A Policy for the Groups I Want

Three college students working on a project together.

Colourful by bigfarmer8 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

The dreaded hour has come: Folks in my Tech Writing course have reported group members who they cannot contact or who are not responding and other group members who are not contributing to the projects.

Now I have to figure out how to respond. I have three basic things that I want:

  • I don’t want to create a lot of rules.
  • I don’t want to enforce a lot of rules.
  • I don’t want unhappy, frustrated students.

So what to do? I landed on this idea: What if I created guidelines for the best possible scenario instead of rules for the worst situation?

So I decided to try writing some group unrules. Maybe it’s too Pollyanna and doomed to fail, but I like the result far better than the rules and unbending policies that I could have come up with. Here is my humane-centered, caring guidelines for situations where a group member doesn’t do what the group expects:

Focus on these actions if someone does not do their part.
Whether someone disappears, can’t be contacted, or is having trouble with the work, your group can search for a way to collaborate and get the work done. Here are the steps I would like you to try if this situation comes up:

  1. Try to find out why. Things happen. Maybe the person is sick (physically or mentally). Maybe the person is swamped with work. Maybe the person needs help finding the resources to get the work done. Whatever the reason, your group should start by trying to find out. Being humane and supportive is more valuable than a perfect memo.
  2. Get them help if needed. In some cases, you can help them yourselves. In other cases, you might want to suggest other resources. The Writing Center is a great resource if someone is having trouble getting started or needs help with any part of the writing process. You can also let me know what I can do to help.
  3. Solve the issue among the group members. Once you know what’s going on and address the issue, your group should be able to find a way forward. Maybe you need to adjust the work schedule. Perhaps you need to have a working meeting where members write together. As much as possible, try to solve the problem as a group.
  4. Talk to me if you need more help. Finding your own way is a large part of what project management is about. That said, I’m not saying that you can’t ask for help. Let me know what you’ve tried and what you’d like me to do.
  5. Note what’s going on if it’s time to submit your work. Everyone should have until the Target Due Date for each of the assignments. If the Target Due Date is here however and you’re not sure when the missing person will deliver their work, add a note in your project that explains what’s going on. You can write something like this:

    This section is missing from our report. Tian Tian has COVID and is not able to do their part of the report for at least another week.

    Additionally add a Submission Comment to tell me what’s going on. Be sure to include details on when (or if) the missing work can be added.

Will this policy solve everything? No. I’m sure it won’t. I fear that I’ll eventually have to remove a missing student from a group. Right now, I don’t know where I’ll put them instead. But also right now, I like this policy that assumes we all support one another and that a missing student needs to be taken care of, not punished.

The Challenge of Ethics Discussions

The 1958 Code of Ethics for U.S. Government Service

Code of Ethics for Government Service by GovdocsGwen on Flickr, used under public domain. Click on the image to see transcript.

For the third week of Technical Writing, our template focuses on ethical considerations, asking students to respond to two online discussions. One of the discussions asks students to find the code of ethics for their field and then discuss what they find with one other person in the online course. The other presents an ethical dilemma, a case study taken from Technical Communication Today, Fifth Edition, by Richard Johnson-Sheehan. Like the first, students are to respond to the dilemma and then another person in the class.

I wanted the online discussions to have a bit more purpose and to connect more directly to what’s going on in the course. The structure of the two discussions challenges my beliefs about teaching the most. It’s the problem I always see with the “you + 1 (or 2)” requirement for course discussions. Students are to post their ideas about the discussion topic and then are asked to respond to one or two other students. The trouble springs from the fact that they don’t have any reason to reply. It’s no wonder we get those “This is a great idea. I really agree with you” responses.

To address this challenge, I rewrote the two discussion prompts to build in more reason for the replies. For the first, students still locate and respond to the code of ethics for their fields. I have arranged students in the small groups that they will use for the entire term, working on collaborative writing for their project management unit. The group discussion gives them a chance to get used to working together before they begin writing the major projects together. For their responses to one another, I asked them to create an interdisciplinary code of ethics that their groups would follow as they worked on the collaborative projects. The task still requires them to discuss with one another but adds the purpose of negotiating ethical principles and creating a statement they will repurpose later in their teamwork agreements. The task is published as Try-It #5: Your Discipline’s Code of Ethics.

The second ethics discussion required more work. The original post asked students to respond to a fictional scenario related to radioactive waste a a potential building site. The scenario had nothing to do with the other assignments in the course. My theme focuses on analyzing usability and design of online sites in order to improve them; thus, students are applying all the writing strategies related to audience, usability, and design with every project. I kept the basic strategies of presenting an ethical dilemma that students were to respond to, but changed the scenario to focus on a workplace situation that arises as a group writes a collaborative document. The shift asks students to consider typical project management issues: a missing team member, strict project deadlines, and the impact of the writing project (and its accuracy) upon the intended audience. In this discussion, students interact by indicating how they would proceed if they were faced with the scenario and then propose how the fictional team could avoid similar challenges in the future. To give the activity relevance to the course, the instructions explain that the group will address similar issues when they create their teamwork agreement later in the term.
This second task is published as Try-It #6: The Ethical Dilemma of the Absent Team Member.

Visual Outline of Group Work for the Fall

Today is the last day of the second week of classes. I got my groups set up yesterday, using the Group Preferences Form that I developed a few years ago. I ended up aiming for five people per group, but I didn’t stress over having a few with four and one with three. I thought it better to team students who worked at the same time of day and in the same ways than to group students simply because five seemed like a good number.

With the groups set up, I wanted to provide a more visual overview of the projects that students would collaborate on. All of the projects are listed in the Short Guide, but that description focuses on what the assignments are rather than how students collaborate. I created the explanation below with Canva. The transcript is below the image.

There’s more that I need to communicate, but this is a good start. At this point, I want to help students understand that getting to know one another now and beginning the process of working together will make things go more smoothly when they turn to writing together.

Infographic outlining how you'll collaborate in Technical Writing

Image Transcript

01: Introductions

Once you’re assigned to a group, introduce yourself to everyone and begin getting to know one another.

Establish a backup plan for connecting in case someone is missing from discussions.

02: Group Discussions

Discuss technical writing concerns together, and decide on style and ethical guidelines for your group projects.

Share your second projects with one another for feedback before you submitting your work.

03: Teamwork Agreement & Schedule

Prepare for the group projects by composing a teamwork agreement to guide your collaboration.

Create the schedule for your drafts and meetings for the rest of the term.

04: Research Proposal

Choose a website to examine for your Recommendation Report.

With your group, compose a research proposal that pitches the website you’ve chosen and outlines your research and writing plans.

05: Progress Report

Assess the progress your group has made on the Recommendation Report.

Compose a Progress Report that tells me the project’s status and your plans to finish the work.

06: Recommendation Report

Collaborate to discuss your website’s usability and to identify how to improve it.

Together, compose a formal report that explains your research and recommendations.

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.

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.