On the benefits of the do-over.

I come from a studio background – one where the work isn’t finished until it has been discussed, critiqued, revised and refinished several times. This means that whenever I handed in an assignment in my undergrad classes I knew two things for sure. One; it wasn’t as good as it would be after the feedback I’d get from classmates and instructors, and two; I could always learn more than I knew today. The expectation that I would re-work assignments to learn more, to make the work better, and to reflect upon and incorporate constructive and collaborative feedback gave me the tools I needed to succeed as a designer and as an academic.

Coming from this land of the re-do, the do-over, the try-again has changed how I think about assessing learning in the undergrad classroom at a fundamental level. Re-working has become my secret weapon in the classroom: my ticket to getting students to reflect upon their learning in a critical and productive way. To figure out how to do this, I’ve borrowed heavily from the research on design thinking, most specifically from the literature on iterative process and I’ve asked this key question over and over:

How might I incorporate reflective practice, failure positive practices and growth mindsets into my learning activities without changing my assessment structures?

My first iteration has been what I call the Re-Work Policy. I’ve been experimenting with this in my large survey classes using the following model.

  • Assignments are due on time, with stiff late penalties – this can’t work if assignments come in late or we’ll be all over the place.
  • I assess the student (or team) work, and provide detailed written feedback and a completed rubric as an assessment. I also hold consultations with students to review their submitted work during student hours.
  • If students want to work harder to show how they’ve taken my detailed written and consultation based feedback into account, and are willing to revise the assignment to showcase what they’ve learned through the feedback process, then they have to re-submit the assignment exactly one week from the date of receiving feedback from me.
  • They also have to identify how the new version is better, where it is stronger, and what they did (specifically) in response to feedback. They submit this as a didactic/reflective statement along with the revised work.
  • I re-assess the assignment in full using the same rubric as we started out with and they can take the second grade.
  • Rinse and repeat as needed.

Trying this out has been amazing: the students who take me up on my re-work offer come back with stronger, more nuanced and more critically complex work than any of their classmates. More importantly, they align their work more clearly with our learning objectives and they pay more attention to using evidence to support their claims in an effective manner.

The feedback from students has also been really encouraging: in reflective practice submissions students who participated in re-working their assignments have shared that the re-work allowed them to think more deeply about “what we were actually supposed to be doing” and to “take some bigger swings and give some better ideas than the first version”.

Re-assessing student work can present an admin burden, especially when you have large classes and many students. That said, my Re-Work policy has had two really interesting results so far:

  • My student hours visits have increased by 175% (from 4 visitors on average to 11 in a two hour session). Students are coming by for consultations and to talk through their work, and they are doing so with the intent of learning more, not of bargaining for a different grade.
  • Only 2 in 10 students take me up on the reassessment in the end, which represents a fairly light admin load for re-grading.
  • My assignment submission rates (on time submissions) have reached nearly 100%. I think this is because students and teams aren’t as hung up on the final-final nature of assignments, and they are framing them as a solid first try from which they’ll learn how to do better.

I’m starting to think that the way we did it in the studio – land of the re-do, the do-over, the try-again – might just be the key to unlocking student success, especially in team based or group assignments. Giving students a chance to fail, to try again, and to re-work has provided them with the opportunity to exercise a growth mindset in the work, and to (as one student shared) “actually learn something from this project”. I’m looking forward to seeing how this translates into an online environment with Google Meet sessions for consultations, and to experimenting with voice memo feedback and Camtasia video capture feedback methods to see if I can maintain the same level of reflective engagement with the work students are tackling in class.

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