Structuring Student Submissions

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Gardner_Mar08_218.jpgI had a hard time deciding on the title for this piece. Most of the ideas that came to me seemed a bit too bitter:

  • Making Students Read the Directions
  • I'm Tired of Searching for Student Work
  • There for a Reason: Please Use the Rubric
  • No, Really, You Should Follow the Instructions

These alternatives definitely communicate my frustration. No matter what I try, I cannot seem to communicate assignment requirement to students effectively. Either because I’m doing something wrong or they aren’t paying attention, students end up missing key aspects of their assignments.

The Problem of Missing Information and Materials

Let me give you an example. I require reflection comments with the major projects that students submit. The comments are like those that might appear in a draft letter. They tell me about the audience and purpose, anything the student wants me to notice or comment on, and so forth. The reflection comments are meant to give me some framing information on the project before I grade it and to ask the student to do some self-assessment and reflection. I have tried everything to get students to all include these comments:

  • I have told them that they help me grade their work by giving me useful information.
  • I have tried to frame it from their perspective by telling them that it's their chance to help me understand their writing choices and strategies.
  • I have explained that the comments are worth 10 points of their grade on the project.
  • I have said, “You are throwing easy points away if you skip this part of the assignment.”
  • I have added big pull-quotations in the assignment and submission instructions to remind them to add them (shown in the image above).

Recently, it feels like the only thing I haven’t tried is interpretive dance. Nothing is 100% effective. There are always a few students who don’t include the comments.

I suppose I could live with that situation. If students cannot read and follow directions, they should get lower grades. The problem is that I have similar problems with the required elements listed in writing assignments and rubrics, too. Currently, students are working on WordPress portfolio sites, and they are required to include some specific content on their sites (e.g., an About page, two blog posts, two writing samples). The details on these requirements are included in the assignment, demonstrated in class, part of the peer review activities, and listed in the rubric. Despite all that, there are students who fail to include all of the elements. Even when I provide submission checksheets, portions are still missing for some students.

Restructuring Student Submissions

As I was setting up submission for the project last week, I decided something had to change. In the last month, I read somewhere about the value of asking students to fill out the rubric for their own work before submitting it. I’ve forgotten the source, but the idea is that students reflect on the work and assess it themselves. The teacher then uses each student’s rubric to frame the comments and grade on the work. I like that idea, but logistically I haven’t found a way for students to fill out the rubric for their own work in Canvas, our CMS.

After some thinking and experimenting, I decided to try something completely different. In the case of these WordPress portfolios, I previously used the Assignment tool in Canvas and asked students to give me (1) the link to the homepage of the portfolio, and (2) their reflection comments. I can only ask for those two things because of the limitations of the tool. I realized that I needed something that let me ask a series of questions and that would still let students upload files if needed. I decided that the Quiz tool in Canvas might be the solution.

I took the rubric for the WordPress Portfolios and converted each requirement into a question in the quiz. In the case of this project, there are a lot of elements that students need to include on their sites, so I asked students to provide me the direct URL to each element. Not only does this process force them to check that they have the required elements on their sites, but it should also simplify the grading process for me since I won’t have to look for the elements or guess what they intend each page to count as. To help students, I created a WordPress Portfolio Worksheet with all the submission questions, so that they can gather their answers before opening the Quiz tool in Canvas.

I haven’t had a chance to get much feedback on this new system from students. They may hate it. First impressions seemed good though. When I went over the system in class, there was a lot of nodding, more than normal. Maybe I’m on to something. I will have to let you know once I have a chance to grade their work and ask them their opinions.

How do you use rubrics and checklists to ensure students meet all the requirements for an assignment? What works for you? How do you get around the limitations of your CMS? Share your strategies in the comments below. I would love to hear from you.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.