It’s one thing to study alternative assessment, to watch students flourish with more control and choice over their work, to write about its merits, but it’s quite another to receive an assignment that turns an entire student experience upside-down, simply because they were given a completely different format in which to express their learning.
This student, I’ll call them D, struggled all semester. No, that’s too much of an understatement. D put so little into answers on exams, one sentence for short essay answers, that their grade coming into the final was somewhere in the 20s. They seemed not only disengaged from class discussions, but uninterested in even passing the class.
Enter the final assignment: students had two choices, to write an analytical final paper (traditional in literary studies) or a creative one. For the creative option, I asked students to create an original story to demonstrate their learning of three major themes from the semester: the monomyth, courtly love, and chivalry. Rather than analyze these elements in a text, students had to put themselves in the position of our medieval authors and display the elements for themselves. (You can consult Final Paper Grading Rubric here.)
D chose the creative assignment and began working on it immediately, far before the due date, repeatedly asking for feedback from me. Now, other teachers might also make the same assumption I did, that this was the infamous sudden interest in a class (“my favorite one ever!”) as finals approach and they finally realize the depth of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. When I received D’s final paper, at 18 pages nearly twice as long as the suggested length, I realized how wrong I was.
D had written a modernized version of a chivalric tale that centered on a Special Forces operative with family trouble as he leaves on yet another mission. D thoroughly completed the assignment, incorporating elements of chivalry and courtly love through a narrative that followed the monomyth. Though admirable and meritorious of a solid grade on this assignment, that’s not what is noteworthy about this instance.
D’s story incorporated so many imitated elements from the texts we’d read all semester that I got a completely new insight into their class experience. Where I firmly believed they skipped assignments and never payed attention in class, this paper demonstrated just how much D has absorbed from the class in a way that exams never could have.
The story’s hero imitated those of Chrétien de Troyes: honorable, hardworking men with a single character flaw to be overcome. Just as Chrétien’s heroes Erec and Yvain must work to find a balance between honor and marriage, D’s hero follows Yvain’s struggle, allowing duty to supersede marriage: “I’ve gotten so attached to this job and it has become so personal to me that I have become a warfighter first and a father and husband second, which I hated myself for.” D’s choice of a Special Forces operative allowed the story to reflect the feudal structure of duty and the comitatus relationship between warriors the class highlighted from Beowulf. Like the heroes of Chrétien’s romances and of La Chanson de Roland, D’s special forces hero is free with his emotions, falling to the ground and openly weeping in displays normally considered “un-masculine” in the story’s contemporary context. D imitated not only the promise required of Yvain by his wife, they also imitated the much subtler structure of bracketed adventures that is so unique to the source text. The primary mission, to take on a dangerous cartel in Operation Burning Castle, is diverted by side adventures, most notably rescuing the kidnapped son of a local who hosts the hero, again like Yvain. Finally, D concluded the story with an address from the author to the reader, as both Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France so often do. While I’m skipping some of the details, these alone evidence how much inspiration D took from elements of the semester’s texts to compose their own story. Though the writing itself isn’t exactly going to win a Pulitzer, the format still allowed D to show me just how much they learned through the semester.
What I learned from this experience is that alternative assessment isn’t just about giving students different types of assignments, but it is absolutely necessary for some students to be able to express their learning. The gulf between D’s ‘traditional’ exams and creative assignment was so enormous that I would have questioned its authorship if D hadn’t worked so closely with me on each step of the story creation. While the analytical questions failed to help D produce answers that reflected their learning of the texts, the creative option opened the door for their words and ideas from the texts to come pouring forth. Though I have seen many students thrive with alternative assignments, this particular case taught me just how imperative it is to vary assessment techniques and/or offer as much choice to students as possible. This practice allowed me to see evidence of engagement and learning where there was none before.
I was introduced to these books at the UCO 18th Annual Collegium on College Teaching Practices in August, 2017. It is such a great resource for creative assessment ideas that I am adding it to this post. One is more about classroom activities than assessment, but I find the two pair nicely together. Flipping through them gives me so many ideas for my own classes. Dr. Major was the keynote speaker for the Collegium, and I recommend her website and Twitter (@ClaireHMajor) as resources as well.
Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley and Claire H. Major. Jossey-Bass, 2016.
Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success, by Claire Howell Major, Michael S. Harris, and Todd Zakrajsek. Routledge, 2015.