Adventures in outcomes-based assessment
In spring term I’ll be doing several things I’ve never done before. I’ll be teaching online. I’ll be one of the Syracuse instructors who are piloting new learning outcomes for our Comp 2 (sophomore-level researched writing) course. I’ll be using McGraw’s Connect as host for the work on the writing assignments in this course. Blackboard is Syracuse’s portal, so that’s where artifacts like the syllabus and the assignment calendar will be, but all the interactive work (discussion boards, writing assignments, students’ drafts, peer review, etc.) will be on Connect. This spring I expect to be writing about my Comp 2 teaching experiences a lot.
Right now, what has my attention is outcomes-based assessment at a very granular level, something I haven’t done for many years. Instead, what I’ve been doing is writing my assignments, including in them a brief list of criteria by which I expect to grade the students’ work, and then reading their work with those criteria in mind. In most semesters, though, I’ve been giving more As and Bs than I felt comfortable with; I haven’t felt that I’ve enacted my actual expectations when I’ve graded papers. It’s not that I feel I must grade on any semblance of a curve; it’s just that I don’t really think that the vast majority of students in my classes are writing at an A or B level.
So I’m really looking forward to experimenting with outcomes-based assessment, where all the criteria are built into the assignment and where it is the students’ accomplishments with those criteria that determine the grade for the assignment. I also just look forward to trying new things in my writing instruction.
McGraw already has the excellent WPA outcomes loaded into Connect as boilerplate from which instructors can work. Even though the Syracuse outcomes are very consonant with WPA, they are also framed differently; the Syracuse outcomes, for example, are very much oriented toward explicit rhetorical principles. They also pursue some objectives that are largely absent in the WPA outcomes. For the most part, these differences have to do with encouraging engagement with the research process and with the research sources. For Syracuse instructors, engagement as a desideratum comes in part from our collective reading and assessment of texts produced by our students; we found too many of those texts to be disappointingly lifeless and performative. The desire to encourage engagement also comes from the pilot and preliminary insights of the Citation Project: too many students are choosing brief, simplistic sources, are working at the sentence level in those sources, and are not pushing beyond the first two pages of the source.
Because I’m a pilot teacher for these new outcomes at my own university, I’m setting up my course on Connect with custom outcomes derived directly from the Syracuse objectives. I don’t have a ready way of embedding those in this post, but I can provide a PDF if you’re interested in seeing my first draft. I welcome suggestions and would especially like to hear from people who have tried this sort of assessment system. The spring should be interesting!