How do YOU give students credit for the scope of their projects

In my Advanced Laboratory course my students are just about to submit the first drafts of their papers on their first of two projects (the whole course is essentially two projects after some initial introductory activities).

In this course I try to tailor the challenge-level of each project to the ability level of the students in each group. And their grade for each project is mostly based on the quality of the dissemination of their work, and their level of understanding of their project as assessed by their written report, their presentations at the weekly research group meetings and an oral assessment given at the end of their project.

But there is nothing explicit in my evaluation scheme that rewards students for tackling challenging projects or penalizes them for shooting really low. I tend to be more generous with my rubrics for students that have taken on the challenging projects, but I feel like I would like something built into the overall evaluation scheme.

So my question to you dear blog reader is how do you give students credit for the scope of challenge-level of their projects?

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18 Comments on “How do YOU give students credit for the scope of their projects”

  1. In competitive diving (no, I don’t do it but I’m pretty good at watching it on TV) there is a degree of difficulty (DD) associated with each dive. The diver’s score is the sum of their scores on all the technical parts – shape of their body, size of the splash, etc – *multiplied by the DD*.

    Do you think you (perhaps in consultation with the student or perhaps even whole class) could assign DD’s for the students’ projects. The student’s mark would be the score from your rubric multiplied by the DD. Or maybe only parts of the rubric — the ones dealing specifically with the content — would get the DD bump.

  2. I think about it from the perspective of how much creative work they do. If the project has a low threshold of “success,” I look to see if they are seeking interesting tangents. If they do, then they can get the same score as a high threshold project. Sometimes they run out of ideas to pursue, but mostly they find cool things to explore.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Andy, I really like the mindset of “level of creative work”. How do you fold this into their overall grade?

      • Great question. This is usually for the year-long project and I find that my standards for theory/discussion sections are colored by this “creative work” idea. I’ve had all year to watch them work, so often the write-up at the end is just a piece of the grade.

      • Joss Ives says:

        Their write-ups make up more of the grade than I would like, and I would like to change that by figuring our some way(s) of quantifying level of creative work or degree of difficulty.

  3. Joss Ives says:

    Hi Peter,

    I have been hesitating to bring in some sort of degree of difficulty grade or multiplier because I was feeling that it was too subjective; I like having rubrics that I can point to and say “see this is exactly how I determined that you earned this many points”. But your suggestion of doing it in consultation with the individual group or the whole class might make me feel better about implementing something like this (not unlike Andy does). Since we have weekly research group meetings involving the whole (or half of the) class, each group is keenly aware of what is going on with the other projects and should be able to reflect on the relative degree of difficulty of their own project.

  4. David T. Marx says:

    In my advanced experimental physics course for senior physics majors, they carry out a semester-long project. It begins with them choosing a topic and writing a work plan. The work plan is developed in discussion with me to ensure that each student will make a significant contribution to the project and that it can be reasonably completed in one semester. Projects may be done by 1 to 3 students. Typically, I have 8 to 12 students in the class.

    Students do not like to wait until the end of the semester to know their grade, so having a majority of their grade determined by project completion and their written/oral report is to be discouraged. Therefore, I give them grades for their work plan development and for weekly reports on their progress, in which they discuss their recent activity and compare their progress to their work plan. This keeps them on task and produces better results at the end. The entire class participates in weekly discussion of every project and makes suggestions as needed to solve issues that come up.

    • Joss Ives says:

      David, how do you deal with groups that encounter unforeseen difficulties that restrict the ultimate scope of their project, or with projects that end up being quite a bit easier than they would have appeared when you and the students developed the plan?

      • David T. Marx says:

        Of course, it does happen from time to time that we run into unforeseen problems. This happens in the world of experimental physics all the time. In those cases, we revise the project and learn as much as we can from the process. I’m afraid I can’t be more specific than that without discussing particular projects, but I’ve found that over the years, I have become a better judge of what students can and cannot do successfully in a semester.

        I have not really run into a project being easier than we first thought, but I have had students try to do much less than we planned and try to get away with it (they do not succeed in this and receive a low grade). Students must learn to manage their time to accomplish their projects. Students often get into the habit of doing projects at the end of the semester. That doesn’t work for experimental projects.

      • Joss Ives says:

        Hi David. Do you try to tailor the scope of the project to the specific students or do you expect everybody to accomplish roughly the same level of work in their projects (for a given group size)?

      • David T. Marx says:

        Joss,
        Students select their own project idea. They take an experimental physics course before the advanced course, which has both lecture and lab. During that course we talk about experiment design and execution, so they get a good sense of what’s involved. They then have the summer months to think about an area that they would like to explore and come up with one or more ideas. I then speak to them about my expectations for the project and whether it is realistic given the time constraints and equipment availability. We have a small amount of money for commodities for the course and full shop facilities with a full-time, highly skilled machinist. Students often learn shop skills in these projects, which is very useful to them. One group, for example, designed and built their own Stirling engine last fall that is powered using focused sunlight from a parabolic satellite TV dish.

  5. I’ve taught senior design courses where the first quarter is spent forming teams, doing presentations, and writing detailed proposals. The students are graded on all their presentations and writing, much of which is due in stages throughout the quarter. Detailed feedback is given on the proposal drafts and team charters to help the students tweak the projects into suitable sizes.

    The second quarter is all about execution and description of the projects. Students are graded on their final written, poster, and oral presentations (all 3 are required). Students turn in drafts of the paper every 2 weeks throughout the quarter and get detailed feedback (in addition to weekly whole-class and weekly team meetings with the instructor.

    The final grade is not assigned by a rubric, but by intelligent instructors evaluating the many aspects of the project, including how much of it was completed, how ambitious it was, how well the team managed setbacks, how good the writing was, how good the oral presentation was, and so forth.

    I think that creating a rubric for something as open-ended as a student-designed project is putting the instructor in a straight jacket. If the instructor can’t be trusted to grade fairly without a rubric, then he or she should only teach classes in which the students are not allowed any creativity.

    Note: I’m not arguing that students shouldn’t be told what the instructor values and the relative importance of different aspects of their work—they do need to allocate their time, after all. But there should not be a strict point scheme that prevents appropriate grading—a student should be able to fail by completely messing up one aspect of the project and get an A by doing a superlative job on part of a project, which few rubrics would permit.

    I favor frequent feedback on intermediate products, rather than formalized rubrics—grading by example, rather than by rule.

    • Joss Ives says:

      I’m curious what you mean by “grading by example, rather than by rule.”

      This is only my second time teaching this course and fifth term teaching full-time so I am very much a novice. At this point I feel that I need the rubrics to (A) help make the lines of communication between myself and the students as transparent as possible, and (B) create something which resembles an objective framework upon which I can hang student grades. I don’t find them ideal, and as we discussed on my last post about rubrics, the students tend to figure out ways to break them. With more experience, I expect that I will be able to develop more holistic evaluation methods that still have clearly defined expectations and establishes the relative importance of the various pieces. But I’m not there yet.

      I guess that it is time to seek out some of the literature on this topic and see what it has to say.

      • I don’t know that the literature would help. So far as I can tell, no one who believes in holistic evaluation writes for the education journals—rubrics are much easier to study!

        For the student written assignments, they are being graded on the 5th draft, and they have gotten detailed comments on the previous 4 drafts. If they have still not addressed the problems that have been pointed out to them (repeatedly), they get a low grade. If they have fixed all the problems (including problems of being behind schedule or not having done appropriate experiments or designs), then they get a high grade. I’ve never had a student complain that they couldn’t figure out what I wanted from them—that I wanted too much, perhaps, but not that I was unclear.

        The key is to provide frequent detailed feedback (if you insist on eduspeak “formative assessment”).

        The same thing on oral presentation: the one that counts most for their grade is the final one, but they have all done at least 2 or 3 previous oral presentations and gotten feedback.

        The only thing that doesn’t have much prior feedback is the poster. We spend a couple hours wandering the halls of the building critiquing the posters that are there, looking for good things to emulate and bad things to avoid, but the students’ posters are seen for the first time on the day they are presented. (I’d do an earlier run if we could afford it and the students didn’t leave things to the last minute—as it is many of them incur rush charges from the poster printer, which they pay themselves.)

      • Joss Ives says:

        It strikes me as an interesting research topic to look into holistic vs. rubric-based grading if both paradigms use the same set of well-communicated expectations.

        I completely agree on the point of the frequent detailed feedback. I have never seen anything quite as terrible, in terms of quality, as the one time that I had students hand in papers without first having done at least one feedback cycle.

  6. Melissa says:

    I realize I’m a bit late to this discussion, but are you familiar with the AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics? (http://www.aacu.org/value/) I found that their Creative Thinking rubric was a helpful way to put into words the types of things I was looking for in the final projects that my students did.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Ok, BFL here (big fat loser) who had never looked at the value rubrics until now. They seem quite useful from a program assessment perspective, which is somethings we’re in the midst of right now. Thanks, Melissa!

  7. Joss Ives says:

    Thanks for the tip Melissa. Those rubrics are good examples of how to use much coarser categories than I have been using. I think that I need to take a coarser rubric like those out for a test drive to compare and contrast against my own.


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