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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Grading blues

I feel like I've been grading for weeks. I teach the writing class in the spring and I always know that I have to mentally prepare for all the grading. Although the class is 'only' thirty students, I've still broken up the assignments so half the class submits something at a time. The benefit to that is I only have to grade fifteen papers at a time but between first drafts (which need to be turned around in two days) and final drafts a week later, one assignment means three consecutive weeks where I constantly have something to grade. And then my data class had a midterm in the middle of that, and are about to turn in their mid-semester papers today. So I guess it isn't just 'feels like' - I have been grading for weeks!

I'm not sure I know any teachers, at any level, who will say grading is their favorite part of the job, but we slog through, knowing that it's a necessary part of the job. But this Savage Minds post from Matt Thompson struck a chord with me:
... the vast majority students want to be graded. They crave it. They are satisfied only when you rank them in a coherent order and, for the most part, they aren’t interested in whatever “thoughtful” comments you might make about their essays...

Early in my career I would leave careful notes on all my students’ essays. Grammar and spelling was corrected, assumptions were challenged, tangents were suggested, and then a hand-written paragraph wrapped up my opinion of their work. A lot of this was boiler plate language, but it was a very time consuming process. Maybe 3-4 short papers could be graded in a hour.
Then one day as class was dismissed I observed students throwing away their graded papers on their way out the door. For the majority of them my precious notes were a waste and you know what? That’s fine. They are not going to be anthropologists. In all likelihood they’ll never write another essay outside of college. Instead of teaching them to write like anthropologists I’d rather start them on the journey (and it is an iterative process, for all of us) of trying to think like one. That process is something in the course itself and not necessarily conveyed by evaluating their work.
I read this at a point when I was grading both first drafts (for one half of the class) and final drafts (for the other half). I had noticed that it took a lot more effort for me to mentally gear up for grading the final drafts, and I realized that it was largely because I could see that some students* had done almost nothing to improve on their first drafts, in some cases, not even bothering to correct things I had marked in their first drafts. Of course it is no secret that some students will often do whatever requires the least amount of effort but it's hard not to start thinking, "Why am I spending all this time giving them feedback if they don't care?" With first drafts, I can at least delude myself that maybe they will learn something from my comments because, if nothing else, they will want to get a better grade on the second draft. But if I'm reading a paper from someone who clearly didn't pay any attention at a point when the comments could have helped, why spend my time making more comments they will ignore?

I will say that my rationale for giving comments at all is a bit dependent on the situation - in the writing class, I feel like the whole point is to give students feedback that will help them improve their writing, but in other classes, I often feel like I'm making comments simply to justify the final grade. That is, comments on the paper give students an indication of why they got the grade they got. In Thompson's post, he describes his current policy where students can elect to get comments by turning in a hard copy; those who don't need comments and just want the grade can turn things in electronically. I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable doing that with the writing class, but maybe...

How do you fight the grading blues?

* I am trying to be very careful here and not generalize too much - I have a good number of students who *do* work hard and are really trying to improve as writers and as economists, and I'm trying to be better about keeping those students in mind!


  1. When there are essays, I read them all without having the pressure to actually grade it. I do write comments, though. Once they are all read, I make a little rubric (many spelling mistakes: -3; no paragraphs: -5; etc). The actual grading goes quickly after that.

    I also emphasize "good writing is tight writing," which not only has the virtue of being true but also makes my grading time easier.

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  3. When I grade the finals, I grade only parts that were corrected. I told my students if they did not consider my comments or consider only some of them, they would earn no points for the final draft. It works.


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