Active Learning and Self-Assessment Handbook

For Phil 204: Theories of Knowledge and Reality


© 2005 by Laura Rediehs


“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

– Socrates (Plato’s Apology)




The grading in this course is based on self-assessment.  The primary reasons for this are that (a) I believe that the role of the philosophy teacher should be more interactive than evaluative, and (b) I believe that philosophy, properly studied, should include developing one’s capacities for self-reflection.  Every branch of philosophy requires this ability.  Metaphysics asks important questions about reality, including questions about the nature of the human person, and the place of the human person within a larger reality.  Such questions obviously require some self-reflection.  Ethics is the study of morality and includes questions about the meaning of life.  Here too it is clear that reflecting on one’s own experiences is helpful in learning and evaluating ethical theories.  Epistemology is the study of the nature and purposes of knowledge, and so epistemological inquiry is also an activity that is necessarily somewhat self-reflective (thinking about thinking, knowing about knowing, inquiring about inquiry, learning about learning). 

Therefore, to further my own teaching goals of encouraging character development and self-reflective, independent thinking, the grading in this course will be based on self-assessment.  That means that you will reflect on your work throughout the course and determine your grades for the graded assignments in the course.  This system of grading helps provide the space for each of you to set your own learning goals, and for each of you to approach the course in the way that is most meaningful to you.

Letting you determine your own grades is not a relinquishment of my responsibility to give you feedback, to work with you in determining goals for the course, or to provide structure and guidance so that you may learn effective self-evaluation.  I will continue to do everything that professors do when they determine grades, except for one thing:  I will not write numerical grades on your assignments.  Instead, I will let you determine these grades.

Although you get to determine your grades, to ensure fairness and to help maintain the integrity of this system of grading, there are certain parameters and restrictions I must set up in advance.  If you have shown evidence of engaging thoughtfully in the process throughout the course, and have taken all course requirements seriously, I do hope to honor your self-assessed grade and allow that grade to be the grade you receive for the course.  However, I reserve the right to adjust the self-assessed grades of students who fail to complete all of the assignments, who turn in assignments late, who have missed too many classes (please see the attendance policy in your syllabus), or who have not properly fulfilled the requirements of the self-assessment process.  Other ways I structure the self-assessment process:


1.       I will give a framework for weighting the different requirements of the course. 

2.       Certain assignments, if skipped or done extremely poorly, will result in failure of the course.  Please note that completing the final paper is absolutely required to pass the course. 

3.       Other assignments, if skipped or done extremely poorly, will reduce the highest possible grade you can attain.  For example, if you skip a written assignment worth 25% of the grade, your grade will be reduced by 25%. 

4.       You must keep an ongoing self-assessment logbook.  When you turn in your final grade, you must also turn in your logbook.  Students who fail to turn in a final grade plus rationale by the final deadline at the end of the course will receive a zero in the course; students who do turn in a grade but fail to turn in a complete logbook are likely to receive an incomplete.  If your logbook does not adhere to the requirements set forth, I reserve the right to reconcile inconsistencies and/or supply missing information, recomputing your final grade accordingly.

General Advice on Self-Assessment


One of the most important goals of self-assessment is to free you to engage in studying the material in this course in the way that is most meaningful to you and most relevant to your current level of philosophical/educational development.  Related to this goal is the goal of helping you to develop into a good, active learner.  The better you become at taking responsibility for your own education, the better you also become at taking responsibility for your life.  One of the most important purposes of a liberal arts education is to increase your awareness and understanding of what the world is like and who you are in it, in order to empower you to make wise decisions and live your life well.

While I still maintain something of an evaluative role, in self-assessment grading my role becomes more interactive than evaluative, which I feel is more appropriate for philosophical education.  There are times when my evaluative feedback offers helpful reality checks, but much of the feedback I will offer is not necessarily evaluative but dialogic or conversational – responses to your ideas intended not necessarily to criticize but to invite you to expand, extend, or refine your ideas further.  In philosophical education (as well as perhaps other kinds of education too), the lines between “students” and “teachers” are frequently blurred – we all learn from and teach each other.

I realize that self-assessment is new for many of you; even those who have participated in self-assessment before have probably participated in a process somewhat different from this one.  I realize that you are learning this process as we go, and therefore I will try to offer helpful feedback at strategic moments to help you in your learning.  Feel free to come talk with me, or raise questions in class about this process if you have questions or concerns.  Many students experience some anxiety the first time they are asked to participate in a self-assessment process – this is normal and healthy.  But if you are troubled by your anxiety, do not hesitate to talk with me, and I will do my best to offer the appropriate reassurances!



I will still be reading and commenting on all of your written assignments, observing your participation in class, and monitoring your overall progress, because I do believe that giving you feedback constitutes an important part of my role as teacher. 

Determining Grades


            Hopefully, after reading the above, you are excited and think that it will be fun to engage in this way in your educational process.  But you might still be especially anxious about the “assigning grades” part.  Welcome to the club. Many instructors, believe it or not, struggle with this as well.  There are so many things going on in education that applying a single numerical scale to all that happens within a semester is a daunting task.  How does it all get boiled down to a single number for each student? 

Furthermore, St. Lawrence has recently changed its grading system, as most of you probably know.  Instead of giving final grades on the 4.0 scale in 0.5 intervals, now the grades will be reported on the 0.25 intervals:  i.e., the reported grades are 4.0, 3.75, 3.5, 3.25, 3.0, 2.75, 2.5, 2.25, 2.0, 1.75, 1.5, 1.25, 1.0, 0.  It is important to keep in mind that this scale is actually modified from a traditional A, B, C, D, F system, because those systems are often converted to numerical values where A = 4.0, B = 3.0, C = 2.0, D = 1.0, and F = 0.  So, in assessing grades, it is best to start from these basic whole numbers, noting that they mean:  4.0=Excellent, 3.0=Good, 2.0=Satisfactory, 1.0=Lowest Passing Grade, and 0=Failure.


Some important factors to notice about St. Lawrence grading:


·         Students need a 2.0 grade point average in order to graduate.  (The grade point average (or GPA) is the average of all of your grades.)  St. Lawrence defines the 2.0 as “Satisfactory.”


·         1.0 is still, however, a passing grade.  (It is defined as “Lowest Passing Grade.”)  This means that you would get credit for passing a course in which you got a 1.0, but you would need to do well enough in other courses to pull your GPA back up to 2.0 overall.  The same would apply for the grades of 1.25, 1.5, and 1.75.


·         A 3.0 is defined as “Good.”  The difference between “Satisfactory” and “Good” is that to do satisfactory work on an assignment, you have to have fulfilled most of what the assignment requires, without any really major mistakes.  For an assignment to be rated as “Good,” you have to have fulfilled all of what the assignment requires, without any actual mistakes.


·         For grades above 3.0, you have to have done a truly excellent job.  This may be different from the expectations in high school, where simply fulfilling the requirements of the assignment may have been enough to earn you an A.  What does “excellence” mean?  It means doing more than mechanically fulfilling what was expected – it means going above and beyond in some way, adding some original thinking, or making insightful connections with other material we have studied in the course, or showing that you understand and appreciate the significance of the assignment beyond this course.


If you would like further help in understanding the “in-between” intervals, you might want to think about them this way: 


·         the “.75” grades are like “minus” grades.  For example, 3.75 is like an A-, 2.75 is like a B-, 1.75 is like a C-. 

·         The “.25” grades are like “plus” grades.  3.25 is like a B+, 2.25 is like a C+, and 1.25 is like a D+. 

·         Then the “0.5” grades are like borderline grades.  3.5 is like A/B (or A-/B+), etc.


There is more that could be said, but this is a start.  Begin by asking yourself:  “Does my work on this assignment earn at least a 3.0 – did it fulfill every part of the assignment well?”  If you are aware that it’s not all the way there, go down proportionally.  If you think it does fulfill the assignment in a solid but not spectacular way, rest content with a 3.0.  If you think it did fulfill the assignment well, but also went above and beyond in some way, then go up proportionally.

Self-Assessment Logbook


In keeping track of your grades, you will keep a self-assessment logbook that you will turn in at the end of the course.  Please type out your logbook, staple the pages together (no need for fancy binders), and make sure your name is on all portions of it.  Here are the contents of your logbook:


Beginning of Course:


  1. Complete a preliminary self-assessment of your learning habits.
  2. Read the document on philosophical competencies and set your learning goals for the course.


For Each Major Graded Assignment in the Course (Papers, Presentations):


  1. An estimated grade after you have completed the assignment and before you have received feedback, and a description of the criteria you used to determine that grade.
  2. An estimated grade after you received your assignment back with comments, with a description of how and why you have revised your grading criteria after receiving comments.  If you decide not to change the grade or criteria, comment on why.
  3. Written comments may not be provided for class presentations.  In this case, pay careful attention to comments given by the professor and other classmates during the discussion after your presentation, plus the general conversation we will have on assessing presentations after everyone in class has given their presentations – these discussions count as your “feedback,” and you should take them into account when determining grades for presentations.


At Mid-Term:


  1. Download a new copy of the learning habits worksheet, and complete this, reflecting on how your learning habits have changed, and why, and what needs further work.
  2. Complete a mid-term assessment of your philosophical notebook, attendance, class participation, discussion board participation, and your work in the course in general.  At this stage, no number crunching is required—narrative reflections are fine.


End of Course:


  1. Determine your self-assessed grade for graded aspects of the course not already covered above (see syllabus for what in the course gets graded besides the graded assignments mentioned above).  Include a description of the criteria by which you determine this (these) grade(s).
  2. Determine whether you think your final paper deserves a P, HP, or LP.  See “Tips…” below for details.
  3. Do the number-crunching described below (see “Tips…”) to come up with your final computed grade. 
  4. Reflect on your work throughout the course, and reflect on whether you believe that your computed grade is a fair representation of the grade you think you deserve in the course, and why or why not (what are your criteria?).
  5. Complete a final assessment of your learning habits, with commentary on how and why it has changed since you completed it at the beginning and middle of the course.


Throughout the course, I will be happy to talk with you individually or as a class, as needed, to share ideas about criteria and strategies for responsible self-evaluation.  What follows are some general tips.

Tips on Grading and Criteria


Ø      For simplicity of computation, each grade should be given on the 4.0 scale.  (Converting back and forth between the 4.0 scale and 100 point scales is tricky:  there are differing opinions about how exactly to correlate these scales.  If you employ a different scale and I disagree with how you convert it to the 4.0 scale in the end, I am likely to rescale and recompute your grade at the end.) 

Ø      For individual assignments, you do not necessarily have to limit yourself to the .25 intervals.  That is, you can give yourself a grade of 2.8 if you feel your work on a particular assignment is actually a little better than a 2.75 but not quite approaching a 3.0 level, for example.

Ø      In most cases, grading criteria can be lifted out of how the assignment is written.  Addressing all aspects of the assignment is generally regarded as a minimum for receiving a pretty good passing grade (2.0 or higher).  It is a good idea to make sure to make connections between your narrative comments and the grading criteria you have identified.

Ø      For the philosophical notebooks, questions, class minutes, discussion board participation, and classroom participation, completeness and regular attendance/participation counts for a lot.  But quality is also important—you should be double-checking the accuracy of your reading notes by comparing your conclusions with what you learn in class (plus do not forget that you can talk with me during office hours if there are additional questions you have that did not get addressed in class).  Quality discussion participation (both in class and on the discussion board) means that you share your insights and questions, listen attentively to what others have to say, respond respectfully to the others in the class, and are sincerely engaged in the process of learning (this latter point being something only you are qualified to evaluate!)

Ø      It is most important throughout the course to be using the assignments in a way that helps you to learn.  Occasionally, you may want to try to make certain kinds of mistakes just to see where the limits really are—try a radical interpretation or critique of a philosopher’s idea, launch an idea of your own that you are not sure about but need to test in written (or spoken) dialogue, experiment with modes of writing, etc.  While the traditional grading system encourages you to play it safe, taking on the tasks that you find the easiest, self-assessment allows you to be bolder and more creative in your approach, because you then get to be the final judge of the learning value of how you approached assignments.  This does not mean that anything goes, but controlled experiments within the spirit of the assignments are very much encouraged.  At the end of the day, I will be convinced that your work was a sincere engagement in learning if I see in your self-assessment log good reasons for why you decided to push the limits on certain assignments!

Ø      The final computation of your grade proceeds at first by simple number crunching.  How do you average grades when the weightings of each element of the course are different?  Simple:  you take the grade you give each item and multiply it by the percent weight (e.g., if the assignment is worth 15% of the grade, then multiply the grade by .15), and add these numbers together.  The result will be your preliminary estimate of your course grade.  A worksheet is provided on the ANGEL system for doing the final number-crunching.

Ø      The final paper is not to be graded and averaged in. You should regard it as a comprehensive, integrative final. Back in the days when I graded, I graded the final paper on the HP, P, LP, NC scale.  An HP could raise one’s computed grade at the end, and an LP could lower it, especially if the computed grade were near a borderline. (See rounding grades, below).  The raising and lowering of grades would be up or down 0.25.  Especially if you have been boldly seeking LPs early in the course, and have been doing so wisely in a way that has enabled you to learn a lot, and you feel you have succeeded in pulling it all together for the final paper, such that you write one that you think incorporates all of the elements of a truly excellent philosophy paper, you may be justified in letting your improvement in the course count favorably in your final assessment of your grade.

Some Additional Notes

A Note on the Fine Distinction between Attendance and Participation


a)      Attendance is how many times you come to class.  You get credit for coming to class as long as you are physically present, awake, and look attentive. 

b)      Participation requires attendance but is not the same thing.  It requires doing more than just coming to class, staying awake, and looking attentive.  It minimally requires being attentive (not merely looking attentive), submitting good, substantive questions prior to each class, and participating as assigned in small group discussions.  Optimally, it also includes productive contributions during whole-class discussions.

Discussion Board Grading


For discussion board grading, I use an “objective” quantitative system as a reality-check on your self-assessed grade.  Again, additional qualitative information provided by your own reflections is also important.

Reflections Forum


Number of Contributions (submitted on time)














Open Forum


Number of Contributions

(submitted on time)


















Discussion Board Grade


Average the two grades.

A Note about Late Work


A note about late work:  turning in work late is hard on the timing of events in the course.  Therefore, it is important for you to try your hardest to turn everything in on time.  I reserve the right to refuse to accept papers that are excessively late, and count the grades for them as NC.  “Excessively late” usually means I will not accept papers after I have turned them back to the rest of the class.  In the case of assignments to be peer-reviewed, being late at all presents terrible and perhaps insurmountable logistical problems, so, out of courtesy to your peers, have them ready on time.

Final Determination of Grades


This table (copied from your syllabus) shows how much each graded component of the course is weighted.



% Grading Weight (each)

% Grading Weight (total)

Class Preparation and Participation (philosophical notebooks, submitting questions, taking class minutes, participating in class discussions, and, if you had to miss any classes, learning what you missed and submitting a written response to missed classes)



Discussion Forum Participation (including responding to all Reflection Questions)



First paper



First peer review



ANGEL Dialogue (in lieu of second paper)



Philosophy Talk Show



Final Paper

Not graded, but absolutely required to pass course



Formula for Computing Final Grade:

(All grades plugged into this formula should be grades on the 4.0 scale.)


(Class Preparation & Participation Grade x .15) + (Discussion Forum Grade x .15) + (First Paper x .25) + (Peer Review x .10) + (ANGEL Dialogue x .25) + (Talk Show x .10) = Final Course Grade.


Then reflect on whether you think that the quality of your work on your final paper justifies adjusting this computed grade.

On Rounding Grades on the 4.0 Scale:


The formula for rounding grades to the nearest 0.25 interval is to take the raw grade, multiply by 4, round to the nearest whole number, and then divide by 4.

Final Thoughts


If you have further questions about self-assessment, please do not hesitate to ask.  Remember that the main point throughout the course is to use the course to further your own educational goals, to strengthen your inner motivation, and to develop good habits of active learning.  Learning honest self-reflection is a valuable complement to these goals, but those substantive goals are what are of primary importance.  I hope you enjoy and appreciate this opportunity to further these kinds of goals in your studies.



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