Friday, May 28, 2010

Keeping Track of Student Progress

I'm reading John Bean's Engaging Ideas: A Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.

I'm reminded of one of my best professors in college. Before I got to college, he'd evidently been on an alcoholic slide. But by the time I took my first course with him, he'd turned things around, and in order to help himself lecture better, he recorded all his lectures. That was the part I knew about at the time; I heard about the alcoholic stuff long after. Anyway, my point isn't that I've been on an alcoholic slide, but that at what's probably mid-career for me, I'm trying to renew and refresh my teaching and do it better.

In some ways, Bean's book is encouraging. I think I do some of the things he suggests pretty well. Other things, I could do a lot better, and am thinking about how to incorporate some of his ideas into my courses.

One of the things he suggests is having students do open-ended writing (journals, in class, problem solving). All good. Then he suggests that the instructor doesn't need to really grade these, but could read them to keep a handle on how the student is progressing intellectually in the class.

And here's where I feel my shortcomings. I know people who can off the top of their heads, tell you in fair detail about a particular student's writing style. I can't, usually, unless there's something very different about the writing style.

Nor could I mentally keep track of how students are progressing, except in a general way. I notice, for example, when a student starts participating more or has more interesting things to say in class. But once we add in 20+ other students, I can't keep all that in my head (unless it's an unusual student).

So I have to write things down, just as I do for my advisees. Except for each advisee, I keep a file with notes from our meetings and such.

For my writing class students, I keep a separate page for each student, with the goal that when I grade an essay, I'll make notes about the issues (good and bad) so that I can refer back to those notes when I write a response on the next essay. I'll admit, as I've gotten busier (or lazier), I do this less and less, generally noting only serious problems at this point.

I do like about the page that I can hand a copy out the students at the beginning of the term, and encourage them to keep track of their assignments, too. The ones who do keep track seem to find that helpful.

But I don't keep separate pages for each student in the other classes. Instead, I enter their grades directly into an excel spreadsheet through the term. But since I'm most thinking right now about working with my lit students to improve their writing, maybe I should?

How do you folks keep track of your students' intellectual progress? Do you even try?


  1. Ok, a few things.

    First, I think that it's useful to divide writing progress from intellectual progress. Yes, the two go hand in hand to some extent, but I do different things to keep track depending on whether I'm emphasizing writing vs. whether I'm emphasizing the intellectual side of things.

    Second, I don't generally keep extensive records for each student. I hear you about not being able to recall the specifics, but what I've done rather than institute a lot of record-keeping on my end is develop assignments that work in such a way as to keep individual students' work in my head, at least in the moment of grading. Either I build a mechanism into the assignment that allows me to refresh my recollection at each collection point, or I have students do repetitive assignments, so that it's easy for me to see how they're developing from one to the next. In writing courses, I collect a portfolio at the end, and in many of my lit courses I do a reflective presentation final, and both of these put it more on students to track their development and to present it to me.

    I'm not sure how useful this comment is, but I don't want to go on and on and on. Will do a post about this over at my place later today.

  2. I dunno, I tend to think that keeping track of whether the student is progressing intellectually is the student's business -- it's one of those things the student, not the instructor, has to own. I do a fair amount of in-class writing, partly because I think students learn through writing, and partly because it seems like a more intellectually engaging way to ensure people are keeping up with the reading than quizzes. But I don't really keep track of the results, besides a simple check or check-minus in the grade book.

    I do try to comment on about 25 to 30% of the in-class responses -- mostly so that students know I am reading them, and so that I can let them know which ideas have potential as paper topics or correct anything egregiously inaccurate. But I probably couldn't tell you a few days later which ones I commented on or what I thought of them.

  3. I think it's very inspiring of you to keep a page with comments from paper to paper.

    Have to admit that I probably couldn't keep up with that. For a writing class, though, I do ask them to keep papers in a folder and submit them together each time so that I can see how they are progressing. And that way, the comments I wrote last time are there, too. (So, with paper three, they also turn in one and two because they are in the folder.)

  4. I ask them. I have several ungraded writing assignments during the semester where I ask students to evaluate their progress in the course. For writing classes, at the beginning, I ask about their goals for the class and past experiences with writing. At midterm, I give them the learning outcomes from the syllabus, ask them to rate how they've met or not met the goals, then explain why their progress is where it is and what they need to change to meet their goals. I also follow this up with an in class discussion about what is and is not working for them in the class. At the end, I have a reflective essay assignment, but I also give them an in class writing assignment to explain what they've learned this semester. And that too is followed up by a class discussion to help them think about the reflective essay. I also do cover letters with each essay--they spend 10 min. in class answering 2 questions about the essay (what are you proud of, what would you change if you had more time, what stressed you out about this assignment, etc.)

    A portfolio is also good, as it requires students to hang on to my comments from each assignment. I'm with Dr. Crazy on finding ways for students to track this info for you.

    I also require conferences. I tend to remember conversations much better than my written comments.

    What about creating a goal/progress sheet that students hand in with every assignment (the same piece of paper all semester)? Where they write something about their progress the day they turn it in (an in-class writing assignment?) and you write something when you grade. That way, the onus is on them to care about their writing progress, but you still have the benefit having it all in one place. And it becomes part of your grading, so it shouldn't take up more time.

  5. I really liked Bean's book! (I have a particularly soft spot for it because I read it last year while I was on jury duty; it became my solace from the sordid business, my way to remember who I really am.)

    Like you, I keep notes for each student, something I started when I moved to secondary school and started having to write trimester comments for each student. This is when it really sank in that I couldn't remember any particulars about my students' work once I returned it to them graded. Those first sets of comments were very bland, very generic, and then I started taking very quick notes so that at the end of the term I have something substantive to say. It adds only 10-15 minutes per set of papers (these are *really* quick notes!) and makes a huge difference at the end of the term -- although I'll admit that my goal here is clearly somewhat pragmatic, to make things easier at comment-writing time.

    But I will add this: taking those quick notes on students for the past couple of years has actually helped me get better at holding in mind the details of student work, a welcome ability.

  6. I'm with Tree of Knowledge. I don't keep notes on every student, though I've tried. But I also want students to be reflective and own their own learning as well. So I do tons of reflective in-class writing assignments. Then at the end there is a reflective essay/learning letter where I explicitly tell them they need to draw from their in-class writings as well as look at the comments they're getting from peers and me across assignments in order to see patterns in their writing. (This is in a writing class.)

    So I put it on the students to do that work because I think they should be doing it across classes anyway. I do grade the learning letter at the end, but only for level of detail. Really I just want them to read them. (My course is usually one that students really resist, so having them do a learning letter at the end engages them in thinking about why they should have a course like that in the first place. Or so I think.)