Five Essays, Calculating, and Some Paperwork To Go

Final exams are over, but I’m still grading essays and need to update the tracking sheets for the assignments in a couple of my classes. I have five essays left from my Essay-Writing course — someone failed to submit a final essay, I suspect — and I need to tabulate how many people completed how many homework assignments in that course. (I’ve skimmed them all, just as I skim the discussion board where the students were supposed to be writing regularly, but I haven’t tabulated the work yet.)

My Listening & Speaking course, which was essentially a Conversation course with a few listening exercises thrown in, especially has a pile of assignments I need to tabulate, in the form of CD-ROMs on my desk, plus the odd file on my computer from students who (for some reason) couldn’t extract the file, couldn’t burn it to CD, or whatever. (I think next semester, for bookkeeping purposes, I’m going to demand they burn their work to CD-RW, and keep a copy on file; after completion of a task, I’ll return the CD-RW but I’ll demand a final archive of everything at the end of semester so I definitely have a record to check.)

I’m relatively pleased with the results for that course — Listening & Speaking — by the way, consider that I used a totally new grading structure. The problem with grading assignments in a speaking and listening course is not that the grades are subjective, because to be honest, almost all useful grading in a language course is on some level subjective. You can set up specific skills or tasks, specific “grading rubrics” as those studying pedagogy like to call them, but not only is the rubric, in the end, subjective — you have to prioritize skills and pick and choose them, and no matter what methodology you focus on, no matter how much theory supports you, the reality is that three hours a week is really unlikely to result in increased fluency, accuracy, or whatever it is you’re grading. At least not over a single semester.

But my approach, this semester, was to acknowledge the subjectivity, make students take part in the subjective process of evaluating work, and to break the homework down into stepped gradations. That is, to make it like a game of Super Mario Brothers. If you’ve never played the game, I’ll summarize it this way: you have to complete a task on each “level” of the game to proceed to the next one. If you don’t beat level 1, you cannot beat level 2. Level three only comes after level 2.

(Actually, in the game, if you know the shortcuts, you can skip levels. And in fact, there were probably one or two students would would have benefitted from skipping a couple of levels, but not many, so I didn’t bother with that sort of thing.)

Instead of levels, there are a series of tasks that students must complete. In the end, I wound up with a series of 8 tasks. Students start with an F for their homework grade, and work themselves up the grading ladder. The first tasks being completed buys them a D, the second, a D+, and so on, all the way up to A+. (The final task, unlike the others, is of their own devising, but must target specific weaknesses of theirs and must be approved by the instructor.) Just like in Super Mario Brothers, there are things that are “certain death” — which, in other words, guarantee you will be deemed as having failed to complete the task — and things that will make you more likely to succeed, like catching the magic[al] mushroom or glowing star.

The positives of this system, besides students having a pretty good idea of where most of their grade will come from and what it currently is, kicked in about halfway through semester. I found students suddenly understood the process of task evaluation better, and were challenging themselves more strenuously. Most of the tasks were tough, but not in a way related to their English level: they were tasks that even someone with poor or middling English could complete: the difficulty was more in terms of preparation, having the guts to do the thing required, and self-motivating.

A few examples include:

  • telling the class a funny story about one’s own experience
  • recording oneself ranting about a topic of one’s own choice and posting the video to Youtube
  • creating a single segment of a radio show akin to This American Life, but dealing with the student’s experience, or with Korea, for a program titled “This Korean Life”
  • videotaping, documentary-style, a trip around town wherein the student speaks only English regardless of how people react; the student is supposed to actually try get things done, like getting a haircut, withdrawing money from the bank, buying shoes, etc.

I found that students did become much more self-aware of the quality of their own work, and much more positively critical. That is to say, they weren’t moping about, saying, “It’s not good enough!” but rather, saying, “I think I can do better!” A couple of times students actually were the first to speak, and said things like that, during group discussions of various task evaluations.

The main problem was time limits. Most of the class dawdled, and since I told them that it was up to them to stay on track with their projects and tasks for class, the end result was that most of the class stayed in lockstep with the others. A few students tore ahead, though even those few ended up submitting three or four tasks at one time near the end of semester. This is, obviously, to be avoided. Therefore, next time I think I’ll set up a time-limit for the completion of a task. For example, students have two weeks to complete a task; if they succeed, the clock starts again for the next task, and if they must repeat the task, the clock starts again, this time with one week allocated. (If they repeat twice, they must either do a special task in order to retry, or else they must go back to the beginning, I’m not sure.)

Introducing a timekeeping element means I’ll need to track their progress carefully — taking notes not just about who has completed which task, but also when each task was completed. It also reduces the necessity of self-motivation in some senses — since the clock, an external motivator, is suddenly in play — but I’m hoping that the stakes involved will trigger a degree of self-motivation on a different level. (Since the motivation will be one of quality, in order to avoid repetitions and “special tasks” following too many failed repetitions.)

On the side, the “cocktail party” final exam was good for a few reasons. The first was that students performed much better than I expected, not only managing to hold interesting conversations but also to complete their randomly assigned conversational tasks. They seemed to be more motivated by having a good informal chat with classmates than by the idea that they would be evaluated at some point on their performance.

What this says to me is that a “cocktail party” would probably be better as a class event, instead of as an examination. In fact, another thing it proves to me is the power of taking conversation practice outside of a classroom. A fake cocktail party is as contrived a setting as a classroom, of course, but the thing is that it’s (a) unusual to students (some of them had never been to such an event before in their lives), and (b) not all contrived situations are equal: the contrivance of having purposeful, meaningful, and authentic conversation in a classroom, a place where for most students purposeful, meaningful, and authentic conversation never happens, is powerful simply because it’s not in a classroom.

So one thing I’m thinking is that it would be really nice if we could get a classroom somewhere set aside for one of the two hours a week that my next Listening & Speaking course meets, and have that one hour a week in a room with no desks, no front and no back, just couches and chairs and maybe a hot water pot and some tea. I suspect no such classroom exists, but maybe there is something around. Failing that, maybe I can commandeer a few disused couches and rework the setup of my office. (Unfortunately, some of the old couches in our housing unit were trashed by the Facilities people last semester. They would have come in handy. Ah well…)  I suspect that such a classroom would be useful for to other courses as well, especially if it were set up to have a TV or a computer with a projection screen.

Something to ask around about, I suppose. I kind of doubt it’ll happen, and I kind of suspect my office will become this dreamed-of space, but it can’t hurt to ask, right?

Ah well, for now, I’m busy with other things. I have a department website, a webzine for the campus English mag, and a comic book site to set up and design, some grading to finish up (by next Wednesday) and of course some Christmas preparations to which I must attend.

All of which means that I suppose I should end this post now.

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