Musings and professional dossier of an educator, geographer, and educational developer

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An approach for participation and professionalism self-assessment

I have always included a participation grade in my upper year geography class, because I highly value the contributions that my students bring to the class environment. In addition, the skills they develop by participating in class are not only key for deep learning, but it’s also the skills that help them to be good colleagues and community members in their time after university.

However, participation has always bugged me a lot, from an assessment point of view. I used to keep an intense set of check-marks and meticulously watch students, writing down my observations of their contribution quality and quantity.  But, how am I the best person to make a judgment about their participation? How can I ensure that my judgments are fair? How can I recognize diverse ways that students contribute to the class environment, including in ways that I cannot see? 

So, 3 years ago, I started asking students to self-assess their participation.  The first year, I kept my old approach and the students self-assessments matched my own assessment nearly 1:1 (they were a bit harsher on their performance than I was).  Now, I have moved to entirely self-assessed, though I still keep my own abbreviated observations, student reflections, and exit tickets, so I have more data in case there are any issues.

Additional context: Upper year undergraduate, 30-35 students.

Here is the approach Stephanie Horsley and I developed together. We use it and we swear by it (I have some data, but for now, all I can do is swear by it).

Reflection Activity 1: Goal setting, mindsets, and professionalism

(at beginning of the course)

Students read the context of this initial goal setting, summarized below.

  • Introduce growth and fixed mindset.
  • By discussing learning, mindset, and setting goals, I hope that you will feel empowered to
    • tackle tasks throughout the course that feel new and uncomfortable
    • allow you to identify and work on areas of growth rather than just demonstrate what you are already good at
    • articulate the skills you have developed during this course
    • practice setting and working towards goals
    • prepare to work on and assess your own participation and professionalism. Self-assessments are common in workplace performance appraisals, so are good practice.


Students then complete their own initial goal-setting in an online form, which includes an initial brainstorm about professionalism. This professionalism is used as a starting point to set our class norms and contract.

Reflection Activity 2: Midterm Participation and Professionalism Self-Assessment

Sometime before the mid-point in the course, I send students goals back to them. This is made really easy using a tool we have called “Post’em”. It allows me to upload a spreadsheet with each students username, and they receive only the messages intended for them. Students receive their initial goals and comments from me about the goals. Students are asked to review the goals and comments before completing their mid-term self-assessment. Doing this at the midpoint gives the a chance to change their behaviour. I will point out that I use a google form on this and the next form because it allows for the matrix style questions (MS Forms does not).

Reflection Activity 3: Final Participation and Professionalism Self-Assessment

Again, students receive their goals via the Post’Em tool with comments from me. Students are asked to review the goals and comments before completing their final self-assessment.

How do I turn the reflections into marks?

The midterm and final assessments ask students to give themselves a numerical grade. In 95% of cases I take these assessments directly (i.e., they truly are giving themselves a mark). Students are very honest, and I find that having to answer the matrix questions helps them to see if they are really deserving of a mark as high as they want to give themselves. (i.e., if they don’t answer “Always” for all components, they ought not to be getting an A+).

Frequent comments and feedback on goals

It might be useful to know what kinds of comments and feedback I most frequently give on student goals and self-assessment.

  • Thanks for your reflection. I see you are hoping to improve your ability to speak up in front of the class. That’s a great goal, though I’ve noticed you’ve overlooked some of the other ways that you add to our class environment, so consider recognizing and building on those strengths too. (e.g., speaking up in the smaller groups, helping others, writing thoughtful reflections, etc.)
  • Thanks for your reflection. I see you have a goal to _______. That’s a great goal to have, though I’d like you to take some time to consider how you’ll keep yourself accountable to that goal. How will you ensure that you make progress towards that goal?
  • Thanks for your reflection. Please take the time to expand on your goals next time so that I can learn more about how your strengths and growth align with your self-assessment of your professionalism and participation.

How I adjust group grades to account for individual efforts

The ideas presented in this post are adapted from the approach of Oakley, Felder, Brent, and Elhajj (2004) in their excellent paper: Turning student groups into effective teams.  I have taken their general approach and applied it using digital forms and spreadsheets, as well as adjusted the grading criteria to suit my own classes.

There are a number of best practices that I recommend, such as introducing the evaluation at the beginning and asking students to complete it and share it with each other mid-way so that students who are not pulling their fair share or are dominating have a chance to adjust their approach (rather than only receiving this feedback when the project is completed).

In this post, I am leaping over a discussion of those practices for the moment to focusing on how to:

  • collect evaluations of team citizenship within a group project
  • adjust grades according to the results of the evaluations

Collect evaluations of team citizenship

Post a link to the peer evaluation on the course site with instructions on when to complete it.  The evaluation asks students for a rating of themselves and others, in regards to their team citizenship – that is, their participation, effort, and sense of responsibility.  The ratings include:

  • Excellent: Completed fair share of the workload, was very well prepared and co-operative.
  • Satisfactory: Did most of what they were supposed to do, were acceptably prepared and cooperative.
  • Ordinary: Did some of what they were supposed to do, was minimally prepared and cooperative.
  • Marginal: Failed to contribute or assist in completing tasks, was not co-operative.
  • Unsatisfactory: No participation at all

Regardless of the rating they give themselves, they are asked to explain why they gave that rating.

As for their classmates, they are only asked to explain their rating if it is a less than excellent rating. As a result, groups that worked well together will be very quick in completing the ratings and require no adjustment to the group grade.

Some other things that are good to know – this template works for groups of two to six members but can be adjusted for different sizes. There is skip logic in play so students will only be asked questions pertaining to the number of group members they have.

In my experience so far using this form (noting the best practices noted above), I have had excellent agreement between how group members rate themselves and how their teammates rate them. Discrepancies largely land in the territory of students being harder on themselves compared to their teammates.

You can download the template form here.

Adjust team grades according to evaluations as necessary

Below, see a video walking through my process and download the excel sheet I use to adjust team grades.

I say “as necessary” because I like to check first for groups that gave “excellents” all around. These students all receive the primary project grade and don’t need to be entered into the spreadsheet.


Why I use this approach

The reason I use this particular approach (adjusting the team grade) instead of the other common approaches (such as providing a separate grade for group peer evaluation) is because I think it’s more fair. Take the example of 2 students, Jo and Alena.  The project is worth 50% of the final grade, and the peer evaluation is worth 5% of the final grade. The team gets 84%, but everyone agrees that Jo was a stellar team mate (gets 5/5 for peer evaluation) and Alena barely showed up despite everyone’s best efforts to include her (gets 1/5 for peer evaluation).  So, out of a possible 55 marks towards their final grade, Jo gets 42+5=47 (a great grade) and Alena gets 42+1=43 (also a great grade!).

In the approach used here, the grades are adjusted based on team citizenship starting from the grade of 84. In the scenario above, Jo would get a bump up (85 – imagine how good the project could have been if she had teammates that contributed more!) and Alena gets 14 % because both she and her teammates ranked her as unsatisfactory and ordinary contributor. This is an extreme example that I have never actually experienced, and I would be intervening before it got to this point, but if Alena really did nothing, then the 84 was not earned by her.  


Oakley, B., Felder, R.M., Brent, R., and Elhajj, I.H. (2004). Vol 2, No 1, Turning student groups into effective teams. New Forums Press, Inc


Estimating student hours of effort

Consider the following questions:

  • How do I know if the workload for my existing course is reasonable?
  • When designing a new course, how do I judge a reasonable student workload?
  • When redesigning a course, how do I determine whether new components are balanced by the removal of other components?
  • When flipping or blending a course, how do I ensure that online or out-of-class components of the course are not overwhelming students?

In some cases, you can ask students using a survey or focus group how much time they spend on the course. However, that is not always possible especially within a course design or redesign process. You can also do your own estimates of how much time an average successful student ought to be spending each week and how they could be effectively spending that time. This all boils down to a question:

How much am I asking students to do each week, and is it a reasonable amount?

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Tidal Momentum: Science Communication Training that meets Early Career Scientist Recommendations

On March 1, 2019, I presented an invited Publications Spotlight talk at the ASLO 2019 Aquatic Sciences Meeting in Puerto Rico. With my co-authors, we followed up on our popular paper, “A shifting tide: Recommendations for incorporating science communication training into graduate training”, in the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin by looking at how early career scientists are being trained, and if how this training meets the recommendations laid out in our original paper.

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Make a quicker, cheaper Ghostbusters proton pack

These proton packs cost $45 each, a little more if you don’t have many craft supplies. Some of the items below I didn’t need to buy twice (in case you are double checking my math).

Other than shopping, these took me one day to make (all day).

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How I used simple and deep course site design to improve my face-to-face course

I’m an eLearning specialist, so part of my job is to provide advice and workshops on improving online learning.  We often refer to “How Course Web Design Impacts Student Engagement” by Dian Schaufhausser and the infographic that inspired the article during these consults and workshops.  The article is a summary of a study of hundreds of courses using a particular Learning Management System (Canvas).  Although I often use this as reference material for online course design consults, it should also apply for course sites supporting face-to-face classes.  So, when teaching a medium sized first year course this year, I decided to apply my own medicine and try to create a simple and deep design to my course site.  From the article:

A simple, deep design might lay out the course directly on the home page with a lot of different activities organized to give the student a clear indication about how to move through them. A given week’s lessons page might include hyperlinks to each activity the student is supposed to do, and there’s no question about what comes next.

So, I divided my course up by themes (usually one per week), and set out with a template for each unit tab seen below in cartoon fashion:

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Rethinking Access: Issues, Challenges, & Creative Approaches

A stonemason, a student, a superintendent, a dean, a pre-school director, a faculty member, a not-for-profit executive director, and a data scientist walk into a hotel.  They’ve come together to  share their ideas about access to education at “Rethinking Access: When Non-Traditional is the New Normal” a conference put on by HEQCO (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario).  Most sessions were set up as panels surrounding a given topic about access – each panel was ripe with ideas and well-articulated challenges. Given the breadth and depth of issues around access, each panel could really only scratch the surface of the research and on-the-ground work being done.  Even so, I gained an appreciation for the systemic issues around access to education and some of the creative solutions for improving access from a variety of perspectives.

My big questions

I took the early train from London and arrived at the Delta Chelsea with my shirt on inside out and a lot of big questions: Who is accessing post-secondary education, and who is not? What are the barriers to accessing post-secondary education? What can and is being done about differences in educational access?

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A week as the host of the rocur account @iamscicomm

For a week in late March, I guest-hosted the rocur (rotation curation) account @iamscicomm.  My initial motivation for hosting the account was to disseminate recent research on science communication and graduate training. Hosting this account would allow me to have a greater reach than the reach of my and my colleagues twitter followers. My hope was that by engaging with a community that’s already excited about #scicomm, I could move past sharing our work into engaging in a dialogue.  I’m so pleased that our work was discussed with such excitement and that it was shared over 75 times during the week.

Amanda Freise started the week by introducing me to @iamscicomm followers.

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For real though, develop a science communication strategy

My colleagues and I recently argued that scientists-in-training would benefit from developing an individual science communication strategy.   We’re not the first to suggest this, and we recommend reading Practical science communication strategies for graduate students (Kuehne & colleagues, 2014) and Considerations for effective science communication (Cooke & colleagues, 2017) to help early-career and in-training scientists start to
create such a strategy.  But I’m feeling like it needs to be said again: scientists would benefit from developing an individual science communication strategy.

I’m a little troubled by workshops and resources that teach scientists how to do #scicomm (that is, web 2.0, social media heavy science communication) without any consideration or even a brief mention as to whether this is a fitting strategy. By jumping immediately to how to build a personal brand, choose a hashtag, and decide how often to post on 7 different social media platforms,  the assumption is made that developing your own social media brand is the best strategy.

Building a lively and energized following on multiple platforms is an effective strategy for many scientists, and it may also be a valuable strategy for you.  But, have you given enough attention to other possible modes of science communication that may be a better fit with your goals, available energy, and personal strengths?

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