Evaluation Without “But…”

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“Fostering a positive attitude is just as important as consolidating students’ critical thinking competency. Both are beneficial in any discipline.”

Traditional educational systems focus more on grading than on assessment. Numbers, letters or percentages are not accurate indicators of students’ achievements or shortfalls in their academic performance. So, what would happen if, as well as giving a score (in whatever form), we were to highlight students’ efforts in a positive way? As a teacher, I have witnessed how a nice comment that applauds student's effort put into the assigned task encourages them to do better next time. I have seen it in students who made both minimal and all-out efforts. This is the experience I would like to share in this article.

In a recent survey administered by Barnes & Noble College to 500 undergraduate and graduate students, 80% responded that they prefer feedback that combines comments by the teacher (verbal or written) with a numeric value. Fifteen percent said that written or verbal feedback on its own helps them learn most, while just 4% were happy to receive only numeric feedback. This demonstrates how important it is for teachers to integrate verbal or written input into traditional numeric evaluation.

And what if, in addition to the teacher, students were to write their own opinion of their peers’ work? Not as a joint assessment exercise, but as a valuation without "buts...", thereby eliminating critical responses.

The importance of positive feedback

Positive feedback helps people feel secure and appreciated, which, in turn, makes them feel committed and motivated. It is easier to give positive than negative feedback. Furthermore, people who are used to receiving positive comments accept criticism more easily when things go wrong (Marsh, 2019). Negative feedback wipes out students’ good intentions to fulfill their activities and minimizes the impact of the following exercises in the course.

“What’s the point of emphasizing what’s wrong if students are most likely fully aware of that from the study guide instructions? How does it feel to offer a helpful comment or a non-destructive value judgment with an empathic gesture towards another person?”

- Darío Recalde -

Student peer assessment

In my Introduction to Engineering course, students have to represent engineering concepts using a graphic communication tool with data arranged logically and attractively of their choosing, with information supported by current, relevant research sources. The outcome of this activity would be a combination of engineering-related words and images, helping to strengthen the information management competency of the basic stage of the program.

At first, students were surprised by the activity, since they were the ones who had to evaluate their classmates’ performance. Since they were instructed to highlight the positive aspects of their fellow students’ work, I expect that more than one of them was dying to criticize it, but what’s the use of emphasizing the negative side? What do students gain from receiving criticism that will make them resent their fellow students? I think they enjoyed socialization without grading because they learned about the subject and learned to see the positive side of things.

The activity

On the day of the activity, the chairs were set out in the classroom in a circle to initiate positive feedback. Each student receives a sheet of paper with a list of their classmates’ names next to a box to write down what they consider to be the most prominent part of the assignments in form and substance. They staple this sheet to their work and pass it to the student sitting next to them, who does the same and so on until both pages have been around the classroom, setting a minimum review time of two or three minutes. In other words, for this example, each student would write 27 comments on the 27 different assignments and, in the same way, each student would receive 27 separate, affirmative comments on their work.

Students learn the opinion of their peers, who were fully aware that everyone would know who said what. This promotes respect for work through positive criticism and a token of kindness through the frank written comments.

Learning benefits

As a result of this activity, I noticed two benefits for student learning at different times during the class. First of all, in the next assignment, students consulted higher quality content and took more care over the presentation of their work, even though I had not specified these two guidelines. The second benefit was related to student participation in subsequent classes. When we analyze a real case related to the topic being studied, students highlight "the good" before "the bad." At that moment, the teacher's job is not to diminish or omit that objection, but to assume a transformative, proactive outlook to learn from what is right and what is wrong.

Fostering a positive attitude is just as important, or even more so, than consolidating students’ critical thinking competency, although both are beneficial for the present and future of Engineering and any other discipline. I want to invite all teachers to highlight in some way the best part of their students' work and communicate this to them. Also, please share the results obtained from this and any other pedagogical experiences with the Observatory of Educational Innovation.

About the author

Darío Esteban Recalde Morillo (derecalde@uao.edu.co) is a Professor in the Department Engineering Innovation at Universidad Autónoma de Occidente in Cali, Colombia. He is also studying a Ph.D. in Education and Society at Universidad de La Salle in Bogotá D.C.