This Week in My Classes: Low Stakes, High Rewards
Over the last week or so we’ve done our first small assignments in both classes: an in-class writing response in Mystery & Detective Fiction, paper proposals and then a “mini-midterm” in 19th-Century Fiction. Also, since the start of term students in the 19th-Century Fiction class have been keeping reading journals. These assignments have all been developed as parts of my attempt to shift the emphasis from product to process. The challenge for me is to set up low -stakes work that builds skills and prepares for high-stakes work in such a way that it is clear to them why it is worth taking seriously, even though on its own it may not seem to be significant.
I think I am getting there, in terms of figuring out how this is done. My key strategy is simply to be very explicit about the value of trying something out and learning from it as a kind of trial run, before you invest heavily in a weightier assignment. I think this pitch is very convincing to students who are already quite engaged and motivated, because they are already trying to think harder and do better work, and so they appreciate the chance to see how they’re doing, confer with me about the results, and then do the longer assignment from a position of greater confidence. I’m not so convinced that it reaches students who are, for one reason or another, not particularly engaged or motivated, precisely because I’ve set the stakes so low. I do also stress occasionally in class discussions of these small assignments that they add up — that even 2% can, when all is said and done, be the difference between passing and failing. I’m really least interested in that punitive approach, though.
Another challenge is the dissatisfaction that I feel when someone does a really outstanding job and I’m still stuck giving them only 2 points. I do send other signals too — comments like “oustanding!” in the margins, for instance! But I’ve been wondering if I can build in a “bonus points for excellence” system somehow, without losing control of the overall exercise. Right now the mini-midterms are marked quite simply out of 10 points, for instance, 2 for each of the short-answer questions and 4 for close reading a passage. This is all very quick and tidy. But because I don’t want to traffic in fractions of points, I end up giving 2 points to really rich, smart answers as well as to ones that say just enough to satisfy the rubric. Maybe I should make each of these questions worth 3 points — the first two for the same things I mark for already (1 point for a full and accurate identification, 1 point for a reasonable comment about how the subject of the question connects to or illuminates central themes of the novel) and then the last one for … well, how could I characterize it so that it didn’t seem hopelessly subjective? “Doing a really good job” seems a bit vague. The same problem arises with the 4-point questions (1 point for accurately situating it, then 3 more to be earned by insights into its language and themes): there’s a bit more latitude here already, but how about one more point for “wow, that’s really smart and well-written”?
To be clear, I don’t grade essays according to this kind of fairly coarse grid. (In fact, I don’t grade them numerically either.) It’s important for me, though, that these very small assignments not become very large tasks for me: being able to go through them quickly and return them promptly is part of the plan. I invite students who want more detailed feedback to come and talk to me (and quite a few do), and I also routinely share and discuss samples of stronger and weaker submissions (with names removed, of course), which I hope also provides very valuable guidance. The goal, as I often point out, is for the students to learn to judge their own writing better, to know what kind of result they are working towards so that they can work deliberately and with purpose.
The low-stakes assignments are way stations en route to larger and more sophisticated productions. To work, I think they need to be relevant, skills-oriented, efficient, and transparent. I think making the marking a lot more nuanced might interfere with too many of these goals. So for now I’ll press on. The pay-off for the “outstanding” ones will have to be the encouragement they get to do more of the same when the stakes are higher. And for those who blow things off that aren’t worth enough points for them to pay attention? If I’m right about how this system works, some of them will find that the product suffers because they’re neglecting the process. I can only hope they realize this before the term is over, and we all have a chance to get better results.