Raising the Floor

I’m teaching an online class with several graduate students enrolled in our online teaching program. In a discussion forum last week, one of the students brought up the use of rubrics. Since many of the students in this class are also practicing teachers in local schools, the rubric comment struck a nerve and sparked a lively discussion with the group. Looking across the comments from the class, it seems there are a lot of strong feelings (positively and negatively) about the use of rubrics.

For those readers who may be unfamiliar with the concept, a rubric is a tool that outlines the criteria for which student work will be assessed. A well-designed rubric provides a uniform standard for educators to evaluate subjective assignments which can make the assessment process easier. When shared with students prior to the start of an activity, a rubric can provide a road map for students so they know which areas of the assignment are the most important. Rubrics also inject transparency in the assessment process, allowing students to know exactly how they’ll be assessed for a given assignment.

While rubrics sound like a critical tool for teaching and learning, I find that few educators enjoy making them or using them. I attribute this to several reasons. First, good rubrics are hard to make. It can be difficult to capture the essence of an assignment in objective and observable terms. It can also be challenging to break up an assignment into specific criteria with clear levels of development and quality. While tools like iRubric and Rubistar can be provide a good starting point, developing a good rubric requires a great deal of thought and energy. I also find that few educators hit the mark with their first version of a rubric. Most rubrics will need to go through multiple revisions before they’re really strong. Some rubrics may never get there.

Beyond the challenging development process, some educators also have reservations with how students respond to the use of rubrics.  I’ll be the first to admit that rubrics can have a normalizing effect on students’ creativity. When the elements of an assignment are detailed clearly and objectively, rubrics have a way of “lowering the ceiling” of student work. When I provide rubrics for an assignment, I find that I get a lot of really good products from students but fewer “out-of-the-box,” “knock my socks off” creations. But I also get fewer poor student creations as well. In a way, rubrics work to “raise the floor” with student submissions. Since students know how they’ll be assessed, they have a better idea of the minimum expectations that will be allowed. Depending on the nature of the class, the assignment or the students, “raising the floor” may be enough of a reason to incorporate rubrics. While I doubt this rationale will make any educator fall in love with the concept of rubrics, it may promote their use.

The Misconception of Kindness

I get mixed reviews on Rate My Professors. For every student who rates me well, there’s another student or two who has rated me poorly. I try to not get too worked up over the ratings. For the most part, they’re sort of like Yelp reviews. People only really post a review on Yelp when their experiences are amazingly good or amazingly bad. The vast majority of people who had a completely ordinary and solid dining event will never review their experience at all. And I think most people would tolerate a solid experience over a negative one. But I digress.

Returning to my Rate My Professor reviews, to me, one comment stands out among the ratings.  One student posted:

“His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.”

I don’t know what motivated this student to write this or to give me a poor rating, but I’ve thought a lot about that comment over the last two years. For the most part, I think the student’s assessment of my feedback is on the mark. I also wonder whether that’s the reason that some of my undergraduate students don’t find me particularly empathetic. At least that’s what some of my student evaluations say.  And I find it troubling.  Here’s why.

Over the years on this blog, I written many posts dedicated to providing quality feedback to support students’ growth. Across all of the posts, however, there’s never been a real dedicated focus on how students’ receive feedback. I’m a big subscriber to Grant Wiggins’ Seven Key Elements to Effective Feedback.  To foster student learning and development, Wiggins writes, teacher feedback must reflect seven essential elements:

  • Effective instructor feedback is goal-referenced.
  • Effective instructor feedback is tangible and transparent.
  • Effective instructor feedback is actionable.
  • Effective instructor feedback is timely.
  • Effective instructor feedback is ongoing.
  • Effective instructor feedback is consistent
  • Effective instructor feedback progresses towards a goal

And I provide that feedback. My worry, however, is that some students are not used to getting this type of in-depth feedback and don’t know how to respond to it emotionally. When students are accustomed to getting a few check marks on their papers and a “Great job!” written at the end, they see the professor who provides detailed feedback for growth as being the outlier. They rate the professor as being blunt and to the point and not having much empathy. To some degree, my students see me as being unkind with my feedback.

Being the hyper-reflective teacher that I am, I’ve thought a lot about this and I think there is a prevailing misconception of kindness, one that trades long-term impacts for the short-term ones. Let me explain.

Take the student who gets the “Great job!” on their paper but receives little other substantive comments from her professor. The student is receiving feedback that probably feels good. It reinforces her perceptions of the amount of work that she’s dedicated and her perceptions of her ability. She probably sees the professor as being kind and supportive.

But this is only a short-term emotion with short-term impacts. If the student’s work is not really high quality, the student will eventually reach some place in her educational journey where her development or progress will be stunted. She’ll reach a point where she sees that she may lack the skills to succeed at the expected level. She’ll recognize that her education hadn’t prepared her for that next step.

But I tend to focus on long-term impacts. While I’m (mostly) okay with students calling me direct or blunt or lacking empathy, I hope they’ll realize at some point down the road that the detailed feedback I gave wasn’t trying to hurt their feelings but was intended to help prepare them for whatever comes next. That’s long-term kindness.

I heard someone say recently that “Frustration isn’t part of learning.  It IS learning.” And maybe that’s the motto I need to share with more of my students. I know that the direct (and blunt) feedback I give to students can be frustrating at times. But it’s hardly unkind.

Turning the Corner with 360-Degree Feedback

Last week, I shared a primer on feedback. I shared links to a variety of posts I’ve written over the years regarding how to provide good feedback to students and how to embrace “growth mindset” to support student learning. This week, I thought I’d introduce a strategy that I’ve been using with my Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 2.36.45 PMstudents over the last few semesters: 360-Degree Feedback. Before we begin, let’s take a step back.  What is feedback? Hattie (2014) defines feedback as “information allowing a learner to reduce the gap between what is evident currently and what could or should be the case.” But where should that information come from? Traditionally, teachers have relied on some combination of instructor, peer or self-assessments to gather information and provide feedback. Used on their own, the picture can be incomplete. 360-Degree Feedback, however, draws on all three of these types of feedback to provide a more holistic view of a student’s work. Let me give an example.

I’ve been struggling with grouping students in my class. I’ve let students select their own groups and assigned students groups based on their academic standing and schedules. I’ve had students complete the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and assigned groups according to their personality types. Regardless of the method I used, at some point during the semester, I would be pulled in to mediate some serious group issue. After reading Dweck’s Mindset book, however, I realized that I needed to focus on supporting student growth rather than their fixed attributes.  Collaboration and teamwork are properties than can be taught. With the proper feedback and support, students’ abilities in these areas can grow and improve. To do this, however, their ability to work in a team would need to be assessed and feedback would need to be given. Here’s where 360-Degree Feedback comes in.

To support students’ growth as team members and as collaborators, I adopted the AAC&U Teamwork Value Rubric and introduced it during the first day of class. I also discussed the different qualities that made a positive and productive team and explained how we would be supporting each other’s growth during the class. To drive the growth concept home, I had the students self-assess their mindset and discussed the research on growth and fixed mindsets. After setting the stage about the importance of the growth mindset, I explained how we would assess our ability to work in a team at several points during the semester and we would use the feedback to improve.

To make the process work a little more smoothly, I had the students complete self and peer assessments through a Google form and then anonymized the information. I also added my assessment and met with groups and individuals to discuss their teamwork performance. These discussions were a little challenging. Some students weren’t working well as a team member but the rubric provided a more objective way to discuss their performance. I also reiterated that they could grow as a collaborator and that we would be reassessing things later in the semester.

In this situation, coordinating the students’ self-assessment with the ones from their peers and from me helped to provide a more complete picture of the students’ performance. By taking a “360 Degree” view of their work, I was able to support students’ growth as a team member. Looking at the data from the semester, students’ teamwork scores grew by about 4% from their midpoint to their final scores. More importantly, I didn’t have to resolve any group conflict issues during the semester!

While this post discusses one assignment where I’ve applied 360-Degree Feedback, I’ve also used it to support student writing and their research. If you’re thinking about getting started with 360-Degree Feedback, check out this great blog post that summarizes a webinar I gave a few weeks ago.

Foundations of Feedback

Later this week, a colleague and I are presenting a conference session on providing 360-Degree Feedback to students. With 360-Degree Feedback, instructors combine students’ self-assessment with peer and instructor feedback to provide more holistic support for students’ development. With 360-Degree Feedback, feedback doesn’t just come from a single source. Instead, assessment and feedback comes from differentiated but complementary sources. In a way, 360-Degree Feedback leverages the combined effects of several of the top influences that Jon Hattie examines in his meta-analyses.

I’m planning to write about 360-Degree Feedback in more depth down the road, but this week, I wanted to assemble all of the posts I’ve written on feedback and assessment over the years to provide a foundation for readers. Enjoy!

1. Mindset: A primer post This post introduces the concept of growth mindset and shares a bunch of resources to build a solid understanding of how critical feedback is for student development.

2. Teaching for Growth Building on the mindset concept, this post draws on James Lang’s book Small Teaching and discusses how you can Design for Growth, Communicate for Growth and provide Feedback for Growth.

3. The Power of Feedback Drawing on research from Turnitin, this post examines the impact that feedback has on student writing.

4. Glows and Grows This post examines two types of feedback (progress and discrepancy) and discusses how important it is to provide both when giving feedback to students.

5. Better Student Feedback with Classkick While this post focuses a lot on an app called Classkick, it also introduces Wiggins’ Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.

6. Lessons about teaching and learning from Star Wars This definitely qualifies as one of the nerdiest posts I’ve ever written. In this post, I examine how Star Wars is actually a good lens for which we can view assessment and feedback.

7. The Future of Assessment Wearing my “futurist” hat, I draw on Karl Kapp and Robin Kunicke’s concept of “juicy feedback.”

8. The Secret Sauce of Blended Success This post discusses how important formative assessment and feedback are to the blended learning environment.

9. Feedback and the Dunning-Kruger effect One of the challenges with students’ self-assessment is that students tend to evaluate their performance disproportionately to their ability. Ongoing, regular feedback from instructors can help students develop a truer sense of their academic development.


Giving Credit

Where do great ideas originate? I’m prone to saying that inspiration and creativity develops from the space between collaborators. Get some smart people together who are willing to brainstorm and problem solve and the group is bound to come up with some creative ideas. Who owns the idea that emerges? It grows from the space between us so it’s not really any body’s idea. It’s jointly owned. “If anyone deserves credit,” I remember saying, “it’s the space between us.”

But that’s really not true. The “space between us” isn’t a real person and it doesn’t have real feelings. The “space between us” doesn’t deserve validation for its work or need a pat on its back for a job well done. The “space between us” may be a great concept but the real credit should be directed at the specific people who were in the room. We need to identify specific people and praise their contributions. We need to shine a light on individual people.  When we give credit to whole groups, some people may feel left out and not get the credit they deserve. We’re probably all guilty of doing that at some point. But, when I give credit to “the space between,” the light shines on no one.

As often happens in my world, disparate ideas converge to help me make sense of things. In preparation for a presentation, I was doing some reading on peer grading and the potential biases that can emerge when allowing students to assess one another. Dochy, Segers and Sluijsmans (1999) outlined four potential biases that can occur in peer grading situations. Friendship marking occurs when students over-mark their friends (and under-mark others). Decibel marking occurs when the most vocal students receive the grades (without necessarily earning them). When students earn high marks without contributing, parasite marking occurs. Lastly, collusive marking happens when students collaborate to over-rate (or under-rate) their peers. Because of the prevalence of these biases, many instructors choose to avoid using peer assessment all together.

Thinking about their hesitation to incorporate peer assessment in their classes, I think most instructors worry that they may be giving inaccurate grades to students who don’t deserve them. In a way, avoiding peer grading parallels my “crediting the space between us.” While instructors want to avoid giving students grades that they didn’t deserve (either good or bad), I’m avoiding give credit to anyone specifically, whether they’ve earned it or not. Both practices are poor decisions borne out of our inability to effectively value (and validate) individual and collective efforts and achievements at the same time. One approach sacrifices the group for the individual.  While the other, sacrifices the individual for the group. Neither approach is ideal.

In classroom settings, I’ve tried to confront this by partnering individual and peer assessments together.  In some cases, I’ve even incorporated my own feedback to provide a more holistic assessment of student learning and development. In fact, I recently presented a webinar on 360 Degree Assessment for Magna Publications to share my work.  But that only addresses classroom environments.  What about my work with colleagues? How can celebrate the work and achievements of the individual and the group?

I wish I had the answer here. I know that I’m going to work harder to celebrate the achievements of the individuals and the groups in which they work. I’m going to shine the light less on “the space between” and give more credit to specific individuals. That’s my starting point.  I’ll let you know how it goes.