Progress Letters Attempt #1

As we’ve hit the middle of the Winter semester, we’ve also arrived at the first progress letters I asked my students to complete. As I mentioned in my last post, the midterm self-reflection was one of the assignments I added in the ungrading process. I was, admittedly, a bit skeptical as to how this would go. It’s not that I didn’t trust the other folks who said they have used these reflections in their own classes. I just always get nervous when I try something new and am never certain how it will go until after I try it.

I was quite pleased by how the students approached these reflections. My instructions included eight questions for them to answer. While I asked students to write a letter addressing the questions, I also allowed them to answer them in a more bullet-point style. I know others have used a Google form for the reflections, but I’m not a big fan of how the “data” is presented on the back-end. I also liked being able to use their own Word document submissions to help structure my response letters. I would resave the document as my response letter and started drafting my response as I read the letter, deleting the part of the reflection I responded to as I went. This way, I ensured I responded to everything they wrote and was able to keep roughly the same order of topics.

What struck me the most was how honest and thoughtful the students were about their progress in the semester to date. I knew they would be, but knowing they would approach the reflections a particular way and reading how they actually wrote their reflections are not quite the same thing. I appreciated that the students trusted me to discuss how aspects of their life outside of class were impacting them and how those factors impacted their perceived progress in class. What was most interesting, however, was that all of them were determined to meet their goals even with the challenges. Not one of them were willing to accept they may not do quite as well as they would have liked given other things happening in their lives even though they would have been fully justified in stepping back a bit. A common phrase I used in my response letters was “be kind to yourself.” I reminded most of them that life circumstances are a fact and it was not a failure to have to juggle life and education. I also reminded them that it was okay to take a break and rest. I’m not sure if they will listen, but I felt it was important to let them know that not being 100% in a class is really not the end of the world in the grand scheme of things.

One of the questions I asked is the letter grade they would give themselves at this point in the semester. It was interesting to see what they chose and why. Given what they said, I think adding a sub-question about what they need to focus on or can do to earn the grade they would like by the end of the semester and how I can support that might be helpful. Since I am still required by the university to submit a letter grade, I want to make sure they are setting the standards for themselves of what they hope to learn/accomplish so they have a sense of whether they have met their own goals. I also think I might add a “beginning self-reflection” at the start of the semester that asks them to identify their goals for the semester and what they hope to learn in the class (with the caveat that it’s okay for these to change as the semester progresses). That way there’s something for them to refer back to during the midterm and final self-reflections to judge their progress by and something for me to reflect on in terms of the type of feedback and support I provide.

Someone once asked me how time consuming writing the response letters would be. At the time, I honestly didn’t know, but I’m happy to say they did not take any longer than grading a short answer or essay exam. (To be honest, it might have even gone quicker had I not been distracted by the TV on in the background.) It was definitely longer than reviewing the responses/ranges/etc. for a multiple choice exam, but that will be something to figure out when I work on ungrading an undergraduate course. The latter ones also went faster than the first few I wrote because I realized I could use some of the same language across the responses. Even if it took longer, the time spend on the responses would have been better spent than grading another assignment and I enjoyed doing it much more than grading.

I also really appreciated the opportunity to respond to their self-reflections and I’m glad I built that in instead of a conference (I will do both for the final). I liked having the time to think about their reflections and respond in a more personal way than if I did just conferences alone. I know myself and likely would not have read the responses much in advance of those meetings, so writing the response also forced me to slow down a bit. While I did use some of the same feedback/language across my responses, writing the letters also let me focus a bit more on each student as a person and address their specific concerns as well.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised that some of the students discussed the ungrading of the class. While I did not specifically ask about that on this reflection (I will do so in the final reflection), I did ask if there were any other comments or reflections on the class they wanted to share. Several students mentioned how they appreciated moving away from the grades, particularly for the reading responses, as it allowed them to truly focus on developing analytical writing skills without stressing about the “numbers.” A few students still mentioned the points from the holistic categories and one asked what they’re grade was so far, but considering how engrained grades are in the educational system, I’m not entirely surprised they are still using that language or asking for a grade. I reminded them why I’m using the points on the holistic rubric and why I’m not giving a grade just yet, so hopefully that will suffice and will help remind them to stop stressing about it so much. I guess we’ll see. But it was nice to see that moving to ungrading even after the semester started appears to be a good one.

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