This continues my series of posts on advice for a new journalism professor. This is a guest post by Pam Fine, Knight Chair for News, Leadership and Community at the University of Kansas.
It’s not unusual to hear professors moan about grading, not just because it can consume entire weekends — which it often does — but because of the tension over how much and what kind of feedback on assignments is actually helpful.
Many professors I know, including myself, continually experiment with ways to provide comments that are constructive and instructive.
As some educational experts say, today’s college kids were “not allowed to skin their knees.” So, it’s important to provide honest feedback in a way that’s effective for a generation used to getting positive reinforcement.
My advice is to be as clear as possible about your expectations, and self-edit so your key points stand out.
For clarity, I use grading rubrics with most assignments. Rubrics can be effective supplemental teaching tools, and serve as a reminder to students about what a professor considers the important elements of the work and how we’ll come to judgment.
Here’s an example of a rubric I use in my beginning reporting class.
Event story coverage
Worth 50 pts.
Grading will be based on the following using a 10-point scale for each element:
Lead: Is it a one-sentence direct or hard news lead? Is it clear, concise and lively? Does it focus on the most newsworthy element, the most important information or the most interesting information? Does it invite the reader into the rest of the story?
Organization: Does it begin with the lead-bridge-quote format? Does it make good use of the inverted pyramid structure? Does it flow well? Does it have strong transitions?
Sources and Quotes: Do you have at least one text source for background? Is there a link to it in the story? Do you have at least two human sources from the event? Is there variety in the types of human sources? Do your direct quotes add color, opinion and/or emotion? Have you used indirect quotes (paraphrases) to attribute other information?
Content and Accuracy: Do you have all your facts correct? Do you have the necessary background information about what’s being covered and the people involved? Do you have all the boring-but-important information, such as ages, hometown, dates, times, names, etc.? Are there no unanswered questions for the reader?
Mechanics/Grammar/Style/Spelling: Do you follow AP style? Do you punctuate and spell correctly? Does the story follow journalistic style, i.e. direct sentences, active verbs, short paragraphs?
I usually cut and paste the rubric to the top of the story I’m grading and write a short comment or two under each item. In the story itself, I’ll point out what worked well and show the student ways he or she can improve the work. If I’m grading a video package, I’ll send the student an email attachment with the rubric for that assignment, my short comments and their score or grade.
Self-editing is also valuable when providing feedback. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Coco Chanel, it’s good to put everything on and then take at least one thing off before leaving the house.
In other words, less can be more when it comes to feedback.
Students can get easily overwhelmed, and many are not used to getting the kind of editing or criticism that is routine in the workplace.
After five years teaching, I’m still learning how to be selective with my comments and see assignments as iterative learning opportunities. If a course is planned well, over time and through repetition (including rewrites) there should be plenty of opportunity to give students feedback on the things they need to know or do.
That said, professors needn’t shy away from pushing students to get better. In fact, it’s our job to do that. Time and again I’ve found that students appreciate professors who take the time to carefully and fairly assess their work and show them what they can do to improve and grow.
Buttry note: I welcome guest posts from other journalism faculty — adjunct or full-time — for this series. Or if you’re a current or recent journalism graduate, I’d be interested in your observations about what your professors did that was most effective and what didn’t work as well. Please name any professors you’re praising, but I’m not interested in giving you a chance to publicly bash professors you didn’t like. If you’d rather contribute from your own blog than as a guest post, send me a link and I’ll promote it here.