Sophisticated Rubrics and and the Power of Feedback

June 23, 2008

We recently presented on a simple change to collecting work from students: ask them to include a cover letter, addressed to the instructor, with their submission of work. This cover letter should reflect upon the previous feedback they have received (from instructors and, most recently, their peer reviewers if applicable). It could also give the reader an overview of the goals of their work and specify areas in which they (the student) are most interested in receiving feedback.

We thought it useful to illustrate this process with examples.

The following example is from a college-level writing class where students were studying the effect of war on culture (and vice-versa). They were given the following assignment:

We will read some articles about Iraq, it’s effects, a history of horror movies, and a detailed account of the US involvement in Somalia.

Project 1 is an academic paper: formal diction, MLA citation formatting, credible research – the works. In four or five pages (1,000 to 1,250 words), you will make an original argument concerning the impact of art on war, or conversely war on art. By ‘art’ we mean the visual arts, music, film, novels – almost any creative undertaking. You can be quite liberal in your selection…just be prepared to defend the choice.

The key here is originality. Did Woodstock influence the Vietnam War? It’s probably easy to argue that it did (and also that it didn’t, since we were in Vietnam for another 6 years). Did the poetry of Wilfred Owen horrify the English so much that they avoided a second war with the Germans? No. And neither of these approaches would make a worthy paper.

Your four to five page paper must have at least three credible sources (not including the assigned work for the class).

It is worth noting that the students read several lengthy articles reviewing pop-culture icons (like the Saw series of films) that argued deep connections to more serious issues than the students might at first see. So they were set up to engage intellectually with material of their own choosing, and connect it to a war. There were several Harry Potter essays, but the results were satisfyingly diverse.

Here is an example cover letter from a student:

Example Student Cover Letter

Example cover letter: Click for a larger image

Here is the rubric used to assess and respond to the student, as it appears in Waypoint (interactive rubric software – the rubric could be translated to a paper-based approach):

Argumentative Essay Rubric

Rubric used to assess and respond: Click for a larger image

This student received the following feedback, along with an annotated document (created in Microsoft Word, then appended to the feedback in Waypoint), from the instructor:

Sample Feedback

Feedback to student: Click for a larger image

Needless to say, this kind of feedback is unusual in any educational setting – but the above was created in about 8 minutes, and the cover letter process (along with other tips and tricks) helps make sure the process is constructive and useful.

It is worth noting that this assignment was given in the middle of the academic term, so the students could be expected to learn from the feedback, then apply it in a final project that did not receive this kind of detailed feedback.

Thinking creatively about outcomes…ideas for essays and readings…

June 21, 2008

I had the good fortune to be invited to attend Dr. Ken Bain’s Best Teachers Summer Institute this week.

The conference, now in its twelth (or so) year, brings teachers from around the world together to share best practices based on Dr. Bain’s work. He published an award winning book in 2004, called What the Best College Teachers Do that draws universal lessons from the work of master teachers.

Since first meeting Dr. Bain at a conference last February, I have adjusted my own teaching with impressive results. Much of what you will find in his book feels like common sense, but you feel like you are saving ten or twenty years of trial and error on your own part, and standing on the shoulders of the great teachers working around you (who may not be readily available as mentors in your own institution!).

A brief example I took from this week’s conference: assign readings based on questions that come up in class, rather than assigning readings to generate class discussion. Read the rest of this entry »

Annotating Student Work with Microsoft Word

June 13, 2008

UPDATE: Annotate for Word is now a commercial product (as of September 2008). You can learn more about the free and PRO versions of Annotate for Word by visiting

We’ve made considerable progress designing Annotate – an add-in for Microsoft Word. Here are some recent screenshots.

Annotate Ribbon for Word 2007: Citation Drop Down Showing
(click image for a larger version)

The above screenshot shows the different categories of comments available in Annotate: Commenting, Argument, Style, Organization, Citations, and Mechanics. Because citation issues can be so detailed, there is a drop down list with multiple choices. To insert a pre-written comment, the instructor simply highlights text, then clicks on a button in the Annotate Ribbon (or selects a more specific item from a drop down).

Highlight Text

After clicking or choosing, a comment like the one below appears:

(click image for a larger image)

In the above example, the “Place Citations” button was clicked, and a simple Post-It note appeared in the text. Notice that the student’s work (the selected text above) has been pulled out, turned purple (a nice neutral color), and the note is automatically inserted. This note takes advantage of a including some additional Advice and a Reference to Purdue’s fantastic OWL site.

Annotating Student Work: Leveraging Microsoft Word (to save trees, create exceptional feedback, and save time)

June 3, 2008

UPDATE: Annotate for Word is now a commercial product (as of September 2008). You can learn more about the free and PRO versions of Annotate for Word by visiting

We’ve been waiting for the paperless office for 20 years. From an individual worker/teacher’s perspective, the only result is a TV show about an office that sells paper (The Office).

Some use Tablet PCs. That technology seems DOA, although it has its adherents.

Most use Microsoft Word to annotate and read documents – or paper. But paper is finally going away in education, not for efficiency reasons, or cost savings. Educators are moving away from paper to save trees and reduce their carbon footprint. Teachers are increasingly using the assignment drop-box features of Moodle/Blackboard/Desire2Learn and similar tools (even email) to collect student work.

But then they have to read the work on a computer monitor and (usually) do some sort of annotating. If you are fast with a computer and have a decent computer setup (see our post on using dual monitors), this can be an efficient approach. And many teachers have devised some sort of clipboard solution to repetitive comments.

Other teachers, however, use Microsoft Track Changes (edits which students can just ‘accept’ without reading) to return comments, or complex systems of color-coding that require a key to decipher.

Once annotated, teachers have the additional challenge of efficiently returning documents to students. Email them, manually, one by one? Return them, again one by one, to Moodle/Blackboard etc?

But the annotating piece itself has always been a source of opportunity. Rather than build a whole other program, like Turnitin’s GradeMark software, that is horribly slow (if sexy looking), we’ve always felt that Microsoft Word was the killer app. It is fast, most people know how to use it, and its file formats can be read on millions of computers.

We have long experimented with Microsoft Word macros to automate the sorts of comments we want to insert into the margins of a student document. With the appearance of Microsoft Word 2007, we are able to share our refined process of easily annotating student documents.

This summer we will be releasing a simple add-on for Microsoft Word 2007 (and 2003, depending on demand) that formalizes our approach and makes it easy for others to take advantage of our work. We’ll be charging a modest price for this add-on (something individual teachers can afford and that will pay for itself after the first set of papers are graded), although there will be a free trial version with a shorter set of capabilities. We’ll also offer Site Licenses to schools interested in making our work available to many, and will build customized versions for specialized applications (ESL, graduate programs, the sciences, State standards etc.).

Please be in touch with suggestions or to share the ways you already use Word.  We’ll share early versions with you and keep you posted on developments. Here’s a sneak peak of what is to come…notice the customized tab in Microsoft Word 2007…

Screenshot of the new WpAnnotate Word 2007 Ribbon