Category Archives: Teaching

MLA 2012: When Assessment Goes Bad

[x-posted at]

On the first day of MLA 2012 I attended “Assessing Assessment(s),” chaired by Jeanne A Follansbee (Harvard), with talks by Donna Heiland (Teagle Foundation), John M. Ulrich (Mansfield University), and Eve Marie Wiederhold (George Mason). Reed Way Dasenbrock was unable to attend, which is a shame because I heard an excellent talk that he gave last year and was looking forward to his perspective on this issue. (I have also taught his essay from Falling into Theory in my “Critical Methods in Literary Study” class.)

All the papers were sharp and interesting, with Heiland considering the role of assessment in cultivating student learning, Ulrich reporting on the highs and lows of his institutional practice, and Wiederhold offering a vigorous critique.

But what really enlightened me at the panel was the Q&A, during which it became clear that there was a lot of really terrible assessment going on out there. One speaker described how an “assessment professional” had been hired at her institution to set the learning outcome goals for all the programs. Another reported that he regularly turned in a series of graphs charting student grades, much to the delight of local assessment administrators.

I had mostly assumed that everyone hated assessment because it is part of the paradigm shift described by Tagg and Barr from “Instruction” to “Learning” (a point discussed by Heiland) which pretty radically goes against the status quo and thus makes people anxious. (Maybe this goes back to Dave’s discussions of “threshold concepts.”) Further, I too hated it at first, as it seemed redundant and intrusive. Now, though, I see it as part of a potential change from counting credit hours (or as my former provost used to say, “butts in seats”) or relying on student evaluations (or, as Roksa calls them, “student satisfaction surveys”) to opening up new ways of emphasizing, appreciating, and thinking about learning itself as the goal, which in turn leads to thinking that there might be better ways to get there than counting up things up, be they credit hours or survey scores. So while assessment has the reputation of bean counting, in fact we are currently wading through heaps of beans (credit hours; evaluation scores; grades; office hours; chairs bolted to the floor; multiple choice tests) without even noticing them as they have become so natural to our environment. In a true “culture of assessment,” there would be fewer beans.

It seems, though, at some institutions assessment has not been part of a larger consideration of student learning, but instead the evil bureaucratic exercise that many feared it would become.


This article should be available to any library that subscribes to SAGE journals online.  It stresses that collaboration is something that needs to be taught and practiced in formal courses, and divides up the instructor’s duties into the stages of preparation, practice, and performance review.

Especially helpful are these recommendations for keeping in-class group activities on track:

  • Focus attention on the purpose of the project: In small groups, ask students to brainstorm methods of refocusing a group discussion. Ask students to role-play reactions to statements and list the methods in order of effectiveness.
  • Encourage participation and positive collaboration: Address active listening, questioning, and restating techniques to ensure that students participate and provide input during group discussions. Encourage students to engage in positive collaboration among team members and
    referee any unconstructive feedback or personality conflicts.
  • Establish a timeline: Demonstrate how to create a timeline by working backward from a deadline. Discuss delegation and prioritization techniques to ensure a balanced yet productive group experience.
  • Keep the project on track: Although individual team members may
    work on separate tasks, students should be coached to schedule team meetings throughout the project to discuss progress, encourage group feedback, and share ideas. They should also be coached to accept new ideas and revisions to the plan that enhance the project (rather than perceiving changes as negative aspects that prolong the team endeavor).
  • Negotiate conflicts: Ask students to role-play the differences between
    affective and cognitive conflict and practice impartial methods to resolve any problems.

Well worth checking out.


Why do students hate groupwork? Part 2

[X-posted on Assessment for Learning 101]

One of the most-read posts on this blog is David Mazella’s classic, “Why do students hate groupwork?”  The original post prompted a lively discussion, including comments by students themselves telling us why, in fact, they hate groupwork.

I was thinking about this discussion yesterday at my MLA panel, “Academically Adrift,” which featured Josipa Roksa, one of the authors of the book after which the panel took its name.  Offering a brief overview of her findings (with co-author Richard Arum), Josipa introduced the section on study groups by saying, “This is the one that always gets me in trouble.”  And indeed, part of the discussion that followed concerned this issue.

In short, Arum and Roksa found that students who worked in study groups showed significantly lower learning than those who studied on their own.  What does this mean for collaboration?

To me, the most interesting point that came out of the conversation was that the problem might not be group work itself, but the way it is done.  Roksa speculated that there is a tendency for the professor to assign group work without enough structure and also without providing any training for students in collaboration itself.  We tend to come up with a project, give it to a group of students, and say “go collaborate,” which turns out to be ineffective.  She briefly discussed a colleague of hers who teaches a semester-long course specifically on collaboration.  So perhaps her answer to the question posed by Dave’s original post might be that students hate it because they don’t know how to do it and as a result they don’t learn much.

What I found particularly interesting was Roksa’s emphasis on collaboration as a skill that needs to be learned.  As someone raised on theory that taught me how gender, race, and all kinds of identity formations are constructed, I had never given much thought to collaboration as “constructed” as well.  Perhaps for too many of us, it seems like something that students should just know how to do.  But apparently they don’t (and in fairness, we often don’t either).  I wonder, then, if we should be thinking about ways to get collaboration skills into the curriculum—not just in the form of collaborative assignments but as a learning outcome goal in itself.


teaching the restoration/eighteenth century survey with ecco?

[caught between two stools?]

Well, after years of discussion, my institution finally acquired both ECCO and the Burney collection this past week.  And I couldn’t be more pleased.

But this has created a new, though quite wonderful problem for me: I’m teaching a graduate Restoration/Eighteenth-Century Survey course this term (in a few days), and am determined to put these resources to good use.

So I would be interested to hear if anyone out there has taught a survey, especially at the grad level, and found some good uses for ECCO and the Burney collection, in terms of readings, assignments, presentations, and so forth.



Teaching with Technology Follow-up

Since readers of The Long Eighteenth were so helpful in discussing their classroom technology policies, I am posting a link to my article, Sir Fopling Flutter 2.0, about my gradual integration (and dis-integration) of various forms of connectivity.


teaching reading and teaching literature, take two

As with my group-work post, I was surprised by the persistence and vehemence of this thread about teaching reading skills, though I suppose I shouldn’t be.

What I learned immediately after posting on this topic was that for many higher ed literature instructors, the distinction between teaching “skills” and teaching literary content was not clear at all.  For many of us, students commonly arrive in our classrooms unable to retain any formal features of the works they read, unable to distinguish between genres, styles, or literary periods, and lacking any significant independent reading previous to their arrival in college.

I don’t have any ready answers to these problems, but in this follow-up I’ll mention some texts that have helped me deal with this issue at UH, which I think has a student body that is fairly typical for a large, urban public university.  Here are the works that have influenced my thinking about teaching disciplinary reading in our English major:

First of all, the absolutely invaluable McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, now in its thirteenth edition, has a few choice pages in its chapter, “Reading as Active Learning,” The best insight is right up front: “The main reason why students come to class unprepared is that they don’t see what difference it makes” (31).  So how can we make the reading make a difference in our students’ experience of the class?  For one thing, this means that much of the summary we do in class, however well-intended, can have the effect of reinforcing the notion that students can come in unprepared and hear the professor’s own summaries instead.

One alternative strategy, according to McKeachie, is to open class by asking students to produce a one-minute paper explaining one or two major ideas from the assigned reading; if you feel that that task would be too challenging, ask them to produce one or two discussion questions then and there to lead in to your discussion, and see if other students are able to answer those questions (32).  Or sequence it so that students are first asked to produce questions, then later the one-minute writings, as they grow more familiar with the course and the readings.

Another source I’ve used is a still-useful review of reading research, “Instruction for Self-Regulated Reading,” by Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar and Ann L. Brown, in a collection called Toward the Thinking Curriculum (1989).

The key insight here is that “reading” in an academic setting is not simply running one’s eyes over the page, but an active, self-regulated process of learning.  As the authors indicate, “self-regulated learning” means the ability to draw reliably upon three kinds of knowledge in the course of, say, reading: knowledge of learning strategies (what is the most efficient way to learn this?), metacognitive knowledge (how well am I learning this?), and real-world knowledge (how does this connect to what I already know about the subject matter and the world?) (20).

Palincsar and Brown’s essay is designed for K-12 researchers and teachers, but many of the insights work fine for higher ed teachers, especially in their summary of the major reading strategies necessary for students to both “monitor and foster comprehension.” Here’s their list:

  1. clarifying the purposes of reading to determine the appropriate approach to the reading activity (e.g., skimming, studying);
  2. activating background knowledge to create links between what is known and the new information presented in the text;
  3. allocating attention so that the major content, not trivia, becomes the focus;
  4. evaluating content critically for internal consistency and compatibility with prior knowledge and common sense;
  5. using monitoring activities (e.g., paraphrasing, self-questioning) to determine if comprehension is occurring;
  6. drawing various kinds of inferences (e.g. interpretations, predictions and testing them (20)

In other words, are students clear about the purpose of their reading assignment?  Do they know how the assignment connects to the course’s previous readings or their own background knowledge?  Do they know how to identify the most crucial parts of the reading?  Can they read critically enough to recognize its internal inconsistencies or violations of common sense?  Can they monitor themselves to evaluate whether they comprehend the material?  Are they able to draw good, workable inferences from their reading, and then test them against the reading and their prior knowledge?

It is unlikely, as the authors admit, that any teacher could emphasize more than a few strategies in a teaching, but it would be interesting to know what kinds of strategies worked with which kinds of reading assignments.

Finally, Maryellen Weimer, editor of the Teaching Professor blog, has another useful set of tips in a report hosted by the Faculty Focus newsletter, 11 Strategies for getting students to read what’s Assigned (free, but reg. req’d).

There’s lots of different ideas in this report, but the one observation I’d make is that, while reading skills generally, and textbook reading especially, are common problems throughout the college curriculum, literature classes need to focus in very specific ways on student reading.

To wit, a literature curriculum needs to introduce and reiterate to students the difference between reading literary works (which demand the retention of formal features like diction, style, genre, character-types, setting, description, narrative and argumentative organization, point of view, etc.) and reading other kinds of works, genres, or disciplines, which may very well have their own complexities.  Even in a cultural studies course, this only means using literary-style reading techniques for texts and genres that usually don’t receive such treatment.  So what does it mean to read, think, and write like a literature scholar (for they are all intimately connected with one another)?  That is what we should be trying to convey to our students, from the major on upwards.


today’s thought . . . .

What would universities, departments, classes look like if they were organized, as Daniel H. Pink suggests, around the principles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose?  What would our research or our teaching look like in such a setting, and what kind of work would we invite our students to produce?


PS: As I write this, I am thoroughly aware that much of the chatter about education, whether neoliberal or conservative, seems completely unaware of the complexities of motivation, either from the students’ or the teachers’ perspective.  But it’s high time for this problem of motivation to be brought into the discussion of learning and incentives.