Purpose, Grading, and “Non-traditional” Assignments

One of my students just observed that in my department, “I’m the technology guy.” Now, I’m certainly not a very sophisticated “technology person” but I do like to use digital tools in my classes. Over the past year I’ve had students make a digital database of sources (More on that here), listen to podcasts, create omeka exhibits, create storymaps, timelines, and other digital presentations.  I enjoy having my students engage with digital tools; I think that they engage with sources and data in new ways while also thinking about audience and tone more purposefully than they do for a paper.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that research papers are important.  Students need to be fluent in the convention of the paper and it is something that I know how to grade.  Thesis? Evidence? Argument? I know where to look for these and how much weight to these categories in a paper.  In a storymap? I’m less certain.

I try to grade the process of these new tools more than the outcome for several reasons; 1. It is in the process that they are learning to be historians 2. The process usually looks a lot like the inner workings of a paper with research, argument, etc. 3. I really don’t want to grade their aesthetics.  So, for example, when my students made omeka exhibits, I graded the quality of their metadata, the argument their exhibit presented, and their “sources” or items that they incorporated into the exhibit. In other words, I graded it like a paper.

It isn’t a paper though and part of the attraction to digital tools is that they ask my students to do things differently than papers.  As I think about the way I teach and the reasons I teach like that, I keep coming back to the same question.  What is my purpose? If my purpose is to train them to be historians then grading these assignments like papers makes sense.  But, if my purpose is to make them critical thinkers or to give them skills they can apply to their jobs and vocations in the future, or some other reason, is grading these assignments with a modified paper rubric really the best idea? I’m not so sure.

After thinking about all of this, I’m trying to set aside the typical paper structure for my next assignment.  This week, students in my class on the American Revolution have been delving into the amazing digitized archive of the Boston Committee of Correspondence from the New York Public Library.  Their mission is tell a narrative about one piece of the collection—in this case one Massachusetts town’s correspondence with the Boston committee—to two separate audiences.  They will write a formal paper for me that emphasizes the construction of a narrative over an argument and they will also create a narrative for the public using prezi, storymap, timeline, or other digital resource.  Again, the goal is to embed the argument within a narrative and to tell a story that the constituency would find compelling.  My hope is that students will think about how to talk to a variety of audiences and how to tell a story.  My grading (hopefully) will reflect those goals.

This assignment is still, in part, a paper but because I have been clearer about the goals of the paper and the audience I hope that both the students and I prepare for the assignment differently.

How do you think about grading non-traditional assignments? Do you use digital tools and resources? Tell me about it!

One thought on “Purpose, Grading, and “Non-traditional” Assignments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, and I appreciate the “process over product” emphasis. I asked my students to create their own standards for assessing digital projects, and they paid a lot of attention to issues of design. One student justified it this way, “how would you grade a paper with excellent ideas but terrible prose–frequent misspellings, obvious grammatical errors, wrong word choice, etc?” For some assignments, I wouldn’t mind. For others, I would. And I guess I’m inclined to think of product design as a corollary to to writing style. But your focus on process over product is pedagogically smart. I’m going to have to keep reflecting on this.

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