The fall grade-spread w/r/t wikis

Last semester I decided to throw myself into the wiki. You’ll remember how excited I was about this tool, which would, theoretically, encourage my students to become experts on various topics of historical interest and thus decentering the authority in the classroom. The idea, as KW sums it up here, is a nice one:

“[H]er wiki assignment strikes me as an excellent way to meet the learning needs of a certain kind of ‘C’ student: the ones who are willing to make an effort but who (for whatever reason) write poorly and have trouble figuring out how to do the interpretive close reading that gets rewarded in the literature classroom. Asking all students to produce a chunk of information on schedule seems like a great way to use and reward the skills that these ‘C’ students bring to the course.”

That’s what I hoped it would do, anyway. The literary-interpretation parts of my course ended up requiring such a great amount of abstract reasoning and an ability to make and remember fine distinctions that about a third of the class was apparently at sea. I thought, by providing some easy points through the wiki assignment and the multiple-choice section of the final, I could give a leg up to students who struggle with explicating concepts like “Romanticism” and “apocalypse.”

As I graded these “easier” tasks, though, I found the grade spread to be even greater than on the more difficult assignments, with the same students getting A’s, but the students who usually got B’s or C’s were now getting D’s and F’s. If a student writes a poor poetry analysis, I can fudge the grade a little out of kindness, but for a student who misidentifies all the characters in Gulliver’s Travels, or who writes a wiki article about the wrong century and cites no sources, what can I do? On these easier assignments, it’s much more difficult to assign partial credit for effort. The very things that I expressly told them were created to give them a chance to help their grades ended up sinking them further.

I have, up till now, failed to mention just how very smart many of my fall students were. There were a few of the typical English majors with their charming prose styles and good ideas, but minimal research efforts. They remind me of me at that age, happy to get the lowest A possible, saving my efforts for Fiction Workshop. But I was surprised at the number of students I had who worked backbreakingly hard to wring every drip of knowledge out of the class. Some of them were inspired to do outside reading (!) and to combine their interests from my class with their favorite critical theorists for their final papers. I got two Lacanian readings of Dracula, an Althusserian reading of Wuthering Heights, and a discussion of the history of psychoanalytic readings of the anal function in Gulliver’s Travels. I read several very good feminist readings of Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn.

That is, as much as I have worried and fretted about the B, C, and F students in my classes, I have to remember that more than a third of each class received solid and well-deserved A’s. In fact, I fear that in trying so hard to offer “basic” assignments (which apparently turned out not to be so basic) in addition to the more difficult tasks, I merely threw an annoyingly easy obstacle in front of my hardest-working students and a deceptively simple one before the students who were apparently not going to put forth the effort to complete it anyway, and I wasted a lot of grading time in the process.

If I do use the wiki assignment again, I will definitely introduce a greater element of accountability into it. I am still fond of the form, and I think it’s terribly important for college students to practice many different rhetorical strategies. But without the social pressure of being graded jointly with a classmate, the rewards of hard work may have seemed too small.


4 responses to “The fall grade-spread w/r/t wikis

  1. David Mazella

    Hey Carrie,

    Thanks for letting us know how this turned out. I’ve been considering assignments like these for my classes next year, but you’ve definitely given me stuff to think about. Here are a few quick reactions:

    1. My very first reaction is that the general crappiness of this portion of the class’s performance is significant, and is an important clue about what’s happening to these kids as they go through your curriculum. So kudos. Hopefully someone there is paying attention.

    2. I’m wondering if you’ve stumbled upon an “information literacy” gap among your B- and below students. This would not surprise me, because we have very similar issues at UH. The other important piece of the picture is that even your “strong” literature students can seem surprisingly weak when faced with information-heavy assignments, though your top students negotiate them fine. That’s why they’re A students.

    3. To give you some context for information literacy, here are some suggested guidelines for research skills and competencies that English departments should expect undergrads to learn throughout their major. The question then becomes, if your bottom 50% are not getting these, how can you reinforce these skills in assignments and coursework so that they have some hope of acquiring them?

    4. As far as I can tell, this is the portion of the competency guidelines relevant to your wiki projects:

    II. Identify and use key literary research tools to locate relevant information:

    A. Effectively use library catalogs to identify relevant holdings at local institutions and print and online catalogs and bibliographic tools to identify holdings at other libraries

    B. Distinguish among the different types of reference works (e.g., bibliographies of bibliographies, annals, serial bibliographies, abstracts, literary dictionaries) and understand the kind of access to information offered by each

    C. Identify, locate, evaluate, and use reference information about authors, critics, and theorists

    D. Use subjective and objective sources such as book reviews and citation indexes to determine the relative importance of an author and/or specific work

    E. Use reference resources to provide background information and contextual information about social, intellectual, and literary culture

    A good preliminary stage kind of assignment to have them practice such skills under your direction might be first to have a presentation devoted to the various kinds of information available out there in the field, then annotated bibliography style assignments, or designated research on assigned topics, etc. etc., followed with feedback and critique of the sources used, etc.

    I”m thinking about these issues myself, because I’ve been seeing similar issues with our students, and I’m developing proposals with some people here to address it during our SACS accreditation.

    Good luck,


  2. David Mazella

    Whoops, forgot the URL for the research competency guidelines:

  3. Carrie,

    Thanks so much for following up! I only just got myself signed on with WordPress so I could get back in the swing of C18 blogging. Among the things that’s been keeping me out of the loop: organizing course materials (including a wiki) for my Later Eighteenth Century Literature course (aka “The Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World”), which starts Wednesday. There’s still a lot to do, but I’ll post a link to the wiki once it’s closer to completion.

    Your insights were really useful (both the remarks you’ve made earlier and the most recent post) as I’ve tried to anticipate and eliminate the bugs in my planned course format. I’ll be interested to see how much of a difference it makes that mine is an upper-level course, mostly inhabited by junior and senior English majors. Partly in response to some of the problems you’ve reported with your wiki assignment, I’ve made the wiki part of a broader course requirement: that (in groups of three) they select a unit topic, prepare a packet of primary readings on the unit, and lead a 50-minute discussion on the unit. The wiki is where they are supposed to supply background and contextual information on their unit, as well as a bibliography of useful resources. Since these units comprise the final ten weeks of the semester, their classmates will be responsible for knowing the information they place on their wiki pages (it will perforce be covered on the final exam, which will also cover the primary material they assign the class in their reading packets). It is my hope that these broader structures will give the wiki that necessarily element of accountability. We’ll see!

    In the third and fourth week of the semester, I’m devoting two class sessions to tutorials in our Rare Book Library and English library, where (I hope!) the students will learn some of the skills and considerations that Dave mentioned in his comment.

    Based on your early reports of the problems with the wiki, I decided NOT to use a wiki in the course for which I’d originally considered it: a general education course on the American Novel to 1914. Instead, I’m going to attempt a blog (to take the place of the online WebCT discussions and informal in-class writing assignments I’ve used previously).

    It sounds like it was an awesome class, whatever the problems produced by the wiki.

    Kirstin Wilcox

    So, as you get closer to starting classes for the spring semester, can you tell us how you plan to do things differently?

  4. Please don’t call me Constantia! I’m clearly confused about the wordpress universe–I didn’t think it was letting use my real name (Kirstin Wilcox, please!) as a username, so I borrowed Judith Sargent Murray’s cognomen. I thought it was just what I’d use to log into the system and then I could use my real name for posts–I didn’t realize there’s be that big old header there.

    I’ll see if I can go back to wordpress and do it right this time. Now that Bitch Phd has made herself known, who are the rest of us to cower behind pseudonyms?