Teaching Tip: Grading, Like it or Not

Grading is generally the least favorite part of teaching for me, and this blog entry on the 5 stages of grading suggests that I’m not alone (thanks to Brian Flanagan for posting). A quick Google search turned up “5 things I hate more than grading.” Some folks couldn’t come up with five things worse than grading; most mentioned life-threatening illnesses or surgery without anesthesia. And of course, there are the many Facebook entries that academics post this time of year e.g. “Grading is sucking out my soul.” With mid-term grades due this Friday, chances are good that your soul is a little battered about now too. Why do we find grading so awful? What can we do to make it better?

I think there are four main reasons why most of us hate grading:
1. We don’t like to judge people. As instructors, we are both coaches and judges, and most of us got into teaching for the coaching part, not the judging part. Assigning a grade doesn’t really seem to help anyone learn; it just rates the amount and quality of their learning. Plus, since learning is such a complex task, assigning a single number or letter that summarizes the total learning (or lack thereof) seems inadequate and not particularly helpful.

2. Grading policies are hard to formulate, and we’re never sure we have it right. We struggle to balance our grading criteria between fairness and rigor. We don’t want to be too easy (grade inflation alerts go off) or too difficult (student evaluations tank). Do we factor in improvement? Effort? Achievement alone? What about second language learners? The dilemmas just keep coming.

3. Grading can make us question ourselves as teachers. Exams or papers that don’t meet our expectations are discouraging, even depressing. Sometimes we blame the students e.g. Didn’t they study? How did they get admitted? Sometimes we blame ourselves. Perhaps all semester you thought you were doing a great job (or at least a competent one) and now you are wondering if you’re meant for this profession.

4. Grading can feel like a fight. Students complain, they challenge their grades directly, they attempt to cheat or plagiarize, they focus on the grades at the expense of the learning. It can feel like our job is to guard the tower of academe, defend ourselves and catch those miscreants.

How can we make it better?

Accept the role conflict inherent in grading, and make this explicit to yourself and your students. Separate out the coaching function from the evaluation function, and decide which one you are doing at a particular point in time. You might choose to only give comments without a grade or tell students “this is the grade you would get on this work right now” and then allow revision. You can give practice quiz or test questions with feedback before the real thing so that students (and you) get a sense of how they are doing and what their likely grade will be if they don’t do more.

Remember that grades are always subjective. You are an expert judge, but another expert judge in another context might have a different opinion. That’s OK. Establish your criteria and standards, communicate them to the students and use them to the best of your ability. Then move on.

Understand what grades mean to your students, and what an emotional issue they are for many of them. Talk and listen! Get student input on your standards and criteria, let them make suggestions and be very clear about what grades mean to you. Using rubrics or other grading schemes can help your students understand your grading decisions and lessen the complaining. You can even use rubrics for essays and share these with students. Obviously, you set the standards and criteria but you want your students to understand them fully and have some idea of WHY you are asking them to meet these criteria.

If your students are consistently failing to live up to your hopes for them, you will want to examine a couple of possibilities.

Are your expectations unrealistic? Do students have the background and preparation to achieve at the level you are expecting, or do they need additional support? You may need to change assignments, provide additional support or look at course pre-requisites. I am not advocating “dumbing down” a course here – but often we do not realize how difficult a task really is – especially when it comes to reading college level material and applying it.

Are your evaluation tools sharp? Look at your assignment or your test questions, and get some input from a colleague and from some students too. Is it clear what you want them to do? Vague questions or assignments frequently lead to confusion and difficulty grading the resulting products.

Are you requiring students to USE information before you assess them? If you lecture for several weeks and then give an exam, you have no idea if the students really understood anything you said until you start grading. And then it’s too late to do much about it. Ask students to demonstrate their understanding during class so you can check in on their learning. That way, you can catch errors and omissions while there is still a chance to make a difference. This doesn’t need to take a lot of time. Asking students to regularly write down questions they have at the end of class, using a brief exercise, or asking a few clicker questions lets you spot check understanding. Once you have taught a course once, you will be able to identify the concepts students struggle with the most – why not create an extra exercise to reinforce those problem areas? (And warn the students about those sticky spots, so they can spend extra time where it’s needed.)

I don’t think there’s any way to make grading easy, but I do think we can take a bit of the sting out. After all, nothing makes you feel prouder than reading a really good run of student exams or papers and knowing that they got it. If we can increase the percentage of good work that’s being done, we’ll be doing the students and ourselves a great service.

What do you hate most about grading? What do you do to make the experience better?

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