Using a “menu of options” assessment approach.

I have been experimenting with an approach to grading and feedback that I haven’t seen many other teachers doing, and a couple of people have asked for me to write it down. In the below I’m going to explain the “menu of options” approach I’m now using, and also say a bit about using pass/no pass assignments in the context of still assigning grades to a class as a whole. And I’ll share the way I talk about this in my current syllabi.

I’ve been writing about grades as a hinge point in the epistemic extractivism of higher education, but I’ll try to not veer off into the theoretical underpinnings of why I think this matters. I’ll just say that in my experience people hate being graded, people hate grading, and grading is the point at which really painful things like plagiarism and disciplinary proceedings proliferate. Grading is the thing that brings out the parts of my role as a teacher that I hate most – acting like a cop or the functionary of an empty credentialing system, forcing people to do useless work that then becomes further useless work for me. But responding to students, hearing what they’re thinking about and what they’re into, helping them figure out things they didn’t know before, watching them build capacities they didn’t have and become more fully and interestingly themselves – I love these things! These are some really strong antidotes to alienation under the neoliberal edufactory!

Since assessment is a key part of my job, and since I don’t actually think it’s wrong to have points for pausing and reflecting on whether learning is happening, I’ve been working on making assessment schemes that do a few things. I want them to:

  1. Help me articulate what I’m teaching through getting explicit about how I’d know that students were learning stuff.
  2. Be an infrastructural bulwark against ableism, racism, classism, and other vectors that punish students for not being rich, white, Christian, and second- or more-generation university students.
  3. Again infrastructurally start from the fact that people including me have lives that can get weird or have ongoing challenges, and that I don’t want them to have to get doctor’s notes, disability accommodations, or even tell me if their kid or parent is sick or if they’re having a pain flare.
  4. In the context of Covid, assume that people will very likely need lots of slack time in the term.
  5. Assume that students are interesting, interested adults who can make their own decisions about what they prioritize in their life and learning and that this is not up to me to manage.

ENTER THE MENU OF OPTIONS

The “menu of options” approach to assessments that I’ve been doing for the past two years in my undrgrad classes has so far worked really well towards these goals, though of course it’s a continual work in progress. It’s like arriving at Subway, Harvey’s, or a poke bowl place: You arrive at the counter and choose what base, substance, and extras you want. In my classes, the base is self-reflections, the substance is “content stuff,” and the extras are a summative project.

Base: 10% of the grade comes from three self-reflections, which ask students to write up what they want to get from the class and how they would know they had done that, a mid-term check in about how that’s going and decision about changing goals, and an end of term backwards look at how it went.

Content engagement: 75% of the grade comes from “are you actually reading stuff, thinking about it, working on learning things the class is teaching you, getting better at articulating what you learned” and so on. What this actually looks like varies, but for example in the third year social movements class that the syllabus excerpt below is taken from the ingredients here can come from short weekly assignments or the take-home exam. The weekly assignments are themselves broken up into “capacity assignments,” “learning from movements,” and “investigating ideas” options, which means there’s three short assignment options each week. Some of these can be done in class if students attend, or always on their own timeframe.

All of these have a firm deadline, and there’re many more of them than they can actually count in their final grade, so if they miss a week, or only want to do the “ideas” assignments, that’s fine. My weekly assignments are just pass/no pass, but you could do this with graded assignments too. The magic parts, I think, are having the revision option, and having many more opportunities for work than they actually need to do well in the class. In this example, there are 120 possible points they can pick from in the “Content Engagement” menu option, but only 75 of those points count toward their final grade. If they do just the reflections and content stuff they can get an A in the class through entirely pass/no pass assignments.

I give them short responsive feedback (often on the level of “really great quote selection here!” or “you might want to read In Defense of Looting if you’re interested in property destruction and social movements”). If they didn’t do a good enough job to meet my minimum standards I tell them what they got wrong or need to work on (“So the question asked you to talk about x, but you didn’t ever do that. What does x tell us about y?”), and they have a week to submit a revision.

I can’t overemphasize how relaxing this is for me. I no longer have to negotiate with students who need an extension, because they can just skip that week with no penalty. Or they can put in an earnest but really crappy attempt and just revise it when it doesn’t pass. But I also can’t explain how much better their work is! I’m used to getting a lot of really stiff writing, often with tons of lifting from Wikipedia. These short pieces end up actually sounding like my students, I see the point of telling them things because they have the chance to revise, and they write much much more than in regular papers. I don’t grade in a defensive posture of knowing they’ll just be looking at the grade and that I’ll have to justify giving them a grade lower than they want.

If they want an A+, or they just like doing longer projects rather than piddly weekly work, they can do a summative project, which is a regular scaffolded writing or creative piece with a proposal, mid-way check in, and final product.

PASS/NO PASS GRADING

For the past ten years, I’ve been experimenting with including responsive rather than primarily evaluative assignments in my classes – that is, assignments where I’m giving students feedback but no grade. One way I’ve done this a lot in previous classes was to have a paper worth, say 20%, and then have a draft option worth 5%. If students did an earnest draft – answering the question, meeting the page minimum, etc, they would automatically get a 5/5 and responsive comments for revision. Then their final version would be marked out of 15 instead of 20, and would receive just a summative comment. Students who didn’t do the draft would simply be marked out of 20, with the usual marginal and summative comments. This worked really well, both as a grade boost and to make substantially better papers that were a pleasure to read.

This approach has evolved into the current menu, where all of the “during the term” work is marked pass/no pass, and only the final take-home and the summative project are conventionally graded. There’s a lot that can be said about this and a ton of really interesting work on ungrading, specifications grading, contract grading, and other approaches to assessment that aren’t just giving a grade. I think that much of this work is right that grades are racist, sexist, ableist, fatphobic, and just generally a way the existing power hierarchies of the world as it is are mystified and rendered as objective assessments of worth. But I’ve become concerned that approaches like labor-based contracts, where students are graded based only on how much work they put in, also replicate existing structures through rewarding people who have time to put in to the contract. I’m also convinced that it doesn’t work to only have short weekly assignments – many students do better with and prefer a deep-dive push of the kind you get with a big project or take-home exam. But it has worked well to integrate the pass/no pass options into a standard cumulative grade, since I’m still required to give a final grade.

ISN’T THIS SO MUCH WORK?

The main question I get from people about the menu option and about offering revision as part of weekly work is: Isn’t this just way too much work? I will say that I’m a super fast reader and so that reading a lot of written work might feel like less work to me than it does to others. Also I find commenting on written work much more rewarding when I know that it’s heading for revision if it isn’t up to par, so that’s qualitatively more satisfying work for me. Last Winter I had 95 students across three classes (one grad class of 15, one 4th year seminar of 25, and a 3rd year class of 55. I had a TA for my third year class. For that one, I didn’t have the TA mark any of the weekly work, instead using their time to meet with students, work on summative project drafts, and to help with marking the take-home. Only one of the classes was a completely new prep, the other two being just lightly revised syllabi that I’d taught at least once before. It was a lot of teaching work, for sure, but I don’t think that it was more than I would have done with conventional grading, and I liked it better. If you’re considering experimenting with these things, you could try having one pass/no pass assignment on term, and another term try incorporating more of the “menu of options” approach, and just see how it feels.

Again, I no longer: Require attendance or participation, require doctor’s notes for illness or disability, require students to disclose intimate details of their lives to me, or have extensive negotiations for extensions. I just tell people to choose different stuff from the menu – future weeks, or bigger projects. But for both my own workload needs and because I think it’s actually better for students, I do have firm deadlines. If they miss deadlines, there are many many other options for them. Weirdly I have had strong attendance and solid participation since stopping including these in the grades for classes. And the feedback I’ve gotten from students specifically about the flexibility of assessment options – once they figure it out – has been just great.

Here’s how I talk about this in my syllabus.

ASSESSMENT & FINAL GRADES

We will be using a pass/no pass grading approach for most of the assignments in this class, with a “menu of options” scheme.” This means that for everything except the take-home and summative assignment options I will evaluate only whether you have done or not done the assignments or tasks – you will pass or not pass each assignment. I commit to telling you this directly and clearly (so, for example, if you respond to a reading or capacity reflection without sufficient engagement, I will tell you so and give you direction for revision). If you receive a “no pass” on any assignment you are welcome to revise it within one week, as many times as necessary, to bring it to a satisfactory level. I will give you responsive feedback rather than letter grades on the work in progress, and a summative final letter grade based on the work you completed in the course overall. You decide what letter grade you get and do the work required for that grade.

ASSIGNMENTS

You need to do Part A, and then it’s up to you how much of menu options from parts B & C you want to do.

A (required, up to 10 points/10%): Three self-reflections (P/NP)

•           assessing what you want from the class at the start of term (due Sept 19th),

•           how it is going at mid-term (due Nov 7th), and

•           how it went at end of term (due Dec 5th).

If you do all of these, you’ll receive a 10% in the class, so you should add as many of the other menu options as you need to receive the grade you want

B (up to 75 points/75%): Content engagement. Choose your own adventure from as many of these as you want:  

•           Weekly capacity assignments (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each Monday at 11:30)

•           Weekly investigating ideas summaries (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each Monday at 11:30)

•           Weekly learning from movements quizzes/short papers/discussion posts (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each due each Monday at 11:30)

•           Final take-home exam (conventionally graded) (thirty points/30% possible, assigned Dec 5th, due Dec 22nd)

C (up to 30 points/30%) Summative project (conventionally graded)

•           broken down into 1. A 500 word proposal due Oct 17th 2. Earnest attempt amounting to half the work necessary for the project due Nov 14th 3. Final product or performance due Dec 5th. You must pass each developmental segment (proposal and earnest progress) to turn in a final project. In other words, this is not a project that you can do in a last-minute push. Please see the assignment sheet for more explanation about this!

The basic idea here is to give you the flexibility to choose what engagement with this material will best support your own learning goals and life. If you know that you vastly prefer doing large projects worth a lot of points, and you would like to receive a B- in the course, you could choose to do the take home and the summative project, along with the required reflections, and receive a score of 70, or a grade of B-. If you prefer to do short, manageable weekly work that keeps you engaged with the class in a low-stakes and ongoing way, you could plan to do the self-reflections and complete many of the weekly assignments to receive a score of up to 85% and a grade of A. Or you could do some weekly assignments and one of the longer end of term options. It is up to you. There is no way to receive an A+ without doing some weekly assignments and a summative assignment, however.

All weekly assignments open Monday at 11:30 am and close a week later. These must be in on time to be counted. If you want an extension on weekly assignments, simply turn in an earnest effort – really addressing the prompt at hand by the due date; if I judge it unsatisfactory you’ll have a week to revise. Submitting an assignment that just says “I would like an extension” does not count as an earnest effort – if small weekly work isn’t your jam, that is totally fine! Opt for the take-home and summative project menu choices in that case. Some weekly assignments will involve experiential learning, others will be quiz or short essay based, others will invite discussion.

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