Helping Students Learn from Mistakes

This post from David Goobler at Vitae spoke to an issue I’ve been trying to address in my teaching–how to encourage students to learn from mistakes on assignments. Obviously, the ideal way to do this is through allowing students to redo assignments. As Goobler notes, though, this is basically impossible within the grind of a single semester (both for the student and the instructor). The challenge, really, is in how to provide students with opportunities and incentives to revisit and address their particular trouble areas while also moving forward in a class.

As an instructor in the humanities, this challenge has been most apparent for me on writing assignments, which are a central component of all my courses. How do you get students to address specific issues in their writing without simply resorting to rewrites? Of course, giving students constructive comments on their papers is crucial, but how do you incentivize student engagement with those comments?

In addressing this challenge this past semester, I experimented with what I call “tailored grade incentives” in my class, “How the Holy Land Became Holy”. The idea is simple. I frontloaded the course with four short, 2-page writing assignments that asked students to engage historical sources in answering a specific question. Rather than just marking up their papers and leaving them, though, I embedded tailored grade incentives into the next assignment. For example, if a student failed to back up their arguments with specific evidence, I might offer a 5-point bonus for including two specific quotations from primary sources in each paragraph of the next 2-page assignment (don’t forget to keep a list of your specific incentives!). This allowed students to both progress in the course and address specific problem areas in their writing without having to turn to additional assignments or redos.

I do think the results of the experiment were positive, though it is almost impossible to distinguish between improvement resulting from the practice of frequent writing and improvement resulting from tailored grade incentives. I also had a very small sample size. I can say, however, that students “cashed in” on their incentives about half of the time. In about half of those cases, students’ overall performance on the paper was better. Anecdotally, the incentives seemed to have had the largest impact on students who generally performed in the B-C range. At the same time, one of the benefits of this grading strategy is that it can benefit students of all skill levels–I found that my high-performing students were eager to take on specific challenges.

Tailoring grade incentives also simply demands better, more attentive grading. It forces you to be specific in your critiques and really think about the practical steps students can take to improve. It also forces you to think about individual students’ trajectories over the course of the semester. Keeping a record of each student’s specific challenges allowed me to quickly recognize and address recurring issues.

The experiment will continue this summer, as I teach the US post-1865 history survey. It is a much bigger class in a much shorter time span, so I’ll be eager to see how the strategy translates. I’ll let you know how it goes!




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