How to Outsource Your Grading and Look (and Feel) Good Doing It

Person crowdsurfing at a music festival in Germany against a night sky, hands in the hook'em horns position

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Or, The Power of Crowdsourcing Assessment.

Like a lot of instructors at UT, I have required presentations in my classes and over the years, these presentations have taken a lot of different forms, from three solid days of argumentative presentations to close out the semester in my first-year writing class, to having students introduce a critical section of the text and lead discussion in my current literature class. One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the way I assess presentations. Which is to say: I don't.

This isn't to say that presentations aren't assessed, though. Whether course grades are determined by the instructor, in the traditional mode, or argued for by students in the Learning Record, I consider it critical that students receive concrete feedback on their various achievements within their presentations -- and further, that this feedback come from more than just the instructor.

Peer review for writing assignments gives students the opportunity to receive criticism and guidance from others in the class as they move through their writing process towards complete drafts, but it's tough to think of an equivalent opportunity for presentations. While you do write and rewrite in preparation, the nature of a classroom speech is essentially one and done. It's rare for students to present more than once in any single time-strapped college course, and there's certainly no way to revise and resubmit! The best a student can hope for is substantive feedback on their presentation that's specific to that class but generic enough to apply to the presentations they'll have to make later in their careers.

However, you can bring in more voices through peer assessment. Whenever I require presentations of my students, I also require that they provide feedback to each of their peers and that they record the grade the speaker has earnt. The grade isn't the important bit, so I won't spend time here on the various ways I've handled those in the past. But receiving written feedback from 20 or so peers on a single piece of work is the single most effective way I've found of letting students self-identify things to work on. Instead of yet another professor insisting that they speak slower, they get 15 classmates noting that the speed of the presentation made it tough to understand: they see the pattern and can act accordingly. In addition, students gain practice listening critically and assessing performance--and they tend to like the idea that their comments and assessments matter.

I can't deal with reams of paper anymore, so instead of handing out paper comment cards or the like, I use Google Forms to administer these presentation assessments, using the computers in my current networked classroom or, in non-digital spaces, having students bring their own devices and having a few paper worksheets on hand for those who don't have or prefer not to use web-capable tech in class. Google Forms--online questionaires whose responses automatically populate a spreadsheet on your Google Drive--have several affordances that make them well-suited to this kind of exercise:

  • Students can fill them in anonymously, with no sign-in required (or the possibility that their handwriting will be recognised by their peer), but I can still ask them to self-identify alongside their feedback; this lets me monitor the process to ensure that everyone is participating fully and seriously, and helps make sure the process doesn't further prove the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory
  • You can set up questions with a variety of answer types, from multiple choice (with one or more possible answers) to checkboxes to short open responses to paragraphs to drop-downs. I use short answer questions to collect the presenter's and reviewer's names, multiple choice questions to assess the specific goals of the presentation ("Did the presenter clearly identify important features of their excerpt?" "Yes" - "Sometimes / kind of" - "No"), an open paragraph box for detailed feedback, and a final multiple choice question for the assessed grade. You can also select which questions are compulsory
  • You can copy and paste the detailed feedback straight from that column in the spreadsheet into another document to be provided to the student--it's quick and painless
  • You can embed the form into your class website for easy access; if you don't have one, a URL shortener will be your friend

I was tempted, in composing this blog post, to title it 'Many Hands'--but as we all know, many hands can as easily make a big damn mess as they can make light work. And having students offer peer feedback doesn't abnegate your responsibility as an instructor to offer feedback--the document I give students after presentations includes an average two pages of peer feedback plus a paragraph or two of my own comments, of the length I would give even without peer feedback. (This semester I'm also including graphs of the responses to the multiple-choice questions.) This process in no way saves me time--but by automating the process in this way, it adds maybe a minute to the time I spend writing feedback, while ensuring my students get far more information about their performance. That's a trade-off I can get behind.

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