Assignments, Papers, Exams
As a graduate TA, you will probably encounter a wide variety of assignments (readings, papers, exams, quizzes, presentations, group projects, laboratories, etc.) in the classes you teach at Georgetown. Evaluating students and assigning grades are obvious and important outcomes of implementing an assignment, but they are not the only reasons to assign a paper or give an exam. A well-designed assignment should challenge students to review what they have learned, to integrate concepts and discover new connections between ideas, and to demonstrate the ability to use those ideas in a meaningful context. Graduate TAs are typically responsible for reviewing assignments before they are distributed to students, making suggestions on clarity or difficulty, answering questions from students, writing comments, grading, and meeting with students after assignments have been returned. In addition, some professors ask graduate TAs to create their own exam questions or paper topics. Keep the big picture in mind when grading assignments and providing feedback, and focus on what you think is important for students to know and learn.
Assignments serve many different purposes. Assignments can range from elaborate semester-long group projects and case studies to a brief quiz or study question. If the goal is for students to integrate new material with information covered earlier in the course, a paper, presentation, or group project can give students time to assimilate ideas, solve a novel problem, or wrestle with old ideas in a new context. If students need to study and review basic information on a regular basis, a series of exams that cover the course readings and lectures may be a better approach. If students frequently show up for class late or unprepared, a pop quiz could be in order. Despite their differences, most assignments are designed to assess a particular set of goals for learning and teaching. Are the students now able to critically interpret early 20th century economics? Did you succeed in teaching them the stages in the cell cycle? Assignments typically measure students' understanding of the material in quantifiable terms by providing a numerical or alphabetical grade. Assignments are also crucial opportunities to provide specific feedback to each student, whether from the grade itself, written comments, or a face-to-face meeting to discuss the assignment.
Be clear about the goals.
Be clear about the goals of the assignment and the criteria for grading. Graduate TAs play an important role in communicating and setting expectations for students. Maybe you were a TA last year for the same course and can explain how the professor evaluates essays, or you keep getting the same question from your students and realize that they are confused about a question for a take-home exam. Many teachers provide students with a rubric, or detailed description of what is expected and how the assignment will be graded. Make sure that students are clear on what information the assignment is expected to cover. Using examples of successful papers or sample exam responses from the past can help clarify expectations about format and style. Letting students know in advance how many points a question is worth or the percentage of their final grade earned from a presentation is also important. Addressing these and other issues beforehand allows students to focus on learning, while making it easier for you to grade and provide feedback.
Assignments should challenge, not frustrate. One of the trickier parts of teaching is finding the right level at which to engage students. Assignments should be challenging, so that students will learn, but they shouldn't be so hard that they become frustrating. Conversely, they shouldn't be so easy that they become pointless. You should also think about the right level of help to provide. On the one hand, if students don't have a way to make complex ideas tractable, they will have difficulty learning what you want. It's ok to provide some guidance and advice, so long as you provide the same help openly and to everyone. On the other hand, students will often learn more from wrestling with a problem on their own than they would from being guided to a solution. Giving the quick answer can be satisfying, but it can also be a less effective approach. As you gain experience working with professors to design assignments and helping students to complete them, you will gain a better sense for how different students learn best.
Think about the role of writing and language.
Unless an assignment is composed exclusively of multiple choice, true/false questions, or numerical calculations, chances are that it will involve some form of writing. Students can have trouble expressing ideas in words, or use words to hide their lack of understanding. You will undoubtedly have the experience of commenting on papers that meander from detail to detail without ever developing a real argument, or grading exams with answers that ramble on for pages about anything other than the questions. If you are clear about what you expect and can provide good examples of effective writing you can help students clarify their thinking and make their writing more concise, which ultimately makes your life easier. Consider requiring first drafts two weeks before the final paper is due, and/or use peer reviews to provide an additional level of feedback. The Writing Center is another resource, where students can receive impartial feedback and advice on their writing. Remember that Georgetown has numerous international students whose first language is not English; many of these students speak English fluently but may find writing more difficult.
Grade consistently and fairly.
Setting clear expectations for an assignment makes it easier to grade, since you know in advance where the points are to be earned. Be willing and able to defend your decisions. If an answer is ok but not the best, you should be able to explain why the correct answer is better. This doesn't mean that you have to be completely inflexible. If it becomes clear that a question is poorly designed, then it makes sense to discard the question. If students struggle with a question but make a good faith effort to answer, then partial credit may be appropriate (but only if you specify this in advance, since some students won't answer if they think a wrong response is worth no credit). Maintaining consistency is important. For example, if multiple graduate TAs are grading an exam, it makes sense to have the same TA grade the same question across all exams. At a minimum, the professor and teaching assistants should explicitly agree on how points will be allocated. If an assignment involves group work, make sure that everybody has responsibility and that all participants can be graded fairly, reflecting both their individual contribution and the overall achievement of the group. Needless to say, you shouldn't let yourself be biased simply because you like/dislike a particular student or think that someone is more/less deserving. Remember to be consistent with regrades, as well.
Return assignments on time.
In order to learn from their mistakes, students need to know about them before the next assignment. Besides, if you expect students to submit their assignments on time, then it's only fair that you reciprocate. Most graduate students have a substantial workload, but you can expect little sympathy from an undergraduate who was just docked five points for turning in a late paper. Grade papers and exams sooner rather than later, so that you won't stay up until 3:00 am the the day they need to be returned.
Provide prompt and meaningful feedback.
Effective feedback is probably one of the most important parts of teaching. Whether you write comments on a paper or hold individual conferences with students after an assignment has been returned, it is critical for students to understand when and why they have made mistakes. Try to be honest without being blunt. There is no point in being excessively harsh or taking your frustration out on students when they do something wrong. At the same time, it is equally pointless to ignore mistakes when they do occur. You need to point out errors in a way that allows students to recognize them and correct them. Think about why the mistake was made and how the student could think about the problem differently. Your goal should be to provide students with every opportunity to learn from their mistakes and fix misconceptions.
Make Resources Visible.
The library and research librarians can be valuable partners in your teaching endeavors. Most know that librarians are available to give presentations on the different research tools the library offers. They are also available, however, to help design research assignments and help build a learning process of information-seeking skills into your course. Since they are aware of common questions and problems students have in their research, they are in a unique position to give you insight into your students' skill levels. Partnering with a librarian has an added advantage, too: by easing some of the desperation students feel when faced with a daunting paper assignment, you could reduce cases of plagiarism.
Case Study of a Grading Rubric
Question Asking Strategies
The following rubric was used in a class taught by an English professor and two TAs. Since they were all grading papers, they needed a way to keep consistent with their comments and grading criteria. Even the best calibration exercises still left a considerable amount of grading decisions to the discretion of each. The professor and the TAs decided to develop a rubric in order to keep things more consistent. By discussing the goals of the course, and in particular, the paper, they devised the following tool. This tool was handed out to the students with the paper assignment. The rubric not only kept the grading more consistent, but also helped during office hours with students' questions about their papers. Overall, it kept them all focused on the learning goals of the course.
Criteria for Assessing Papers
- Uses questions and represents the processes of thinking
- Sophisticated - questions drive analysis, which leads to further questions that reveal deep understanding of issues at stake; thinks out loud and represents thinking processes as part of a structured exploration.
- Intermediate - asks several questions, with or without attempt to answer them in order to further the exploration of topic; some thinking out loud but not always for the purpose of deepening the analysis.
- Novice - asks questions whose answers are evident; ignores the importance of questions in exploration and analysis of complex topics.
- Has a developed perspective
- Sophisticated - has a developed perspective that shows a facility with alternative arguments and positions, and chooses one on the basis of reasoned evidence.
- Intermediate - acknowledges different arguments and their complexity but does not take them any further.
- Novice - recites arguments but does not show comprehension of them.
- Uses the text as evidence
- Sophisticated - uses quotations and specific language effectively to support and further argument; uses close analysis of the text as a basis and evidence for grappling with significant problems and ideas.
- Intermediate - uses quotations as examples or starting points but does not follow through with engaging the importance of language or writing strategies for larger argument.
- Novice - uses quotes sporadically to merely comment on plot; little attention paid to specific language.
- Has coherence, progression, clarity, and consistency in structure
- Sophisticated - a focused and consciously crafted presentation of the issues and arguments; grammatically sound; uses language with precision. Has a sense of sequence and progression of argument.
- Intermediate - a clear argument with some logic that either loses focus at points or ignores important aspects of the argument.
- Novice- the work addresses one or more topics with minimum development, or grammar hinders reader's understanding of argument.
Even though your professor might not use rubrics, think about what a rubric might look like for an assignment in your course. It should be specific about the type of thinking and research you want, but encourage students to respond creatively and independently. Effective rubrics outline the criteria for good work and describe examples of poor work, so students understand what is expected. This allows them to think critically without giving rote responses.
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