Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bonnie from Birmingham With This Week's Big Thirsty. "Why Don't I Have a Hard-On For Grading?"

Oh sweet Jesus, am I glad CM exists! I read the thing every morning like morning prayers. It girds me for the struggles to come.

Here's my tale. I'm a newbie proffie (am I using it right?). I love the classroom, I like my colleagues, I even have a Dean who's sort of neat and who had me and my husband to her house for scones and tea. (It was ironic; the scones had M&Ms in them and the tea was filled with booze!)

Anyway, I like everything about my job, EXCEPT grading.

Sure, everyone hates the work of grading.

But I realize I don't give a shit about any part of grading. I actually don't care about assessing my students at the end of the term. I figure, "I put on the show; if you paid attention, you're better off for it." But then I want to just go about my own business.

This has led to some sticky moments, though, students dickering percentage points when I can barely even summon up a whole number. My chair wants a grade sheet and I find myself making up numbers for some of the blanks. (Yeah, I know, I'm an idiot.)

Q: My question is: Why don't I have a hard on for grading? Why don't I care about assessing my students? What kinds of motivation should I be feeling to remedy this? What are the ways a lecturing Social Science-y type can assess student work and ability without making me absolutely fucking crazy?

A: I really need your help. Post any replies in the comments below!!!


  1. No, no, no! Don't tell me newbie proffies are also burned out on grading! I hate grading, too, and in my field, essays are unavoidable. And since they are the only product we produce, that makes for lots of overtime spent banging my face into the computer screen wanting to kill myself and that is just over the first paragraph of "Since the dawn of time, man has contemplated what to eat for dinner." Over the years I've had to tweak the essays to at least make them semi-interesting to me. But I can do that bc many of my classes are skills-based rather than heavy on content. Is there a way you can reshape your assignments so they are more meaningful to you (only you know what that might be; the pop culture papers I assign my students would drive some of my peers to develop hives & same for me on some of the things they assign their students). I had to think about what would not cause me to scratch my own eyes out & then go from there... or are you just not in favor of any form of assessment?

    If you are simply not a fan of assessing students in any way, then perhaps find a new career. I fear we have only dipped our toes in what will be required of us to "prove" student learning is taking place.

  2. No one can tell you why you don't care about grading. Perhaps you've got an Eastern philosophy. How do we know?

    But, yes, assessment is something you do have to come to terms with.

    Find out what your colleagues do - very specifically. See the whole range of grading options (types of assignments, types of grading, etc.) so you can see the smorgasbord of options.

    Then pick the ones that are least objectionable.

  3. I like grading. It's kinda fun. I get to use my purple glitter pen. But oh, how I hate writing exams. I always put it off until too late!

  4. I find that grading goes better with a big pot of coffee and some Black Sabbath blaring on iTunes to get me in the proper frame of mind.

    Seriously, I try to grade quickly, and I try to give meaningful feedback. When I'm grading essays, I force myself to stay away from editing their work. My classes involve a lot of quantitative work, so I try to find common mistakes. For me, it's important that students always know where they stand in my courses so there are fewer excuses/complaints at the end.

  5. I can get that the activity of grading isn't exactly thrilling. But aren't you curious how your students did? Does it not bug you if you filled in a random A grade for some lazy little toe-rag who didn't pick up the textbook all semester? Does it not bother you if people get grades that they don't deserve?

  6. Search the 'net (and sidle up to your colleagues in your discipline) for rubrics...I got away from using them for a few years, but came back because I was sick of students haggling over why the grade was a B+ and not an A- (or an A). Rubrics are an easier way to quantify the subjective sense we have of A, B, C, etc. Way less haggling.

    I still make marks on the paper to point out where things are going well (and not) but the rubric I'm using definitely speeds up the process.

    FYI, I teach 3 sections of comp + 1 lit per semester.

  7. I don't have any trouble with grading, but then I subscribe to Frod's Menace To Society theory. Which of these students do you want writing copy for the billboards you're going to drive past? Which ones do you want writing local newspaper articles or pamphlets? Which would be best pressing pictograms on a fast food cash register? Which should be given a chance to be surgeons, and which should have sharp implements removed from their person?

    The Leaders of Tomorrow need encouragement... and discouragement. Or we're doomed to get them as they are.

  8. Bonnie, I feel your pain ...

    I have just spent this morning fielding EMails from students who can't seem to figure out how to submit their work (i.e. upload a file) or want to complain that Turnitin is "a joke" because it actually identifies unoriginal work in their writing. (And I just had to collect the evidence that a student's assignment was cited but completely cut-and-pasted.)

    I DO want to see how my students are doing.
    I DID enjoy seeing how they handled investigating this issue or that.

    But, for all of the coping strategies I've adopted, I am more frequently finding myself frozen with anxiety about opening the latest batch of grading.

    To have to repeat the SAME comments.
    To have to ask if they read the last feedback.
    To ask if they actually read the instructions.
    To ask if they are actually conscious.

    Practically forces you to come to CM and vent ...

  9. I am looking for a stamps that say the following:
    - Show your fucking work
    - This is complete nonsense
    - It is not the case that (a+b)^2=a^2+b^2
    ... and more.

    What I hate about grading is that in most cases, the students write down a bunch of numbers and expressions, that are incorrect, and I cannot figure out what they mean since all I get is 2+5=6 in response to the question what is the area of a trapezoid?

    Furthermore, I would rather be doing mathematics and contrary to what many think solving quadratics is not "doing mathematics".

  10. At a bare minimum, you need to care that grades reward good students and punish bad students. If you can't care enough for that, you should not teach.

    Everything else is details. If you don't like to assess students' work, get a grad student to do it for you. Figure out exactly how to make your boss happy and do that + a little bit more then drop it.

    Depending on your particular position, shedding tears for students might be necessary. In other places, you should be doing your research and devoting just enough effort to teaching to prevent a coup.

  11. I find marathon grading helps. Just get it done and over with.

  12. Are you familiar with contract grading? Peter Elbow published something on this topic years ago. I haven't paid any attention to it beyond reading a few articles so I don't know how it is being regarded in academia these days, but if you are opposed to traditional grading, look into it.

  13. Working for an online university has turned me into a grading machine. I have about 60 short papers and discussion boards to grade every single goddamned week. Here is what I've learned:

    * Selected 3 or 5 things in each assignment that you find crucial to that work
    * Search for those 3-5 things like a Where's Waldo book
    * While you are looking, keep an odd eye on structure: for humanities, structures of writing; for sciencies, structures of lab observations and other technical things

    This enables you to a) detail which of the 3-5 things were missing (and therefore justify the 85 or 78 or whatever) while b) giving meaningful feedback on the skill involved (writing, creating hypothesis, styling new basket).

    This has sped up my grading considerably. I dedicate about 5 minutes to each piece. Sure, if I were grading senior theses or grad students, it would be different, but I think this approach benefits all involved without making anyone lose their fracken minds.

    And in the end, isn't that what we're all looking for?

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. @Gauss

    Try for custom stamps. I'm considering the following:
    --"This response proves to me that if it weren't reflexive, you'd be too stupid to breath."
    --"You're destined to live in a van down by the river."
    --"Your critical thinking skills lie somewhere between an acorn's and those of a crack-addicted elephant turd."

  16. @ Academic Monkey

    An online veteran as well, I am curious how you get away with focusing on the 3 - 5 core principles/assignment and come away with 78 - 85 grades?

    My crushing depression is borne of the fact that searching for core concepts leaves me devoid of substantive content.

    My flakes, by and large, focus on regurgitating their reading and nothing more. Receiving less than stellar grades (as supposedly mandated by the university-wide writing rubric!), they then freak, swear they have no idea what the comment "At this level, we move past simply summarizing the text" means, and declare they have "never been graded this harshly before."

    FYI, since my last post - all of an hour ago -- I had a student who told me, quote, "Why don't you stop threatening to report our work to Academic Affairs and show us point-by-point what you want us to do?"

    And this is a GRADUATE program!

  17. Why should you care about grading? Your primary interest is in the subject matter. Ideally that would be the students' primary interest too. In an ideal world you would not have to grade them; you'd teach them and have cool conversations about cool stuff that you're both excited about, and that would be it.

    But we do not live in that universe. I think of grading as the dues I have to pay to keep the rest of this job. I don't care about it, I just do it, like housework. (Or put it off and procrastinate until that last possible second, also like housework - but I don't recommend this.)

    One approach that I find helps, if you can find people to do it with, is to have a "grading binge" with a friend or two. Or with the TAs if you can talk them into it. Get together in a group and grade like crazy all one afternoon. This will make a sufficient dent in the pile that you will feel encouraged, and the rest of it will go faster.

  18. @Pat, you could make enough $$$ off of stamps that say that just in my department alone to set you up for life!

  19. I care about assessing students. I dislike having to grade. I enjoy eating, but hate having to cook. I do it anyway (cooking, grading - take your pick), and, on a good day, the process winds up being at least marginally amusing at times to boot.

  20. @Aware

    It is my experience that online students almost never get all 5 key elements. Without all 5, they cannot get an A.

    That being said, if they get 3 of 5, I think that deserves a 78 to 82. And 4 out of 5 with solid organization and fluid prose deserves a good, say, 85 to 88.

    It's nice when they can't corner me in my office to complain. And I write enough to justify their grades. Maybe you think I'm being too generous?

  21. I think if you hate grading and think it is meaningless, maybe your assessment design is to blame. Why not design assessment that you find interesting and a good reflection of what you are trying to teach?

    Rubrics can be good, but then you get the students who follow the rubrics like little robots and who can't cope with assignments that ask for creativity or original ideas. I like to give assignments in writing classes that have a lot of room for negotiation, and the rubric lawyers have absolute tantrums about not being given a word limit.

    Seconding the stamps thing, I just got these, and they made the last batch of essays a hoot to mark:

  22. Knock Knock's self inking stamps are an essential grading tool!

  23. Good assignments correlate tightly to the content matter of your course, say, "widgets".

    What you're seeking is a clear demonstration that a student understands the "widgets" of interest. Small assignments cover single widgets or small groups of widgets. Major assignments cover lots of widgets.

    The score/grade/whatever for the assignment measures the extent to which the student demonstrates an understanding of the widgets of interest.

    Get yourself a rubric or two - some clear thinking on the matter will yield a rational basis for scoring the assignment.

    As for interest, passion, that is irrelevant. You are a professional, and this is part of your job. Tell yourself what you'd tell a student about not having a passionate enthusiasm for the course work - you'd tell them to get to work.

    So, get to work.

  24. "This response proves to me that if it weren't reflexive, you'd be too stupid to breath."

    I'd probably edit that before rubber-stamping it on a student essay.

  25. @Lex
    You're right. It was the exasperation from grading coming out in my typing.

  26. @Cerberus et al

    It occurs to me that when I'm teaching F2F courses, the peer assessment tool helps with my grading load while giving students a valuable insight in the process of writing.

    You assign a rough draft due on date X, cover the names, and pass them out to random peers, who then fill out a worksheet on what they liked and why, and what they didn't like and why. You need the worksheet to prevent them from being shallow and to give valuable feedback (ie, "identify the main argument" and "List the main groups of evidence" and "Did the evidence prove the point? Why or why not")

    Then you collect both, review the peer assessment worksheet, give both students a grade, and you're done. I often follow it up with a 5 minute lecture on common problems and ways to avoid said problems in the final drafts.

  27. My conundrum is that I actually enjoy working with student texts-in-progress under certain conditions, but those conditions include (1) my having assigned a writing task that is challenging enough to elicit a variety of often idiosyncratic responses as the students struggle with the cognitive and writing tasks involved and (2) my having time to read and comment on those texts at what feels like a comfortable pace, one which actually allows me to think about the text, and what I can most productively say about it, and what I might make note of to myself so that I can improve the assignment next time (this pace is more like 1 paper per hour than 3 per hour). I occasionally find myself in a situation where I can do both. More often, I'm trying to read texts at the 3-per-hour pace that really deserve the 1-per-hour pace, or -- if I'm smart -- designing assignments that can be graded a bit more mechanically, and hence quickly, and knowing that the students won't get as much out of the experience as they would out of a more challenging assignment. Both are stressful, though for different reasons. The more challenging assignments do get easier to grade after I've done them a few times, but that's partly because I start giving the students much more detailed instructions, in the assignment and/or in class exercises, about what to put where -- which may, in fact, result in making the assignment less challenging (this comes back to the conversations we had about student- vs. teacher-centered learning, I think). More often that not, I find myself slipping into the grading pace that I'm pretty sure is actually best for me and my students -- the slower one where I have some sense of "flow" -- but with a background buzz of anxiety based on the knowledge that, at some point, I'm going to have to speed up and finish the batch, perhaps less well than I would have if I'd tried to do them all at 3-per-hour (though when I'm doing that, I find the constant clock-watching pretty distracting in itself; it's hard to concentrate at that pace precisely because I *do* have to think about the time as well as the paper, as opposed to just the paper). It's a conundrum, and I don't think there's an easy answer -- other than that I would be quite happy spending a good deal of time on the work of a small number of students, which isn't a situation that's widely available these days, given the fact that lower teaching loads often pair with higher research expectations, which don't leave one's best thinking/reading time for grading, either. And, of course, my ideal grading conditions probably violate the "don't care more about their educations than they do" guideline, which makes a lot of sense. For the moment, I try to set things up so the students who are most likely to make use of my careful comments are the ones most likely to get them (by, for instance, giving students a choice of an earlier deadline and written comments or a later one and conference-only comments).

    And I do, of course, use various sorts of peer feedback. It can definitely be useful. On the other hand, it can often be uninformed (based on what the student thinks some earlier teacher said rather than on my requirements), or overly timid (I was just looking at the results of some informal feedback students gave each other last week; with the choice of checking "very good," "okay" or "needs work" for several aspects of a project-in-process, no one checked "needs work" for anything. Maybe I should have told them that they had to check "needs work" for at least one category).


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