By evaluating themselves and others—on paper and in person—students learn to be more objective about their progress and identify opportunities for growth.
Graduate Instructor in English, Illinois State University PhD candidate in Sociolinguistics, MA in Spanish Linguistics, BA in English Studies
Graduate Instructor in English, Illinois State University
PhD candidate in Sociolinguistics, MA in Spanish Linguistics, BA in English Studies
In her experience as a student in classrooms around the world, Claudia Sanchez noticed that there are two kinds of instructors: those who create inspiring connections with students and those who show zero interest.
“I’ve had professors who didn’t even answer emails,” says Sanchez, who has studied in Spain, Greece, Ireland, and the United States. “The only communication was in class or on paper. They didn’t seem to care at all, and that was really shocking to me, because this is supposedly what they want to be doing.”
As an English instructor and PhD candidate in sociolinguistics, Sanchez believes that learning improves when classrooms promote two-way communication, so she set out to break down the barriers of status and power that can get in the way of reciprocal discussion. Sanchez calls her classroom a “learning space” where her students come to learn, but “they can also teach me things.” She tells them, “There’s nothing different [between us] other than that I’m the one who teaches the class and you are the one who takes the class. We’re equals.”
“It’s all about showing the students that I am not perfect and we can learn from each other,” Sanchez adds.
Then she proves it by inviting students to do something traditionally reserved for educators: handing out grades, including their own.
Challenge: Students not seeking, reading, or internalizing feedback
Learning improves, Sanchez believes, when classrooms promote two-way communication. As she sees it, assessments should be more than a one-way message from instructors to students. They can provide a way for educators to engage students more deeply in coursework through meaningful feedback and reciprocal communication.
Yet they often do not go that way. Many types of assessments (such as fill-in-the-bubble and true/false tests) leave no room to provide insight. Even when instructors do provide written commentary, students may simply glance at their grade and not even attempt to read or absorb the feedback. In other cases, students who are unfamiliar with receiving feedback may not know how to decipher the notes and/or implement the information.
Sanchez was determined to find a way to provide assessments with constructive feedback that students can learn from and act on so they will grow.
Innovation: Providing practice in giving and accepting critique
To help students become accustomed to seeking, accepting, internalizing, and providing feedback, Sanchez created a series of activities to build their skills in these areas throughout the semester. Her approach: Start with self-critique, then learn to perform peer critiques.
Sanchez begins the semester getting to know students and their learning styles, and then she asks them to perform self-assessments every three weeks throughout the semester. They also conduct peer assessments of their three written projects. And, at the semester’s end, she provides an exercise in which they employ their highly developed powers of feedback on a surprise recipient.
Over time, she says, students become accustomed to reflecting on their work—not only after turn-in but before. This means they can perform revisions proactively and possibly bolster their resultant grade on future papers and projects.
The approach may seem time-consuming, but building skills that combine emotion and reason cannot happen overnight. “Assessment is not something that can be done just going through certain bullet points,” she notes. “It’s a process.”
“English 101 [Composition as Critical Inquiry] is a composition class for freshmen. We give a focus on different genres as they appear in the real world.”— Claudia Sanchez, MA
Frequency: Two 75-minute or three 50-minute class meetings per week
Class size: 23
Course description: Rhetorical approach to writing, taught through extensive collaborative drafting, revising, and editing. Emphasis on critical reading and analysis.
English 101 Composition as Critical InquirySee materials
Lesson: Opening students to the idea of feedback
Sanchez is serious about helping students progress in meaningful ways—not just boost their grade. Here is how she improves their skills surrounding the giving and receiving of feedback, beginning with some getting-to-know-you exercises that do more than break the ice.
Give and receive a few personal details
The effort to create a meaningful connection to students starts on the first day of class. To get the conversation going, Sanchez asks everyone to reveal three interesting facts about themselves. This is invariably met with silence from students, so Sanchez goes first.
“I tell them my name is Claudia, I like video games, and I like languages,” she says. “This doesn’t fail. Immediately, their faces change, because they realize I’m just like them—a regular human being with likes and dislikes outside academia/school.”
Get to know them as learners, too
As a follow-up, Sanchez seeks out a fourth piece of information from each student that is still personal but more helpful to her as an educator: “How do you learn best?”
The answers help Sanchez understand the struggles each student may face so she can eventually offer feedback that will be more meaningful and actionable. “I want to show [students] that I’m not only there as an instructor but that I can also understand them,” she says.
To further demonstrate her support, Sanchez is prepared to help those students who are not yet aware of what kind of learner they are. “If they are not sure,” Sanchez says, “I usually have some follow-up questions for them, such as, ‘Do you memorize better with PowerPoints or lecture? Have you noticed whether you tend to have something in your hands that you move around, while paying attention to someone speaking? Do you usually need to take notes on what you hear in class, or do you work best just by listening?’ Usually these kinds of questions can give me an idea of whether they are kinesthetic, visual, and so on.”
Introduce the idea of self-assessment
As the semester unfolds, Sanchez wants to know how students think they are doing in her class. So, every three weeks, she gives students 10 minutes in class to write down the grade they think they should have, along with some commentary, if they wish.
When students first hear about Sanchez’s approach to assessments—and their opportunity to weigh in on their grade—they are sometimes bewildered. “Students—in the United States and in general—they’re so used to being told what they have to do and how to do it that when they’re given a chance to say whatever they think, they don’t know how to react,” she says.
To get them going and improve their objectivity, she provides clear guidelines on how to gauge their progress. For example, her form notes that a student can earn 100 percent if he or she “always participates spontaneously, listens while others speak, shows respect to students and instructor, works actively in group activities, tries to use knowledge acquired in class, completes assigned homework, brings materials to class.” For the student who “rarely” does these things, the form recommends a score of 50. An effort of “usually” equates to an 85 and “only sometimes” warrants a 70.
The instructor may not always agree, she reminds them, so she urges students to argue their case in the space allotted for written comments. However, she reminds them that she knows every trick in the book. “I would rather hear that you didn’t come to class because you didn’t feel like it than have you make up an excuse that you had to go to the doctor,” she tells them. Typically, students’ input becomes more honest and helpful as time passes.
Share your specific observations
After reviewing the self-assessment form, Sanchez returns them with her own determination of their grade and some explanatory comments.
At the beginning of the semester, over half the class may try to award themselves higher grades than they deserve, including a lot of 100s. “But when they see that [I gave them an] 80 or 85, they [realize] that I’m not going to automatically agree with them,” Sanchez says.
Where there are discrepancies, she elucidates with comments such as, “I saw you playing on your phone,” or “You weren’t paying attention the other day.”
“There’s another type of student that will never give themselves the [high] grades they deserve. They don’t perceive their work as good enough,” she says. “They tend to be the most brilliant students that I have.” Here, too, her written comments help to paint a more objective picture of performance and progress.
Employ peer assessments
After students become familiar with self-assessment, Sanchez provides each of them with a chance to give and receive objective criticism from a peer. These peer assessments happen three times a semester, each one falling two class sessions before a major research project is due. The final class session before the due date, Sanchez conducts a teacher assessment. That way, before turning in their work, students have time to implement changes based both on their classmates’ appraisals and on feedback from Sanchez. “Their projects have gone through several filters before being submitted,” Sanchez explains. “This truly impacts the quality of their work in a positive way.”
For peer assessments, the goal is to pair students who do not usually sit together and ask each to provide objective criticism to the other. Students spend 15 minutes with each of three partners, giving them enough time to read each other’s drafts thoroughly and make comments. She notes that there is less pressure in this exercise than in self-assessment, because the student evaluators are supporting someone else’s grade rather than fretting about their own.
Encourage quality feedback among peers
As students fill out the peer assessment forms, Sanchez walks around the room, looking over their shoulders.
“If I see that the feedback is only on the surface, I tell them, ‘I want you to go deeper,’” she says. “I don’t want to influence the comments students make, but I try to make sure the feedback is meaningful. I always ask them to give constructive criticism instead of superficial comments.”
Students then have time at the end of the class period to implement any changes they choose, based on their peers’ critiques.
A Bonus Lesson: What Is “Correct” English?
For one week each semester in her composition class, Sanchez focuses on language as a tool that reflects personal identity.
The unit, which begins with a deep dive into language variation, asks students to consider the question: Where is correct English spoken? They view a video of a man who speaks in more than 60 different accents—all in English. When the video is over, she again asks, “What is correct? What is incorrect?”
Next, she assigns an excerpt from Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, a book by Gloria Anzaldúa that explores the many kinds of borders the author has faced in her own life. The book is written in multiple variations of Spanish and English, which readers must navigate to fully absorb its meaning.
“[At first, students] think that the only correct language is spoken in the Midwest,” she says. That is no surprise: Many of the undergrads in her classes at Illinois State University hail from nearby.
However, through this reading, she hopes they will come to see definitions of “correct” language as artificial constructs rather than rigid truths. “There is no incorrect or ‘wrong’ English,” she says. “I try to make them see that it is all correct in its own geographical space.”
Have them direct their feedback skills at you
One day at the end of each semester, Sanchez engages in a kind of turnabout with her students.
For almost four months, students have repeatedly been asked to assess the performance of themselves and their peers. Now, in an informal session over coffee, she poses a different question for them to ponder: “Is there anything I should improve about my teaching?”
To make this exercise work, Sanchez reserves a room with couches, comfortable chairs, and big conference tables. She provides coffee and tea, and students are welcome to bring their own snacks. “It’s an informal meeting with the whole class at once,” Sanchez explains. “We talk about my class and how it went, but also about how their semester went in general.”
During this session Sanchez requires her students to offer written feedback (not just the number ratings found on many end-of-semester evaluation forms), and she encourages candid criticism on everything from the syllabus to her lectures.
She notes that it is important to schedule this “coffee critique” before giving students their final semester grades, so their feedback will not be positively or negatively skewed. She also asks them not to sign their names on their feedback.
“It’s anonymous,” she says. “That’s how I know it [is genuine].”
All of this serves her overarching goal of proving to students that their opinions are important—not only to her but to the society into which they are emerging as adults. “I want my students to know that they matter inside and also outside of the classroom space,” she says.
Sanchez notes that her clear assessment guidelines help students become more objective about their work. The activities also help students see feedback as it is intended—not as critical admonitions but as opportunities for further learning and personal growth. “[Over time,] they feel more confident about approaching me and talking about their grade,” she adds.
In her graduate instructor role at Illinois State, Sanchez acts as an informal advisor to younger doctoral students when they begin teaching. Many of these scholars have monitored her class and want to learn more about her assessments. They have given Sanchez glowing reviews for her approach.
“It’s something that everyone who has observed my class has liked,” she says. “When the observation ends, they ask if they can come into my office to [have a chat] and hear more about it.”
Comments from the end-of-semester assessments have been positive, including these recent quotes: “The only class I really enjoyed” and “You make class fun.”
This is written proof that Sanchez’s devotion to “the emotional dimension of learning” truly does impact performance outcomes and attitude.
“I wish my professors back in the day would have taken the time to do the things for me that I’m doing for my students,” says Sanchez. “If the learning environment is more comfortable, learning is going to happen faster.”