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Requiring an early assignment be handed in and graded provides a mutual check-in for you and your students.  You students will get a preview for the bigger assessments later in the semester.  They will understand the kinds of questions you ask, the amount of time it takes to complete assignments in your discipline, and the ways in which their work will be assessed.  Your feedback will help them to understand how they should focus their time and energy for their upcoming midterms. On the other end, you will get more insight about your students’ learning. You may find widespread patterns across the student work that need to be addressed.  Perhaps your students lack either a skill necessary in the course or have become confused about a topic you discussed in class.

Early feedback can set up success later in the semester.  The pedagogical literature suggests giving students a modest boost in confidence early in the semester improves motivation.  Moreover, students who feel capable in a course are less likely to engage in academic dishonesty. (Lang 2013) However, if any students are particularly struggling with time management, the prerequisite skills of the course, or the standards of academic work, an early, low-stakes assignment can alert you to problems and give you time to intervene early in the semester.

While it is important to grade the work in some way to give your students feedback about their work, that grading method does not have to be traditional.  It could be worth only a very small fraction of their final grade.  You might give feedback with no letter or number attached.  Or you could grade it using a system that is less intimidating to students and appropriate for a low-stakes assignment, using a check system or a rubric, for instance.

In my own course, I asked students to write a short reflection paper evaluating a controversial question using sources from the class.  I discovered that my students were more skilled in some areas than I anticipated, but they struggled with an important skill that they would need for their next assignment.  Having realized my assumptions were incorrect, I adjusted by devoting time to additional in-class instruction and practice targeted to the area of weakness.  With some practice and feedback behind them already, my students have a leg up on the first substantial assignment for the semester due this week.

 

Additional reading:

On designing rubrics for low-stakes assignments, see the resources from our previous workshop.

Lang, James. Small Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Walvoord and Anderson. Effective Grading:  A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. Jossey-Bass, 2009.

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