Chapter Six: Assessment and Grading

An example assessment

To understand how I deliver feedback, consider an example of a grade that I delivered to a student. This criticism was delivered in writing, but it’s nearly identical to how I would deliver it in person. The student was working on a new product design, and had just finished writing a scenario about how a new user would use the product and presenting that scenario in class. This was a formal grading opportunity in the class—they knew ahead of time that they would receive a grade and written feedback about their work, and it was emphasized as an important milestone in the class. Here’s what I wrote:

The narrative arc you used was not believable, and as a result, the presentation itself was poor. You left out steps in the story, making the story seem forced and unrealistic. Because it was unrealistic at the beginning, the rest of the story was questionable. This was particularly true on slides 1-10, where you set up the context for your product.

Specifically, when you discussed how a user would purchase your product, you didn’t create a believable way that they would encounter the product in the first place. Instead, you simply said “The user bought the product.” A way to improve this would be to start your story earlier; instead of beginning the narrative when the user is at the store, start the story when they first hear about the product from a friend or colleague. How did they hear about it? Why did their friends think to recommend it—what were the specific capabilities or qualities that the friends thought were worth talking about?

Compare the believability of the first part of your presentation with the end. You were successful in creating a story of an optimistic future when the user actually uses the product. We can empathize with the user because, on slides 11-15, you showed them slowly learning about the product. You spoke to their hesitations, and because you described how they only gradually received benefit from the product, it was more believable.

There are several parts of this feedback that make it effective.

  • Direct. My feedback doesn’t meander around the problems—it hits them dead on. I use an active tone, and say exactly what the student did well, and what they did poorly. For example, the first two sentences say “The narrative arc you used was not believable, and as a result, the presentation itself was poor. You left out steps in the story, making the story seem forced and unrealistic.” This is different than “You could have done better on the story.” The word “poor” is used on purpose—it’s direct, and that directness is important. Now the student knows that something is wrong. That something is then explained: “You left out steps in the story.” The student can pin-point what they need to change on future iterations. There’s no ambiguity, and they don’t have to try to interpret (often incorrectly) what I meant by my comments.
  • Specific. The feedback is detailed and is tied to actual elements in the artifact the student has prepared, rather than talking only in general about what they made. For example, I reference specific sections of the presentation by slide number, I discuss specific statements in the presentation (“You simply said...”), and I ask specific questions about the content (“How did they...? Why did they...? What were the...?”)
  • Active. The feedback emphasizes both things to do, and things not to do. The student can better compare the successful elements in their presentation with the ineffective ones, in order to better understand not just what didn’t work but why it didn’t work. This feedback is important because it helps short-circuit that peer-comparison described earlier. While I want students to learn from their peers, with this particular feedback, I don’t want students judging what they did compared to what their colleagues did. I want them viewing their work in a more self-reflective manner.
  • Helpful. The feedback is helpful. Instead of simply pointing out what was wrong, I also give suggestions on how to improve (“A way to improve this would be...”) It’s not fair for a student to simply hear what they did wrong, because they won’t be able to improve. By offering suggestions, students can compare what they did to what an expert feels would have been more productive or more valuable.