When I was back in school, I used to love getting my grade. Did I do well? Did I do poorly? That shiny little letter meant so much, especially as someone that came from a background heavy in science and light in paper (essay!) writing. Indeed, the first time that I wrote a paper for my Ancient History minor (my archaeology bio) I achieved a 67%. That was an upper second class honours degree in English terms (a 2:1). Awesome.
The thing is? I didn’t really understand what that meant. I understood that I had done reasonably well, but that didn’t actually translate into meaningful feedback about what I had done well. Or, well, what I had done poorly.
And this is where students find themselves in the modern world of academia. So rarely are their grades translated into effective feedback without a significant contribution by the professor/faculty.
Yet why is that? Let’s explore that.
The English Model
Let’s just spend a little time with the English model of grading at the university/college-level. In England, grades are categorised into discrete levels:
- First Class (1st). Wahoo. The highest grade. While it varies between universities, generally this is set to a minimum of 70% and represents truly unique and insightful work on behalf of the student. The paper will be well written and, further, shed some original insight into the subject matter of the assignment. [For your amusement: This can actually be a bad degree result to get in England. It means you’re either far too smart or work far too hard, both of which make employers suspicious.]
- Upper Second Class (2:1). At this level, you’re talking otherwise well-written papers that don’t really offer original insight or, well, insightful papers that are hamstrung by an issue with the writing of the student. This is 60-70% for those that love percentiles. [Continuing the FYA, this is a sweet-spot in English degree results. It shows that you’re clever and had fun, or you worked hard and are not a threat.]
- Lower Second Class (2:2). At this level were talking more about a functional level of writing and analysis. There might be significant errors in terms of the writing style of the student (grammar, spelling etc.) or there might be issues relating to the students’ ability to research a problem or their ability to analyse critical issues. For the percentile-lovers, this is 50-60%. [FYA, this result meant that you are either not quite as bright as you thought or you partied too much.]
- Third (3). You passed but, well, barely. Actually, there’s a level of passing underneath this called the, well, “Pass.” If you see a grade at the 40-50% level, this is where you’re at. We’re talking a “D” in American terms. [FYA, you partied way too much.]
- Pass. Yeah, not really. [FYA… No, really, this one speaks for itself.]
How I think of that is based in part on a learning exercise that I performed in a seminar as a pre-emptive corrective issue for writing standards. The Ph.D. student had given all of this seminar students a handful of papers to grade them on the UK spectrum.
It Made a Difference
My memory might be playing tricks with me, but regardless this is what I remember. For some of our archaeology seminars, the Ph.D. student—Ollie Creighton, I seem to recall—faced his students with an assignment. I’m not sure of the logic behind it, but I like to think that it was a corrective action to attempt to advance the writing ability of the students in the class. If nothing else, this is what it did for me.
Anyway, Ollie gave us a number of essays/papers that we had to grade into the English system (see above). We had to evaluate these papers based upon not only their merit in terms of the arguments they presented but also the quality of the writing (grammar, syntax, structure etc.).
For context, at this time I was a freshman archaeology student that came from a background steeped in science. Indeed, I had switched to the subject from an M.Phys. in Astrophysics (of all things). With a science-heavy background my literary skills were and, to be fair, still are a little bit sub-standard. Well, maybe more than a “little bit.”
This assignment, however, was an eye-opener. It allowed me to assess where my personal abilities were in terms of addressing the argument (essay question), the structure of my papers, grammar, referencing and, well, the list continues.
So why, on reflection, was it so eye-opening? The answer? Metacognition.
Yeah, it’s a buzzword but it’s also very relevant. You see, what this project did was allowed me (a science nerd) to understand a whole slew of variables when it came down to not just writing styles, but also how one approaches an hypothesis (read: critical thinking). Put another way, it allowed me to understand just what I needed to understand when approaching the subject materials in the way needed for the course.
My science background has given me other skills in terms of analysis, breaking down problems into manageable sections, but in terms of expressing my thoughts? This was the single most impactful assignment that anyone gave me.
What does that mean?
This is an impactful way that you can show students not only your personal preferences, but also what they need to bring their A-game forward into the course.
And that’s great.
But there’s an easier method. Can you guess what it is?