McGraw Teaching Seminar: Course Assessment and Grading

Learning Goals

For this new session of the McGraw Teaching Seminar, we had to refine the novice learning goals we had drafted in November and come up with some sort of an assessment that would allow us to see if students met those goals. Our novice learning goals were originally: “Learn to construct an argument about literary texts through contextualization (historical, cultural). Language is a main problematic in teaching both.” Reflecting, we decided that our learning goals could be divided into three specific aspects:

  1. Contextualization: the student should be able to contextualize the text within historical, cultural, linguistic frames
  2. Text: the student should sympathetically engage with the text and understand it on multiple levels
  3. Argument: the student should interpret, appreciate, and evaluate

With this in mind, we refined our novice learning goals to the following short sentence: “Students will contextualize, engage with, and interpret texts.”


For the evaluation half of the assignment, rather than discussing an essay or final exam, we decided to develop a general rubric for a post/short response in the LMS in three parts:

  1. Identify the main problems the text deals with, with possible recourse to the historical and cultural context.
  2. Focus on a section of the text, looking specifically at language and rhetoric and the tools the author uses to accomplish what was said in part 1.
  3. Analyze the implications for the time in which the text was written and today.

When discussing what success would look like, we decided that the student should be able to use textual evidence in combination with analysis, persuasively arguing these three points, making cases for significance and fostering connections.

Our conversation also touched upon the difficulty of having a final exam in classes such as these. We decided that having the students carry out short, structured thinking exercises like these would allow for greater discussion in seminar-style classes. Furthermore, with such preparation, it would be possible to give an exercise like this as a final exam in addition to a final essay.

Seminar Discussion

Unsurprisingly, the seminar was about rubrics. When I was in school, rubrics were the bane of my existence. While based on good intentions, they often seemed reductive ways to understand assignments. In college and beyond, I rarely had rubrics and when I did, found that they often turned my experience of the assignment into a dry, uninteresting exercise that was a basic formality of the course.

That is why I was skeptical of this particular meeting, for which the follow-up assignment would be to create our own assignments and rubrics, which would be evaluated by my peers using a rubric for rubrics. That said, designing my assignment and rubric did force me to think more critically about my course goals and the purpose of the assignment itself. However, once I had designed an assignment that I thought was consistent with my course goals, I found that the rubric itself was almost superfluous.

In the end, perhaps rubrics are a useful exercise for teachers, but I am still not convinced that they bring out the best in our students. In the seminar, we had a heated discussion on the use of rubrics and everyone else seemed about as divided as I was. The readings for that session took the form of pseudo-scientific studies that raised more questions than they answered, and left many unimpressed. While I might steer clear of rubrics when I design and teach my first course, it is true that I learned a lot writing one.