that has happened in the past). I’m just not there though, and I’m relatively sure that anything else would be frowned upon.
  • I‘m going to need a good explanation of the difference between feedback and completing/submitting work. A document can count as a submission and still have extensive feedback on how to improve it.
  • I’m going to have to figure out how to manage the extra work that moves students from a B to an A. I left that part out of Inoue’s system above. He offers several possibilities, including revising projects and creating more in-depth work (p. 132&endash;133). I will surely include revisions, but I need to think that system through.
  • I need to invent a TARDIS because I need to squeeze a lot more time out of this next week. Classes start Monday the 21st.

Like or Dislike? Assessment for this Fall

Two self-inking stamps: one stamps a thumbs up with the word Like and the other stamps a thumbs down with the word dislike.

Would it be wrong to grade pass/fail work with these? by tengrrl on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA license

I’m focused now on the last big decision for my fall classes: How I will make the assessment system work with all these new assignments. The many collaborative writing tasks and related homework impact the system dramatically. Specifically, I’m trying to determine how (or if) to change my old system now that three of the five documents I count as major projects require collaborative writing.

The old system was pretty straightforward:

  • A: Earn a Complete on All Five Major Project Submissions
  • B: Attempt and submit all five of the Major Project Submissions, and earn a Complete on Four Major Project Submissions
  • C: Attempt and submit all five of the Major Project Submissions, and earn a Complete on Three Major Project Submissions
  • D: Attempt and submit fewer than five of the Major Project Submissions, and earn a Complete on at least two Major Project Submissions
  • F: Attempt and submit fewer than five of the Major Project Submissions; Earn a Complete on fewer than two of the Major Project Submissions

I’m listing only the major projects here. There are, of course, other requirements. You can see the full chart from the Spring in the Short Guide to the course.

Looking at that arrangement, I’m wondering if I need to break out the five documents into two individual projects and three collaborative projects. And if I do break them out, how do I indicate their worth?

The new course template does require that the Usability unit and the Project Management unit are worth more than the other portions of the course. To indicate that in the assessment chart, I am thinking that I may need to list them explicitly. For instance, perhaps the chart needs to indicate that a student cannot earn higher than a D in the course if they skip the collaborative work.

That thought leads me to wondering about how I am going to assess that collaborative work. Will this system based simply on whether the work is complete or not allow a student to put in the least possible effort on the collaborative work but still earn an A because other group members pick up the slack? After that thought, I get all mixed up on if a complete project management document means students learned about project management.

Reading Failing Sideways Queerly

A slightly off-topic aside

My friend Will Banks pointed me to the discussion of narrative assessment in the recent book Failing Sideways: Queer Possibilities for Writing Assessment (2023), which he co-wrote with Stephanie West-Puckett and Nicole I. Caswell. The book arrived yesterday, and I recognized that I didn’t have time to read it through before classes start on the 21st. I found myself skipping around in the book, following index entries and looking up passages I found with Google Books for specific terms. I flipped back and forth, completely ignoring some sections. I really don’t care about the history of the bell curve, for example. I can read that section later (if at all….I seriously don’t care about bell curves).

I did dip into details on queering the writing process, which has never really been the harsh step-by-step progression that textbooks would lead readers to believe. It suddenly occurred to me that I was reading queerly. I wasn’t following the expected linear progression through the book. I was frantically flipping about, skipping from one topic to the next.

Assessing the Major Projects Sideways?

From flipping around in Will’s book, I landed on these thoughts and possibilities, in no particular order. Funnily enough, I ended up with ten:

  • Now I’m questioning my whole system of marking work as Complete or Incomplete, having realized that it’s imposing the “success/failure binary onto the writing and learning experience” (p. 162). Ugh.
  • Stephanie’s “low-stakes self-assessment activities meant to provide quick and dirty data that could inform instructors about students’ writing experiences and orientations, as well as about ways to better meet students’ needs” (p. 92) gave me new-found happiness for the weekly student check-in surveys that I incorporated into my class a year ago. I made up my practice on my own, but apparently I was right on track with my system.
  • I’m always stuck when I work on assessment between what works for programmatic assessment and what works for individual students in a writing class. I always feel like I’m trying to smash the proverbial square pegs in round holes.
  • I also get lost between the curricular expectations for a technical writing program and the actual writing instruction that students need. With a service class like the technical writing course I teach, there are so many outside stakeholders who want the class to do specific things (e.g., teach the memo, prepare students for the workplace, erase all “errors” in their writing). Generally, none of that is what I think makes someone an effective writer who is ready for the workplace.
  • I could use contract-based writing assessment based solely on labor, but given the expectations for the course among other departments and the program itself, doing a lot of work without producing something similar to the five major projects and other materials in the template wouldn’t fly.
  • I want to like labor-based grading, but it raises questions for me.
    • Failing Sideways points to a University of Akron study that “found their students viewed grading contracts as largely irrelevant because these students had come to expect that the amount of work they invested in their courses would automatically be reflected in their course grade (Spidell and Thelin 2006)” (p. 163). /li>
    • I’m also bothered by what feels like an invalid argument that tells students that if they just work hard enough and put in their very best effort, they will be just fine in the course. That stance outright defies the lived experiences of many BIPOC students who know full well that they can work their asses off and still not get the same rewards as their white classmates.
  • Not relevant to assessmnet per se, but Nikki’s discussions with writing center consultants about the space, the value that it holds, and how it expresses those values (p. 134) included some questions that I believe I can combine with Cecilia Shelton’s (2019) Linguistic Landscape Analysis approach for the analysis of usability projects in the middle unit of my course.
  • The discussion of narrative assessments through learning stories is intriguing, but I question whether I can ask students to write narrative assessments of their learning voyage on top of all of the other things that they have to write for the course.
  • Would looping students through questions about their understanding of the large goals of the course reveal adequate information for some kind of assessment? For instance, what if I asked students questions like these: “What counts as technical writing? What counts as effective technical writing? What need one have to be a good technical writer?” Would their answers from the beginning, middle, and end of the course tell me anything about their changing ideas of the field of technical writing as it relates to them and their careers? Note that I am saying “changing ideas” and not “increasing understanding” there.
  • Finally, my most favorite moment in the book was seeing the photo of Stephanie and Will’s 3D model of their research data on p. 196. I immediately flashed back to my description of a CCCC Forum from (gulp) almost forty years ago: HyperYarn: Threading space (1994).

And after all of that, I have ideas but I still haven’t figured out what to do with the contract system for the course. At least I have a whole week before I have to have things ready to go.

ChatGPT Revises “The Children Are the Future”

A young child dressed in a red devil costume with orange and yellow flames for Halloween

Devil for Halloween by Matthew Rutledge on Flickr, used under a CC-By 2.0 license

I asked ChatGPT to “Rewrite the song The Children Are the Future from the perspective of someone who is certain that the children are mini-demons.” The results are spectacular satire.

Dark Future: Mini-Demons Unleashed

(Verse 1)
Whispers in the dark, beware the young,
Their innocence is just a mask, their wickedness has begun.
They’re lurking in the shadows, with mischief in their eyes,
Mini-demons in disguise, spreading chaos ‘neath the skies.

Teach them well in the art of manipulation,
Feed their cravings for power and domination.
Show them how to sow discord and strife,
For in their hearts, darkness thrives.

Mini-demons, oh, they’re the future,
Unleashing havoc, a twisted suture.
Corrupting all that’s pure and light,
In their hands, malevolence takes flight.

(Verse 2)
Their laughter is a sinister melody,
A symphony of malefic glee.
They twist and turn with every word,
Their devilish charm can’t be unheard.

Guide them to deceit, teach them to lie,
Nurture the malevolence deep inside.
Let them revel in their wicked ways,
Innocence lost, darkness stays.

Mini-demons, oh, they’re the future,
A generation of chaos and rupture.
Watch them dance upon the ashes,
As they paint the world in devilish splashes.

Gone are the days of hope and trust,
Replaced by the children, cold and unjust.
Their hearts are black, their souls are cold,
A generation of darkness to behold.

Shape their minds to crave despair,
A legacy of malevolence they’ll share.
Let them spread their poisonous seeds,
Fuelling humanity’s descent into heed.

Mini-demons, oh, they’re the future,
Agents of darkness, each a corrupter.
The world shall tremble at their command,
As they grasp it tightly with malevolent hands.

So beware the youth, their innocence a lie,
For in their hearts, darkness will never die.
The future unfolds with wicked delight,
As mini-demons rise, casting eternal night.

Late Policy & Grace Period Options

A statue of an angel with an uplifted arm. Its wings are spread wide open. Surrounding tombstones are also visible.

Grace by Jonathan Lin on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA license

I seriously hate having to change my late policy. I had more than a few students thank me for it last term. Several even said that they would have had to withdraw without it. That said, I understand that members of a group cannot all work under different ideas of the due dates if they are going to create collaborative documents.

My challenge then is to search for some way to give everyone some freedom without hampering collaborative work. I thought brainstorming the options would help:

  1. Screw it. Use the old system. Let the groups have anarchy.
  2. Also screw it. No grace period. No humanity. Meet the deadline or else.
  3. Use a short grace period on everything. 3 days.
  4. Use 3 day grace periods for tasks like homework, check-ins, etc. Longer grace period for major projects (up to one week?).
  5. Use 3-day grace periods for tasks like homework. Groups set their own independent deadlines for all collaborative work. Provide “suggested” deadlines to help them pace things out.
  6. Give up. Go live under a bridge with the other trolls.

Option 6 is looking like best right now. Okay, not really. I suspect Option 5 is the best way to focus students on Project Management, which is, after all, the focus of the final unit. They are to write proposals, progress reports, and recommendation reports; but the overarching goal is learning project management in the context of composing technical writing.

In some ways, earning a Complete on the writing projects should not be the goal. Working smoothly and effectively as a group should be. I’m having flashbacks to the good old days when I taught Writing and Digital Media. Back then, students had a major project that could be anything from a video documentary to a website. I tried to be aware that the goal was learning about how to compose with digital tools, not perfect productions. I emphasized being brave and taking risks. I regularly reminded the class that if they put in the effort, took risks, and tried, they would do fine in the class.

Obviously I don’t want to set students up to have problems with the grace period, but I could emphasize that the goal is to collaborate well while meeting as many of the writing goals as possible. I’m beginning to see that the deadlines put the emphasis on the wrong things. I’m freaking out over how to have work turned in so that the group can proceed to the next task. If I control all the deadlines and have a lockstep progression that I expect the class to follow, students aren’t practicing or learning anything other than obedience—and I don’t teach courses on obedience.

I hope this still makes sense tomorrow.

The Tricky Focal Question Solved?

Wide blue garage door with a yellow sign above that reads Focus for DIY and Gardening

Focus by morebyless on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Yesterday, I finally settled on the general assignments and their connections among one another. There was still one tricky issue however. I needed to figure out the specific focus sites or documents that students would use for their assignments. I left things by pointing out these three general options:

  • Students focus on their own major/field/discipline/career goals (however it’s defined).
  • Students focus more generally on their college’s area (e.g., Engineering, Science, Agriculture & Life Sciences).
  • Students focus on anything they like (which I fear is too open and could result in analysis of random and likely off-topic sites).

Because the Usability unit in the template asks students to revise User Documentation, whatever I end up with has to include some kind of instructions that students can analyze and rethink.

I was sitting here tonight not even thinking about the assignments. I was finishing up the online Kroger order for pick-up tomorrow, and suddenly I thought, have them choose any website that a Virginia Tech student might use in their academic work. Exclude academic departments, centers, schools, and colleges. Require that the site includes some kind of user documentation among its features.

  • Software company sites like Canvas or MatLab.
  • Resource sites on campus like the Counseling Center.
  • Library sites.
  • Various academic support sites like the registrar’s office or the Services for Students with Disabilities site.
  • General software company sites like Microsoft or Adobe.
  • Textbook websites, whether OER or publisher sites.
  • AI sites like ChatGPT.
  • (Probably not a good idea, but…) Sites like Chegg or CourseHero.
  • Communication software like Zoom or Gmail.
  • Video sites like Kaltura or YouTube.

I think this focus will result in choices that students can relate to regardless of major. It can even be a benefit if the group moves on to choose a resource that a group member has never used. Who better to test online instructions and other resources than someone trying to figure out how to use it for the first time?

Those are all large sites, so I will have to provide some guidance for narrowing the focus to a particular portion of the site. It just might work!

I still have no idea how to solve the thorny grace period problem, but I think the rest of things are coming together.

Potential Assignment Sequence

Vertical stack of stuffed-full writing journals

journals by Barry Silver on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

I could just think my plans through and go implement them. I’m better though if I think them through by writing them out. Just trying to think in my head means I may not consider everything. So these Ramblings posts are essentially my think-aloud teacher’s journal. I’m figuring out what I want to do and documenting why I’m doing it.

These posts not only help me figure things out now, but they will also help me at the beginning of next term when I assess how things went and make changes for the Spring semester. So if you’re interested, read on to see what I’m thinking.

Tentative Assignment Sequence

Yesterday I struggled mainly with the recommendation report focus and my desire to connect the major assignments so that they build on one another in ways that students understand. I could just say something like, “Trust me. These are related.” It’s better though when students can see and understand the connection. That “Trust me” stuff only goes so far. And honestly, I need their trust in other areas more than I do in believing in the connections among the assignments. (Specifically, in the ungrading system. But that’s another post for another day.)

Following all the thinking yesterday, I’ve come up with these series of major assignments:

Unit/Module Major Assignment(s) Other Activities to Include
Foundational Information Analysis of Online Resources (from Your Field?)
  • Online User Documentation Revision
  • Reflection Memo
  • Alternately Online Customer Support Document Revision?
Project Management
  • Online User Documentation Recommendation Report
  • Proposal
  • Progress Report
Meeting Minutes

What to Do about Specific Focus Areas & Groups?

I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with groups and the topics of these pieces. The major issue is whether to have students

  • focus on their own major/field/discipline/career goals (however it’s defined).
  • focus more generally on their college’s area (e.g., Engineering, Science, Agriculture & Life Sciences).
  • focus on anything they like (which I fear is too open and could result in analysis of random and likely off-topic sites).

The group composition is the key here. If groups are completely mixed, it will be harder to choose topics for the recommendation report. For instance, if I’m an Ag major, I’m not going to have much connection to a website on assembly language, chosen by and Electrical Engineering major. If it’s wide open, I’m likely to get coffee house websites or local hair salon websites. That feels far away from students’ fields. So far away that it borders on busy work. This is a major issue to figure out.

Restructuring for More Group Collaboration and Coordination

I like the The Writing Commons structure of having a problem-solution definition project feed into the recommendation report (as I mentioned in the last post). Students write their problem-solutions, and then they develop a pitch based on that problem-solution that they present to their group members. Group members then choose among the presented problems of the group members for the topic of their recommendation report (and related documents).

To implement a similar assignment arc, I’ll need to rearrange the course structure in the template a little. I want students meeting and interacting with their groups BEFORE they have to decide on their recommendation report focus. Not only would it allow them to get to know one another before it is critical to their work, but it would also give them support as they work on their second projects. I’m seeing them working as a peer review group on the Usability unit and then moving to collaborative writing for the Project Management Unit.

Beyond the collaboration angle, I’m worried about the jam-packed end to the semester in the existing template. Here’s what it looks like as is:

Week Assignments Due
Week 10 Meeting Minutes
Week 11 Proposal Draft
Week 12 Progress Report & Proposal Final Version
Week 13 Recommendation Report Draft
Thanksgiving Break No work due
Week 14 Recommendation Report Draft 2
Week 15 Recommendation Report Final Version (by end of exam week)

I have multiple concerns about this schedule. First, I don’t think it’s reasonable to have major drafts and final versions due every week for the last third of the term. These are juniors and seniors for the most part, and they are all busy with major projects in all their courses. Many of those courses are far more important to them than my tech writing course (like their in-major senior capstones, for instance). I know this is a group project, so there is less work than individual projects. Still it feels far too crowded for me.

Beyond that, I readily admit that I am not superwoman. How in the world am I supposed to keep up with feedback on all of that for 4 classes of 22 students?! I’m in favor of plenty of feedback, but if I can’t keep up with this schedule, I’m hurting students—and trust me, I know I cannot keep up with that schedule.

That schedule also violates some working guidelines that I have been using the last few years when scheduling course work and my workload. Most importantly, I do not collect drafts (early or final) to respond to over Thanksgiving Break or Spring Break. That decision has allowed me to take a break and come back ready to finish out the course.

I also allow unlimited revision until the end of the grace period (usually the last Friday of classes). That means I could need to provide feedback on these documents even more times than are listed. I strongly believe in risk-free drafts that students can revise as much as needed. Even if a small handful need revision chances on these documents, it is going to add even more to my workload. I don’t think it’s reasonably possible. I’d rather start the collaborative writing earlier to have a better pace on the writing for the students and feedback for me.

Finally (yes, I have one more thing to say), I use ungrading that allows students to meet contract-style expectations to earn their grades. For instance, they need to earn a Complete on all of the major projects in order to earn an A in the course. In my system, the final exam is an optional Performance Review, in which they review their work during the term and can then argue for a higher grade than the number of Completes they have earned. They could argue for a lower grade too, but students are not crazy. The final is an important part of my system, so I don’t want to drop it. Nor do I want to pile it on top of the other work they are doing for the course. So this too means that I need to slide the work back in the term.

The downside of shortening time on earlier units would seem to be that students will have less time to learn those concepts. I don’t think that is an issue however. I’m setting up the sequence with the UX unit feeding into the Project Management unit and with the foundational information serving as the basis for their analysis of the UX document and of their recommendation report. Students will spend slightly less time during the opening weeks, but they will work with those concepts all term long. They are literally the foundation of every project they will complete.

And so….

That’s where I’m at now. I still need to figure out how I want to arrange students in groups, which matters in deciding the ultimate focus of the assignments.

I also have to figure out how the grace period (or late policy) is going to work for all these assignments. It has to be adjusted for the group work. I can’t have a single student’s decision to use the grace period impact an entire group’s progress. I know it means that I have to have different grace periods for different work. The big challenge is figuring out how to set that up, and the even bigger challenge is finding a way to make the system clear to students. I’ve had too many students in the past who get confused when different tasks have different grace periods. I need to figure out how to make it as clear as possible.

Those two tasks will wait until later however. That’s enough progress for today.

What to Focus on for Fall Writing Assignments

SEAL candidates participate in surf immersion during training at Naval Special Warfare.

SEAL candidates participate in surf immersion during training at Naval Special Warfare by Official U.S. Navy Page on Flickr, used under a CC-By 2.0 license.

You might say that I’m a little overwhelmed as I try to set things up for the fall, and I really need to figure out my fall assignments. First the requirements. There are three units (arranged in Canvas Modules) that I must work within, and for each unit there are related expectations:

  1. Foundational Information, which covers
    • rhetoric
    • audience
    • ethics
    • plain language
    • document design

    The example assignment in the course template is an examination of kinds of writing in each student’s field (old version of that assignment that I have used).

  2. Usability, which covers
    • document design
    • plain language
    • accessibility

    The example assignment in the template asks students to choose a user documentation document (defined as including things such as an assignment from another course or a syllabus) and then revise it to increase usability. Students also write a reflection document that explains their choices.

  3. Project Management, which includes
    • proposal
    • progress report
    • recommendation report

    The example assignment proposes a recommendation report that identifies a campus-based situation and recommends improvements. For instance, the report might address how to “expand or improve study spaces or computer facilities (choose ONE) on campus.”

Additionally, the course needs to include memos, meeting minutes, and email. There are also various short or informal pieces that students complete each week (labeled as homework in the template).

What to Do???

I need to start with the Recommendation Report and work backwards. I prefer that there is some connection among the assignments so that they build on one another. It would be more difficult to start with foundational information when I’m not 100% sure what the foundation needs to support.

I gathered a list of potential report approaches. I’m not a fan of wide open assignments. They don’t include enough support to help students succeed. I like many of the options listed, and I’d love to do something similar to Cecilia Shelton’s project one day. But that day it not today. I would need to do more preparation for that kind of project than I have time for.

I have used assignments when students analyze a website and suggest improvements many times. In this new template, I like that it would build on the foundational information and the usability analysis that students would do in the first two units. I’m still very undecided on what websites students would consider however. These seem like the possible ways to go:

  • Since this has to be a group project, asking them to focus on something related to their majors doesn’t really work. In some groups, they may all be in different majors.
  • Students could choose a Virginia Tech website other than academic departments (similar to the Student Affairs approach I mention on the options page).
  • They could look at Fortune 500 companies, but such websites tend to be highly polished. That leaves less room for students to find issues they can revise. Additionally, many Fortune 500 companies will have massive websites, far more than students could manage in the scope of this assignment.
  • Students could look at local business, nonprofit, or organization websites. When I used this assignment in the past, many of the reports focused on local coffee houses, bars, and restaurants. Given that students may not have a shared career to work from, I’d probably see that focus again. I’d rather that the reports were a bit closer to students’ career interests.
  • Perhaps it would work to go with larger companies (or even Fortune 500 sites) and then focus on customer support sections of the site. That would potentially engage students with technical how-tos and specific technical writing genres. It could bridge back to the Usability unit as well, where students analyze and revise a user documentation document.

If I go with that last idea, which seems maybe the easiest to adjust to groups and get away from overly polished sites (assuming I limit things properly), I need to think about these issues:

  • When student analyze the sites (both for the usability and the rec report), I want to use Shelton’s questions for linguistic landscape analysis. She is having students look at a geographical space, but I think that a corner of the web can be defined as a space in a way that would work. The questions would need some adjustments, but I like that they get beyond simple aspects of document design, etc.
  • The Writing Commons information on Recommendation Reports has students individually write problem-definition statements, and then use those within groups to decide on and write their recommendation reports. That is, if I follow the information in the Writing Commons site. I wish there were more details or examples there. Back to my classes though, I’m thinking that something similar could work here. Unit 2 on Usability is the individual piece, and then the groups work from those indy pieces to identify the challenges and then make recommendations.
  • I still don’t know what to do with the first unit on Foundational Information. The topics are relevant, but I’m not sure about the analysis of writing in your field spreadsheet. Honestly, I’ve used that assignment so much that I’m kind of burned out on it.
  • It would be cool to define customer support for the rec reports so that it includes things like tech support or advice podcasts, videos and the like. It would be quite cool if I can set things up so that it doesn’t have to be a company.

And that’s where I’m leaving things for tonight. I’m running out of time to get all this figured out, and NONE of the homework (which I’ll call Try-Its) or other assignments (big and small) are ready. I am committed to continue contract-based ungrading, so there is a lot of work I’ll need to manage to set that up. Especially with the weighting requirements in the template. Plus I’ve realized that my late policy needs a major revision to work for group projects. T -13 days…