Blog Post

Encouraging reflection on practice while grading an artifact: A thought on badges

This was originally posted at

When I started teaching I thought back to all of those teachers who made me write meaningless papers into which I put little effort and received stellar grades, and I vowed not to be that teacher. I promised myself and my future students that we – as equals – would discuss the literature as relevant historical artifacts that are still being read because the authors still have something to comment on in today’s society.

But then I stepped into the classroom and faced opposition from my colleagues who thought my methods would not provide students with the opportunities to master the knowledge of the standards. Worst of all, some teachers actually punished students who came from my class because they “knew” the students had not learned how to write or analyze since I did not give traditional tests or grade in a traditional way.

And I started to doubt myself. I faced that giant stack of essays and thought, “Maybe I should give in.” And I tried it. I tried grading the essays with a strict traditional rubric instead of talking through the papers and the thought processes that went into writing them. I tried giving a final grade instead of encouraging rewrites and reflections on rewrites. And it totally failed. I wasn’t happy, the students were miserable, and most importantly, no one was learning anything but how to write to a rubric. So I went back to following my gut. Students wrote and revised and reflected on their papers. They posted to discussion forums about the relevance of Huck Finn in the 21st century and how Romantic paintings made them feel. This opened up so much conversation and reflection, and allowed me to have students practice an abstract and difficult concept like literary analysis over and over again in meaningful, relevant ways in many different contexts.

When I began my work with Daniel Hickey and his research team designing curricula and refining models of curriculum development at IU, I ran – and am still running into the same roadblocks. It is difficult to ask an English teacher not to grade the essay because, in the end, a graded essay is what teachers, students, and parents are comfortable with. They like seeing the 78% score in red on the paper and in the gradebook because it is concrete. And there is certainly merit in receiving direct feedback on something one has created, even if that may encourage only a shallow engagement with the directions of the assignment rather than deeper thinking about how the creator of the artifact engaged in a practice with a concept. So when I approach a teacher with whom I am designing a curricular unit and tell them that we are only going to grade the reflection, not the artifact at all, I am not really surprised at the resistance I face.

Karen Jeffrey, in her blog post ePortfolios as Badges – A Badge System Design for Learning by Creating (a response to Dan Hickey’s blog post Some Things about Assessment that Badge Developers Might Find Helpful), suggests creating badges both for the artifact and for the reflection. Brilliant. In addition to designing curricula with teachers, our team is gearing up to host a HackJam this summer, and we have been thinking about how to use badges in this context. We want to award a badge for deeper reflection, but realize the importance of acknowledging the accomplishment of completing the hactivity. Awarding two types of badges may be just the ticket. Perhaps the levels of badges could range from an automatic badge for completing the activity, a mentor-awarded badge for reflection, and a highly coveted badge awarded by the community.

By awarding separate badges for the reflection and the artifact, students are encouraged to engage in deep reflective thinking upon their use of a concept within a particular context, thereby learning to reflect on their own thinking and practices. And at the same time, students receive meaningful, direct feedback on their artifact, and students, teachers, parents, and all those involved feel the satisfaction that feedback on the artifact itself brings. 



Thanks for sharing your story, this is greatly inspiring. Your ideas made me think about my experience as a writing tutor. Almost all of the students (mostly English 101 students and college freshmen) who came to see me would begin our session like: "My teacher wants X, Y, and Z, and she's a stickler for grammer. I want you to make sure I did X, Y, and Z, and check my grammar." I would spend a great part of our session getting these students (sometimes unsuccessfully) focused on the bigger issues, and focused on what they want, not what the teacher wants, and then how they can effectively communicate their ideas in the particular medium and genre at hand. Very often, I found that the students had surprisingly sophisticated thoughts about the assignment, but didn't convey this in their writing. I think there are two causes of this 1) their instuctors severely underestimate their student's level of analytical sophistication, and therefore use strict guidelines and rubrics on their assignments; and 2) the students, in return, are fixated on the rubric, the grade, and "what the teacher wants."

I LOVE your idea of grading a reflection on the assignment rather than the assignment itself. It sounds like you never had a problem with underestimating the ability of your students. I have heard a similar idea of a cover letter with every writing assignment, where the student writer makes an argument for what grade she should receive and justifies this with an explanation for how she fulfilled the assignment. Your idea, and this idea of the cover letter, not only greatly increases student engagement, it reduces the risk of plagiarism and focuses the students' attention on the larger learning objectives rather than filling in a formula for an A (I've always made the argument that getting the grades in college, unfortunately, isn't about intelligence per se, but how well you can play the "A-game." Based on your first paragraph, sounds like you know what I mean.)


Thanks, Molly, for your comment! I know exactly what you mean about your tutees. I had to fight for the better part of the year to get students to understand that I wasn;t trying to torture or trick them by not being specific about grammar or length or how many words, but I cared - and they should, too - more about the content and their practice than the mechanics. 

This is partially why I started grading the way I did ... when I put marks on a paper, a C was grade-level writing that conveyed the information clearly and completly addressed whatever issue was being raised . "Completely" was often determined by the phrasing of the prompt, though many times they wrote around a theme (like "Is Huck Finn relevant inteh 21st century?" or "Is the American Dream attainable?" (Gatsby related)). Anything below a C I marked as "no credit yet," and we talked about what they had done and what they could do. I did a lot of reflection on practice. 

The grades on the papers meant less and less as I kept teaching and I started valuing the reflections and discussions around the papers much more heavily. And it really worked. 

LOL. Regarding your statement about understimating the students, I guess I assumed they were all capable. Perhaps that was naive, but I just did not let myself or the students think that they could not do this. They reflect on their actions all the time, but many of them have not thought about how they do that, or at least how they do it in an educational setting and can use that reflection to their advantage. 

I completely agree about your argument about getting rades in college, and would extend that to almost all grades. Often it is about learning to read the teacher/professor and figure out what they want. The reflections get rid of that question in a sense, because even if a student writes "The argument I wrote was ordered logically because I listed the events in chronological order but it was not coherent because I did not use evidence that was relevant" it is abvious the student knows what logical is, what coherent is, and the difference between the two. What would have been a failure of a paper becomes a success of a response. AND now that the student realizes why their paper was not a success, they can try again with that new knowledge instead of glancing over red comments on their paper they don't really understand. Because in the end, we are not so concerned about their argument on whether x is better than y, but their grasp of the underlying concepts it takes to write such an argument. 

Your cover letter idea sounds great. You might want to take a look at our resources at Digital Is to see more of the kind of curricula we are developing. We are actually moving our teacher collaborations to "The Incubator" on our new website, which you are welcome to look at and join, but know that the site is under construction. While the Incubators for English and Algebra are up and running, the rest of the site is a bit of a mess... 

I'd love to hear more about what you are doing with your tutees. :)