Evaluating Students

One of the most challenging steps in your teaching responsibilities is the evaluation of student progress.

Evaluation can be one of the most threatening steps for the inexperienced teacher. Planning for student evaluation is an integral part of planning for teaching, not just the final step of the instructional process. As someone who has had to maintain a high GPA in order to gain admittance to your graduate program, you are most familiar with summative evaluation--an assignment or set of assignments that result in a letter grade that is supposed to reflect your overall grasp of course material at the end of a period of time. Without question, assessing your students with grades is one of the most important tasks you may be asked to do as a teaching assistant. However, just as important as summative evaluation--determined through quizzes, tests, term papers, mid-terms, and final exams--is the formative evaluation that you can do throughout the semester in order to assess how well your students are learning as they prepare for summative evaluation.

Formative evaluation can pre-empt poor student performance on summative evaluation projects; at the same time, formative evaluation can communicate to both teachers and students whether or not course content is effectively being communicated and learned, information that can lead to refinement of instruction on the part of the teacher and refinement of studying techniques on the part of the students. For a few examples of formative evaluation, refer to page 17 of this handbook; for a comprehensive study of formative evaluation techniques, refer to Angelo and Cross’s Classroom Assessment Techniques. The remainder of this section focuses on some important aspect of summative evaluation.

Testing

Testing serves three main purposes. Tests are diagnostic tools that help you establish what students already know. Tests are formative because they give students feedback as well as help you to improve your instruction. Finally, tests are summative in that they evaluate student performance for the purpose of assigning a final grade.

Tell your students in advance, preferably at the beginning of the term, what kinds of tests will given in the course. The nature of the course test format will directly influence how students will prepare, study, and learn. In most introductory courses at the University of Georgia, professors assign several tests during the course of the semester, in addition to the final examination.

Test Development

Test development should generally begin with the delineation of what you will expect students to know at various points in the course. Having first defined the scope of the test, next decide what kind of test will best measure student progress. The nature of the subject and the personal teaching philosophy of the course instructor will usually determine which format will work best. If the course has focused on facts, data, and procedures that the student will need to recall, then an objective test will probably be most appropriate. On the other hand, if your students have been organizing, synthesizing, and applying knowledge in class on a regular basis, then perhaps an essay test, problem solving project, or written assignment will be a more suitable test.

Format

To decide upon a format, it may be helpful to write down all the topics you wish to test under each course objective and then classify the topics according to importance. Next, outline the questions you want to ask on each topic, keeping in mind that the more important topics deserve the most attention. Beside each question, indicate whether it will require the students to recall facts, understand or explain a concept, or apply knowledge. Your choice of an exam format should be based on the learning outcomes you want to test. Listed below are some possible exam formats. You can combine several of these to create a well-balanced test.

Test Administration

Testing is a tense time for most students, and any effort you can extend to make the process run smoothly and minimize interruptions will generally be reflected in improved student morale and performance. Have your exams copied, collated, and ready to be distributed well before class begins. Make extra copies. Write announcements, corrections, or further announcements on the board, and make certain that you let your students know ahead of time that you will be doing this. You may wish to write the time remaining on the board in fifteen minute increments. If the test is well-written, provides clear, adequate instructions, and is ready to distribute the moment the test period starts, students will be less anxious.

Grading

Grades provide the triple-crown of assessment at the end of any unit or school term. You can measure how well a student is learning as well as how effectively you are teaching the material, and you can provide valuable feedback to students. Because grades are used to determine entrance into programs and as criteria for scholarship qualification, grades can produce anxiety in most students, and the fear of a bad grade can even inhibit learning from taking place. While you cannot prevent all grade anxiety, here are some helpful suggestions to reduce it in your class:

Grade Distribution

Grades are usually determined by comparison of student performance with absolute standards, the performance of other students, or a combination of the two. Sometimes even the most experienced teacher establishes unrealistic standards and/or writes a poorly constructed test. In these cases, grading needs to be tempered with relative interpretations of student performance. Graphs or charts of grade distributions make it easier for you to see how good your evaluation method was. Uneven or badly skewed distributions suggest a poor testing method.

University Grading Policy

Policies may vary from department to department, but The University of Georgia prescribes a uniform grading scale and letter grade symbols for assigning final student grades. Beginning in the 2006-7 school year, the university will assign pluses and minuses to the grading system. For more detailed information, contact your departmental supervisor or graduate coordinator.

Grading Objective Tests

These tests usually take longer to create, but are the easiest and quickest to grade. Prepare an answer key, with point values assigned to each answer, before you begin to grade. It is a good practice to check each question before grading to see if more than one answer is acceptable. If in the process of grading papers you discover that an inordinately large number of students performs poorly on a particular question, examine the question carefully. Was it unclear? Poorly worded? If you determine that the question is unsuitable, eliminate it from the test.

Grading Essay Tests

These tests take considerably longer to grade, thus it is all the more important to prepare a model answer or content outline with point values assigned before you begin to grade. You want to strive for consistency in grading, which is sometimes best achieved by grading question by question, rather than student by student. Grading essays requires much subjective judgment, and your judgment can become clouded by grading for hours on end. If you tire, you’re more likely to be less careful with your grading. Stop grading when you get fatigued. Take a break. When you resume grading, read over the last few essays you had marked to make sure that you were fair. Essay and discussion tests provide an excellent opportunity for feedback through marginal comments, recommendations for further study, and via posing alternate points of view. While some students are primarily interested in their grade, others might become discouraged if they have points taken off and do not understand why. Students benefit best from feedback that makes at least one positive comment and is as constructive as possible.

Returning Tests and Papers

To maximize the educational benefits of a test, grade it and return it to your students as soon as possible. Discuss the test in class. If the test is still fresh on their minds, your comments will more likely resonate with the students and help them prepare for subsequent tests. Post-test class discussions may bring new ideas or alternative answers to light that will challenge some of your grading key. Be flexible. Students will appreciate your willingness to award credit for acceptable alternative answers, as well as your respect for their individual scholastic activity. To protect students’ right to privacy do not post grades where an individual student’s performance may be recognized by others.

Contesting a Grade

Occasionally, a student will contest a grade. It’s important to give a student a courteous hearing. You may have calculated the grade incorrectly, or not deciphered a student’s writing. Some professors institute a 24-hour cooling off period before challenging a grade. Other professors require that a student put down in writing their grade complaint and why they feel that they should receive more credit. Still other professors offer to regrade a paper, but reserve the right to lower a grade as well as to raise it. If the grade stands after meeting with a student, explain to the student how the grade fits into the grading policies you have established. It might be helpful here to provide the student with examples of model answers to tests or sample paragraphs from A, B, and C papers. If a student feels a teacher has graded his or her work unfairly or has unfair grading practices, the student may consider initiating a grievance through the Office of Judicial Programs.

Papers

Besides tests and exams--papers, projects, and presentations provide students excellent opportunities to demonstrate their learning and investment in a course, often in a creative way. Students generally enjoy these assignments as long as they come with clear guidelines.

Writing Assignments

For many first-year students, a writing assignment may be an intimidating new exercise. Make your assignment clear. When you assign topics, word them clearly and succinctly. If the students choose their own topics, you will need to establish sufficient guidelines to make sure the papers will relate to the overall course objectives. Provide a handout that lists the assignment due date, the penalty for late papers and write a paragraph on your grading criteria. Remind students of the university policy on plagiarism. Generally, the more thorough your planning at the assignment stage, the more beneficial a writing assignment will be for your students.

Some written assignments may require students to use only the materials covered in the course. This type of assignment works well with first-year students or students in introductory survey courses and helps students organize course material and think independently. First-year students also appreciate being able to choose from a list of possible paper topics. Research papers, which will require the students to do independent reading in addition to the course materials, is more commonly assigned in upper-level courses. Advanced-level students often prefer the freedom of choosing their own assignment topic. Make sure that you provide ample instruction on how to choose a good topic.

A few suggestions for the writing assignment:

Writing Problems

If you are a teaching assistant in a subject such as language or literature, you will be acutely aware of the common writing problems that students face and are probably uniquely qualified to provide guidance. Otherwise, your sensitivity to your students’ needs in this area may be dependent entirely upon your own recall of the mechanical and organizational problems and the writing anxiety you encountered with your first term paper. The following information may be useful to you as you attempt to help students.

Mechanical Problems

Punctuation, spelling, and grammar are the most common mechanical problems. Unless the course objectives specifically provide for developing writing proficiency, your grading of written assignments will be based primarily on content and mastery of the material. Effective communication is an essential factor in any subject, however, and helping students learn to communicate is an important part of every teacher’s responsibility. Since errors in punctuation, spelling, or grammar may seriously affect the meaning of an essay in the mind of a discerning reader, it should be made clear to the students that mechanical errors will adversely affect their grades.

Organizational Problems

Organizational difficulties may also be a serious problem, even for those students possessing a perfect command of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Problems in organization may be dealt with more easily at the time you give an assignment by clarifying your expectations regarding organization and content. It may be helpful to prepare a brief handout including suggestions as to the type of information that should be included in the introduction, how the body of the essay could be constructed, and how to develop a meaningful conclusion. Examples of well-written papers from your discipline may also help your students to grasp the characteristics of good organization.

Preventing Problems

Devoting a part of a class period to a discussion of composition and having the students review their papers with you at various stages of completion may also forestall major problems. No matter how important students’ ideas may be, they can be rendered invalid by careless, incoherent writing. Anything you can do to help your students to express themselves more clearly will constitute a major contribution to their education. Because of time constraints, you may be unable to deal with all writing problems. You may wish to refer your students to other campus resources for assistance. The Department of English maintains the Writing Center, which can be reached at (706)-542-2119. The University Libraries offer a variety of instructional services, ranging from orientation in library usage to term paper workshops. Having to submit one’s ideas to another for criticism can be an intimidating experience for even the most capable student. Make every effort you can to reassure your students that you will approach evaluation of their writing from a positive perspective. Experienced educators advise that it is also extremely important for students to understand that criticism of a paper should not be misconstrued as criticism of the person who wrote it, but rather as helpful suggestions for further improvement.

Grading Papers

Because of the more subjective nature of grading term papers, it is crucial to decide what your criteria for grading will be. Communicate those expectations to your students early and often! If possible, show students a sample grading rubric. Schedule plenty of time to grade the papers. Few experiences can be more disappointing to serious students who have done their best than to have a paper returned with a cursory evaluation such as “great paper- A” or “more detail needed-B.” Likewise, few experiences can be as difficult for a conscientious teacher as trying to give a large number of papers a fair reading while facing an immediate deadline. Limited time need not prohibit a meaningful response to student papers, however, if you will remember the following suggestions.

Generally, papers are graded on three criteria: content, organization, and presentation. It is often helpful to a students’ future if you will make constructive comments regarding each of these three areas. Finally, as was the case with essay grading, fight the tendency to become more callous or less discerning as you approach the bottom of the stack of papers. If you get tired or bored, take a break. Grading written assignments requires time, work, and good judgment. With careful attention to the need to schedule ample time for reading and grading your students’ work, you should be able to give each paper a fair evaluation.

Fostering Academic Honesty

The University of Georgia expects the highest degree of honesty and integrity of all students in every aspect of their academic careers. Consequently, the University has developed stringent regulations regarding academic honesty. All members of the academic community--student, teaching assistant, and professor alike--are expected to share in their responsibility for upholding these regulations. The regulations are reproduced in the Student Handbook. The University’s policies and regulations on academic honesty have also been stated in clear, easy to understand terms in A Culture of Honesty: Policies and Procedures on Academic Honesty, which is available through the Office of the Vice President for Instruction in the New College Building. It is also available on the web at:
http://www.uga.edu/honesty/ahpd/culture_honesty.htm

Copying another student’s paper is one of the most prevalent forms of cheating. To prevent this situation, McKeachie suggests using alternate seating patterns if classroom space permits; otherwise, alternate test forms may be used. If copying is suspected, however, it is advisable to proceed with caution. For instance, what at first appears to be wandering eyes may actually be the vacant stare of a thoughtful student. Also, students who have studied together may give similar answers to a question. Consequently, what appears at first to be cheating may not be at all. If cheating is obvious, however, corrective action should be taken, but such a serious charge against a student or students should be made with discretion and only on the basis of substantial evidence.

Cheating can be very destructive to student morale. It is essential that you make clear to your students the importance of academic honesty and explain what is expected of them regarding the taking of tests, the preparation of original papers, and so forth. Special care also should be taken to guard the security of your tests and examinations. Some feel that cheating is common in colleges because of the heavy emphasis on grades. Evidence that a teacher cares enough to try to prevent cheating can be one of the most effective deterrents to academic dishonesty.

The University of Georgia has a clear protocol if a teacher believes a student may have violated the University’s academic policy. Reports may be made by calling (706)-542-4336 or contacting the coordinator for academic honesty through the website of the vice president for instruction:
http://www.uga.edu/honesty/ahpd/ahpd.html

Notify the coordinator of academic honesty and provide the student’s name and the course name and number. Do not confront the student; he or she will be contacted by the coordinator by e-mail. You and the student will then meet with a trained facilitator in an educational discussion about what occurred. If a resolution is not found in the one-hour mediation session, then the matter will move forward to a panel for continued discussion. At this level, the panel will determine the outcome of the matter.