I will be teaching a course on Irish history later this year. I struggled to find a good project for the students to work on. I want it to be something useful, interesting, and (perhaps most importantly) memorable, but I’m not sure what it should be. Since art is such a huge part of Irish history and culture, I was thinking something artistic in some way, but how on earth do I rate something creative?
I want the students to do something historical, of course – portray an event or a person, maybe – but I understand that not everyone is so creative in the arts. I thought about opening it wide – writing a historical short story (using primary sources, of course), creating a sculpture, writing a song – but, again, I have no idea how to grade something like that, given the wide range of talent my students are likely to have.
Do I rank a student lower if they can’t write a song or create some kind of representative art? What do I do?
—From Brian Plummer, assistant professor of history at Vanguard University
You asked such vital questions. The desire to see students produce something useful, interesting and memorable is admiring. Your pursuit of this kind of mission reminds me an interview I did for the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with Ken Bainauthor of “What the best college professors do.” During the conversation, Bain encouraged teachers to “ask engaging questions that arouse people’s curiosity and fascination…questions that people find intriguing.” He emphasized that good teaching is about invite students to solve problems or answer questions that they find “intriguing, interesting or even beautiful”.
The concerns you have about the evaluation of creative work seem to reflect an important (I would even say necessary) ethic that you try to respect in your teaching. Corinne Gressang, an assistant professor of history at Erskine College, had similar concerns about the assessment of student work in her history class. She tweeted:
“In my course on the Holocaust, I gave my students the choice between a final project and a final exam. I feel weird testing them on genocide.
There are certainly many issues with the grades that would take up far more space than even ten of my standard column lengths would require. When I spoke with Josh Eyler, Director of Faculty Development and Director of Quality Improvement Plan at the University of Mississippi, about the grade problem on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, he urged us to recognize that:
“The more we focus on grades, the less we focus on learning.”
Testing students on genocide does indeed seem problematic, especially considering the results that Gressang students were able to achieve with the choice to demonstrate their learning in more novel ways. Gressang’s later tweets reveal what some of the students enrolled in his class created for this final assignment.
A student composed a songusing string instruments, with the aim of evoking the worrying and anxious feelings related to this period of world history. Others in the class applied for and received funding from their university’s student government association and hosted a campus-wide evening of remembrance. Another student’s final project took the form of a video with photos and narrationcomparing classroom learning about the Holocaust with recent events in Ukraine.
Gressang and the many other professors who have entrusted such projects are certainly inspiring. When we see the end results, what it took to get there can sometimes be obscured.
In Gressang’s case, she pulled back the curtain in the following tweets. She said the key is not to assign a high-stakes final project and ask students to submit their work by the deadline. For complex final assignments to work well, instructors should encourage students to start small and break the assignment into smaller pieces.
Among his specific advice:
- Have students develop a proposal for their project and work together to determine what criteria will be used to assess the assignments.
- Have students give a reflection at the end.
- Include citations in their submissions, and
- Ask the students to hand in drafts along the way, if necessary.
I have found that it takes time for all of us to unlearn some of the habits of mind that we are used to when tackling academic projects.
To help set a new tone, teachers can look for opportunities in the classroom to encourage student curiosity and wonder.
Peter Newbury, instructional developer at Red River College Polytechnic, even invites us to take advantage of the minutes before the start of a lesson to make students think. Along with many other members of the astronomy educator community, Newbury used to include a astronomy image of the day from nasa as the students entered the classroom. The photo was usually given a glance when people arrived, but conversations about other topics quickly ensued. By adding two prompts below each photo, he found conversations before it was time to start were transformed:
- What do you notice ?
- What do you wonder?
Start small when thinking about ways to help students unlearn a more transactional approach to learning. Give them ample opportunity to reflect on what they are learning. Break up big projects into smaller chunks, so you can expand invites to get curiosities and experience deeper learning over time.
In his book, “How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching“, Josh Eyler reminds us that:
“To learn something, you must first question yourself.”
Ok, so how do you grade this creative homework? Before answering this question, first ask yourself if what you want to measure is really creativity.
The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) uses this definition in their creative thinking Rubric Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate (VALUE):
“Creative thinking is both the ability to combine or synthesize existing ideas, images or expertise in original ways and the experience of thinking, reacting and working in an imaginative way characterized by a high degree of creativity. innovation, divergent thinking and risk taking.”
As you consider what you seek to develop and assess with the students enrolled in your class, consider exploring the other VALUE rubrics within the larger framework. AAC&U Value Systemsuch as global learning Where Critical mind.
Another resource to explore further is the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero Visible Thinking Project. The project’s website notes that it has two goals, “to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions” and “to deepen content learning.”
An example which might help you in teaching the history of Ireland is the The creative question begins thought routine. When you introduce a new theme to the lesson or a new period in Irish history, you can ask students to answer questions such as: “Why…? ” What if…? How would it be different if…? Assume that…? What would have changed if…? »
Once you identify the skills, abilities, and knowledge you want to assess with the assignment, you may focus less on trying to see how creative these students are and more on giving them options to show what that they acquired from the class. If you would like to provide alternative ways to demonstrate learning, The CAST Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Action and Expression Guidelines can help you think about how to provide choices for these students. from Harvard University Alternate Assignments: Creative and Digital Resources contains caveats and advice that should be helpful as you explore your options further. Among these is the warning about the amount of preparation these types of assignments may require for students.
I hope to hear how this first attempt turns out in the coming semester. Early attempts at alternative assessment can often be complicated (as can later experiences). But the rewards for students and teachers can be transformative.