Surviving the Assignment Lifecycle

Student holding a pen taking lecture note or doing writing assignment in the classroom; closed up photo of young learner using a pen during the written test in collage or university training center - Image

Marking season is upon us and, for many, the first hurdle of the semester. For students it can be an anxiety provoking time. We give advice at this time of the year: Don’t leave it till the last minute, plan group tasks, leave time for final edits – advice we may find ourselves ignoring when it comes to our own workload and deadlines. It is no surprise that around such crunch times we will have students checking in at various states on the spectrum from control to chaos, focus to procrastination, calm to panic. Having an office in Fisher Library makes for a good observation deck: over the course of the semester you can watch the ebb and flow of group project huddles, pallid all nighters and (if you are around of an evening) motor scooter food deliveries from Uber Eats and the like. The struggles of student assignments are well documented.

But it is not just students that are affected. Student anxiety can make for tougher teaching. Additional time demands at the end of class, a trickle of emails all asking the same questions and this is before we have traversed the often emotionally difficult terrain of special consideration, both in its legitimate and illegitimate forms. Mike Adams’ now famous 1999 paper  ‘The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome’ found that grandmothers were more likely to die suddenly just before an exam that at any other time of the year. Whether we react to this with cynicism, compassion or a combination of the above, it does say something about the state of play when metaphoric senicide is seen to be easier than the task at hand. Bypassing tongue in cheek solutions such as only allowing “orphans to enrol at university” (- no grandmother death right?) how can we better handle the anxieties that come with assignments, both of students and our own. In this Teaching@Sydney article we look at the assignment lifecycle from submission through to marking and feedback, with tips on how we might make things just that little bit easier.

The lead up to the assignment – set expectations

Assuming your unit is aligned (i.e. that your assessment measures what students should learn in your unit) and that your assignment is a good one, the most important thing in the lead up to a big assignment is to set expectations. For students it is important to clarify:

  • What to submit – be explicit even it you think it’s obvious: Students, especially in first year, may be new to the format and standard of a university assignment and may need guidance. For example, in first year design reports are visual artefacts with marks awarded for their design qualities as much as written structure. Though providing full exemplars can lead to intended or unintended copying, excerpts can be instructional. Additional guidance on the number and type of files (e.g. ppt, pdf, etc) to be submitted are also important.
  • How and when to submit: Make it clear how you want to receive assignments, where on Canvas to post, whether they go through Turnitin and who (if it is a group assignment) is responsible for making the submission. As part of this, it is worth preempting technical issues that can occur on submission. For example, in some contexts, students may need to know how to manage file bloat to avoid repeated failed attempts to submit files that exceed the accepted file size.
  • What standards will be applied and why: Marking rubrics are important for setting expectations but they are not sufficient in and of themselves. University assignments are complex which means that no rubric can provide a ‘painting by numbers’ route to high distinction – if this was the case then we could get a computer to mark everything and we could all go home. Given this is not the case, rubrics are best seen as interpretive tools that allow you to discuss expectations both with your students and with your markers. Even exhaustively detailed schemas may require some disciplinary knowledge to parse (for a simultaneously wonderful and terrifying example see Lewin’s Philosophy Paper Rubric). Students may need to know what we mean by excellence or argumentation or analysis? Remember too that our students are relative novices and that the criteria for success that are obvious to an expert may be poorly understood. Activities like peer marking (even as a review exercise) and test review are useful for establishing what is expected. Getting students to mark an exemplar and asking them to grade it can be revelatory. For students it offers a chance to sit in the place of the marker while for teachers it is always interesting to note how students interpret your standards and would, as markers, apply this themselves. Depending on the criterion, students may be too lenient or too harsh.

The deadline

Though some have suggested ditching deadlines the reality is that the pragmatics of large classes and institutional policy means that cut off dates are essential in most units. Given you have to have one it might as well be a good one. It may not always be possible to take into account the demands on student time across other units, but you do have control of the day when you expect submissions. (The Assessment Procedures 2011 part 7A specifies 11:59 pm as the University-wide submission time before late penalties apply.) Think about how much time you leave between assignments – if feedback from Assignment 1 is important to prepare students for Assignment 2 then there needs to be adequate time for students to act on such feedback. This is a good time to send reminders and flag how late penalties are applied, as stated in the unit outline.

Marking

Marking can be a depressing time in the teaching calendar since it serves a reality check and a counterpoint to the false assurances that a lecture hall of nodding heads provides. This time of the year may drive you to drink or, at the very least, itinerant snacking. Unless the assignment is a tick-box exercise, marking requires making a judgment. While HDs and FAs are usually easy to spot, the majority will fall between these extremes. Arriving at a particular mark (8 or 9?) and judging cases which sit on a grade boundary can be difficult – even with the best of rubrics. There are several things that make this process easier:

  • Use the right tools: Marking is hard enough without having to pivot between various spreadsheets, rubrics and files. Marking in one place makes life easier. Set up Canvas Speedgrader in advance and use Canvas sections to manage the workload of different tutors. Remember also that anonymous marking is in place across the University.
  • Calibrate with others (and yourself): If you are marking in a team then make sure you are on the same page. Markers meetings are good but consider how you structure them so as to avoid the groupthink that can stem from most senior (or loudest) in the room. Blind-marking of one or more assignments prior to discussion can be useful. And, just as we calibrate ourselves with others, so is it important to calibrate with your present and past self – many find that they begin “harsh” and become “lenient” or vice versa within a marking round. It is not fair for a student’s mark to be subject to something as arbitrary as where they fall on your pile. A quick comparison of earlier and later marks can be a useful exercise.
  • Give feedback that is useful (feedforward): Feedback from one assignment should help students to improve whether for subsequent assignments, units or more broadly for their profession, industry or discipline. Time is limited but try to ensure that useful feedback is not lost in shorthand notes that students will struggle to parse – feedback is only useful if students can understand and use it. If you have a large cohort and are short on time, then it can be worth gathering some of the most common issues into a slide and talking through these in the class or session following the release of marks. Jotting these down with examples of the types of errors can save time.
  • Cultivate camaraderie: Depending on how many assignments you have to get through small acts of kindness to colleagues can ease the burden – simple things like scheduling in a coffee break or asking for second opinions on trickier boundary cases can make the experience less isolating.

Releasing the marks

You release the marks. Moments later your email pings with student questions. These discussions can range from the inquisitive to the accusatorial. Appeals on academic decisions are very time consuming and occasionally emotionally draining for all involved. While human error is possible, no-one really wants a consumer model of education where the student is always right. Things that can help:

  • Set expectations (again): Clarifying expectations throughout the semester is important. Many students may genuinely not understand what was required of them.
  • Summarise marker feedback: Every semester there are common or repeated mistakes. Instead of fielding these individually set a short amount of time at the beginning of class to run through general feedback. What was largely done well? What was largely misunderstood? What things should students consider in future?
  • Know your policy: A bit of information on academic appeals is important. Students have fifteen working days from the academic decision to seek a review on an academic decision. An enquiry to the marker is the first step but needs to be done within this time.
  • Stand your ground but don’t vilify: In his article ‘How can we minimize grade challenges?’ on Pedagogy Unbound David Gooblar has several tips, including that we make room for students to discuss grades appropriately. There is a lot of pressure on students to achieve good marks and student failings to secure the mark they wanted are not always the result of apathy or laziness. While Gooblar argues that we should not be pressured to change what we think are legitimately earned grades, equally we should not vilify students for doing this.
  • Sometimes a remark is needed: There may be benefit to having a particular assignment remarked by another marker. To avoid cultivating in students a “nothing-to-lose” attitude, it is important that the remark is genuine and could also result in a lower mark as opposed to the much hoped for higher one. Communicate this to the student.

What next?

During the many hours spent on this you will have learnt a huge amount about your unit’s assignment and your students’ learning. Jot down what worked, what did not and what you would like to change next time. For more on assessment see MPLF Module 05: Assessment and Feedback for Learning.

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