best laid plans · grading · teaching

Best laid plans…

This past Tuesday, I was up early to complete a job application. I have overcommitted myself this semester and have too many articles to write, so when an interesting job posting came up, I had to schedule myself time to work on it. My hope, that early Tuesday morning, was to get a jump on my day. Sadly, things did not go to plan. While groggily pouring hot water into my tea mug, I accidentally overflowed it. Boiling water then poured over the counter and down my pant leg. Ouch! Once recovered, I sought out the milk from the fridge, a 2-litre, yet un-opened carton, which I promptly dropped on the kitchen floor. The bottom burst out of the carton and started spraying 1% all over the place. With the spilled milk mopped up and many milk-filled containers cluttering up the fridge, I finally sat down to complete my job application.
Face wash on the left, shampoo on the right.
Once submitted, I hopped in the shower, and for reasons that I will never fully understand, managed to inadvertently wash my face with 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner! That actually happened. I should note, that the face wash and shampoo containers in my shower DO NOT in any way resemble one another (see picture). Despite all of my eagerness and my careful planning for my productive day, the whole thing went to pot before 9am. 
The cliché that comes to mind is best laid plans….
I had a true taste of best laid plans falling apart last term while teaching. For some reason, I decided mid-semester that my students were going to learn something. Not just the regular course material stuff that we expect them to pick up, but an actual academic skill that would be of use for the rest of their academic careers and hopefully beyond. I decided that they would a) learn how to use academic sources, and b) use proper citation style. Now, I know technically our students are always required to do this, but this time I meant it. These components of the assignment were weighted heavily in the rubric and they would lose significant marks if they did not achieve this learning objective.
I brought in the librarian who gave a clear and concise elaboration of what constitutes an academic source, why they should use them, and how they can narrow their database searches to ensure that the sources they choose are in fact academic. I also took the entire class to the computer lab where they completed an extensive training program on proper citation style complete with video explanations, quizzes, and a certificate of completion (which they were required to show me). 
I handed out the rubric weeks before the assignment was due and diligently drew their attention to the academic references and citation style sections in which it was made clear that failing to complete these elements of the assignment adequately would result not in a C (as is usually the outcome of poorly researched, poorly referenced undergraduate work), but a failure. “You will fail if you do not use proper citation style” – I can still hear my words ringing in the air.
Admittedly, I was taking a pretty big risk. With so many assignment grades allocated to the completion of a few very simple tasks such as having 5 academic sources (no matter how well they were used) and MLA style (do it exactly like it tells you to in the book), I worried about how inflatedmy grades would be. With this system in place, a C paper could easily be turned into a B or even an A simply by having the right number of sources and a clean citation list.
Sadly, my grades were not inflated.
A sampling of a graded Works Cited page,
with 0.5 marks removed for each error.
As I began grading, it quickly became clear that I was going to have a big problem on my hands. If I deducted grades, as I had promised that I would, many of my students would fail the assignment, and most would receive grades in the D and C range. I should note, that I also had more A grades than usual. About ¼ of my students did really, really well. But what about the others? Surely I couldn’t just let them fail. They would hate me. I would hate myself. My learning objectives were not met, and failing so many students would not change that. 
So I dug in my heels. I had decided that these skills were essential, and by God, come hell or high-water, like it or not, they were going to learn them!
I gave them their failing grades, but also gave every single student the opportunity to rewrite, re-edit, and resubmit. We (again) spent an entire class going through appropriate citation style, how to recognize academic sources, how to select sources, how to edit. They were shocked to find out that there are different kinds of books, such as edited collections, which require different citation formats. They simply did not understand that edited collections have both editors and chapter authors, and that you should not cite the editors in-text (although, I did mention this repeatedly in lecture in relation to their edited textbook…but I digress). The whole day was filled with anxiety, anguish, and constant “ah-ha” moments.
The following week, I re-graded many, many, many works cited, as well as a pile of annotated bibliographies (which was my consolation assignment for students who did not use academic sources the first time around).
My initial plan to front load my work on the assignment by teaching them all about citations and sources fell through. And re-grading over 100 assignments was a bitter pill. Not everyone “got-it,” of course; a very few resubmitted citation lists that were equally ill-formatted as the first time around. But most of them did get it. My grades were, in the end, inflated for that assignment and my workload management plan was blown to smithereens, but my learning objectives were also met.
It didn’t go to plan. It was a tough slog. Would I do it all again? Probably.

Incidentally, I have to admit that my 2-in-1 actually did wonders for my dry winter skin, and now that my milk is already poured into individual glasses I’ve really upped my calcium intake. Disasters do sometimes have their perks.

What were some of your recent best laid plans?

2 thoughts on “Best laid plans…

  1. Great piece, Danielle! Kudos to you for sticking to your citation guns, despite personal time investment costs! At least if you encounter those students again, you'll be grateful, since I find once they learn formatting things, they pretty faithfully reproduce them. Other profs who will grade work by your students should also thank you! Few things are more frustrating while grading an essay than a list of ill-formatted, incomplete, crappy citations. As for best laid plans, I had a similar essay assignment last term that I allowed them to hand in in 3 revision phases. It was a great learning tool in the end and students liked the opportunity to revise, resubmit and improve, but OMG the marking!! I felt simultaneously very dumb and pretty smart for that assignment design. Oh, and I've brewed coffee on occasions with either no water, no grounds or the worst super messy fail – no filter (clearly one should not be responsible for complicated coffee rituals before ingesting said brain-boosting coffee) Just this morning, we were remarking on how smoothly our little family was about to get out the door on time (giant tempting o fates) when a giant box of Cheerios hit the floor and exploded and the cat started furiously eating scattered Os. Yes, best laid plans…

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  2. Thank you for being a prof that was willing to fail your students. That was perhaps the most frustrating part of being a student for me, having professors that would not fail students. I appreciate the extra time it takes, but if you pass a failed piece of work, they will never fully understand it. From the student side of things, you rock.

    As for dealing with an overly busy lifestyle, often my correct sentences are the first to go…

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