Friday, April 26, 2013

Grading Charade

"Lawrence of Arabia"!
As I was slogging through the grading misery last weekend, I suddenly remembered a brilliant old animated short called Charade (safe for work and highly recommended).  It simply consists of two contestants acting out movie and book titles while voices off screen offer guesses.  Contestant #1 clearly acts out obvious references while the voices make wildly erroneous guesses.  Contestant #2 strikes bizarre and irrelevant poses, from which the voices immediately guess the correct answer.

And as I graded, I realized that I'm contestant #1.  No matter how clear I make the instructions on tests and assignments, they will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, misapplied or simply ignored.  Any actual ambiguity on my part is grounds for aggrieved complaint.

But a lot of the students think they are contestant #2.  From the bizzarre bolus of bafflegab some of them scatter across the page, I am expected to infer a lucid exegisis on the care and feeding of Cricetinid rodents.  I should 'know what they mean'.  If they say "X", then "Y and Z" should 'go without saying'. 

And the double standard is completely invisible to them.  Unfortunately, professional decorum prevents me from resorting to the solution offered by contestant #1 in the cartoon.


  1. This is why my test instructions often include, "You'll only get credit for what you wrote, not what you meant." Even though I'm in a technical field, I got sick of students asking me to read their minds or, more often, accept bizarre interpretations of what they wrote.

    1. @Addled: I'm going to use that!

      @ R&G: You've hit it on the nose. I can be guiding them towards the answer with prompts that get closer and closer to the concept I'm reviewing, to the point that I'll even say what letter the term starts with. But the Little Dears enthusiastically call out absurd phrases just to hear their own voices, apparently. Yet on an exam, I'm supposed to decipher their word salad.

      Thanks for the link. I'm glad I watched (and listened) to the very end of the credits.

    2. @Addled: Love that line. I'm going to use that, too.

      @Proffie Galore: "word salad" is right up there with Darla claiming she's fighting with small dogs.

      R&/orG: I think, too, sometimes they claim not to understand because they want us to TELL them the answers. I've gotten so I just respond that if they understood the concepts clearly, the question/instructions would make perfect sense to them.

  2. Thanks R and/or G. That link is the dog's whatsits. And the connection with our students was right up there.

    I may be showing this in class.....

  3. I thank you for this, from the very depths of Grading Hell.

  4. Brilliant! And an all-too-apt analogy. I'm still trying to figure out why I've received several 6-8 page papers in response to a 1.5-2-page proposal assignment. Actually, scratch that; I know why: the paper already exists (whether produced by the student hirself or someone else) and (s)he is unable, and/or too lazy, to boil it down to 1.5-2 pages.

    Related conference phenomenon: I point out that the paper draft doesn't really focus on the announced thesis, and proffer the standard two solutions: change the body of the paper to fit the thesis, or change the thesis to fit what is actually going on in the body of the paper (the second is, of course, the easier, and, in most cases, also the appropriate approach, since writing is meant to be a process of discovery). Instead of seizing on the second solution, the student points out a sentence buried somewhere in paragraph 8 that relates to the thesis, and claims that (s)he "covered it." What makes the whole exchange really distressing is that this isn't freshman comp (though I think I'd be pretty discouraged if, by this time in the semester, I had freshman comp students who were still doing this); it's (supposedly) upper-level writing in the disciplines. But yes, they just want to turn something in, and get credit (preferably of the high-B-and-up variety) for it. The idea that, though they've produced something resembling an essay, it doesn't clear the C- bar necessary for graduation credit, is very, very hard to get across.

  5. On a 3-week assignment which is due tomorrow, I am just starting to get questions. One of which is, do I have a list of what is required for the project? Yes, I wrote it on the board 3 weeks ago, and asked everyone if they had copied it down before I erased it.