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Assessing Student Performance in a Design-Infused History Course

On twitter and elsewhere, I’ve made my feelings about grades pretty well known: I can find little, if any, pedagogical justification for student grades. I find them to be wildly inadequate in terms of providing students with meaningful, actionable feedback about the work they do. Furthermore, they are reductionist in that they try to provide a holistic assessment of an entire student’s skills across a wide range of areas and encompass it in a single letter/percentage. I honestly don’t understand why teachers (myself included) submit to this process without more pushback.

Assessment, however, is another story. Giving students specific narrative feedback about areas in which they struggle and areas in which they demonstrate ability should be at the core of what we do as teachers.

Given that it’s about time for student grades, I’ve developed a document that I’ll be sharing on all my students’ grade sheets giving them specific feedback in areas I’ve deemed essential to our history course this year. The document reads as follows:

Core Elements of the Course

Section One: Historical and Persuasive Writing
This part of the class focused on your ability to write persuasively, using well-researched materials from a wide variety of sources, merged together with an understanding of historical cause-and-effect and change over time.

Section Two: Contributing to a Culture of Learning
This part of the class focused on how you contributed to the culture of learning in the classroom, specifically as it related to developing a curious, engaged and collaborative environment focused not on the end product, but on the process of learning.

Section Three: Empathetic Design and Metacognition
This part of the class focused on how you created learning experiences for others in the class. Throughout the semester, you were asked to merge empathetic design skills with historical content understanding in order to both demonstrate your own understanding, but more importantly to create learning experiences for others. In the process, you were asked to become a better student of your own learning style so as to better grasp your own strengths and areas of needs as a learner.

In the end, I felt like these were the most important skills and attributes my students should develop in a history course today. I’d be interested from hearing from others in both the Design Thinking world as well as the social studies world as to what makes up the core attributes of courses in the social studies today.

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