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Friday, May 4, 2012

When does feedback become 'pre-grading'?

I'm at that point in the semester/assignment cycle where I'm getting a lot of emails from students who are working on their final papers. Some will ask me in class if they can send me a draft to look over. What I generally tell them is that while I won't "pre-grade" their papers, I will certainly let them know if they are (or aren't) on the right track. This is particularly an issue with a couple of assignments where students have a tendency to mis-understand what I am asking them to do. For example, in my writing class, I ask students to write a short (400 word) proposal for a policy brief - they are not supposed to write the brief itself (which was the focus of a previous assignment where they were assigned topics), nor try to make an argument for or against a policy, but they should think about what policy topic they would want to investigate and write a proposal to convince me that such an investigation is needed. No matter how I explain it (and I have now tried many different ways), there are always a number of students who do not understand that they are proposing a larger analysis and they instead try to summarize the policy debate into the two-page maximum, or they write an opinion piece about why a particular policy is needed.  So after they turn in their rough drafts, I usually email those students and explain they are not quite on track. The problem is that many of those students end up sending me additional drafts, as they try to fix things. And at some point, once they ARE on the right track, I have to figure out what to tell them. Do I focus just on the fact that they are finally understanding what I want them to do and tell them "Yes, this looks better", even if their actual execution of the assignment leaves much to be desired? I worry that if I do that, they will think I mean that their paper is now fine and they have no more work to do. Or do I give them feedback on the other aspects of the paper that they still need to fix? The problem I have with that is that is feedback that none of their peers are getting and that I would not have given them if this last draft were the first draft I had seen from them (i.e., if they had been 'on the right track' from the beginning) so that seems to be move more into what I see as "pre-grading" and it doesn't seem fair. On the other hand, isn't my job to help them write the best paper that they can?

This sort of thing is why I am counting down the hours until the semester is over...


  1. You're right about the fairness issue, I think. The more you help, the more you provide incentives for people to keep sending you drafts, while others are quietly working. I think you have to restrict what you're willing to look at, maybe allow for a verbal question to clarify the assignment. At some point, they've got to follow directions and do it without any further feedback.

  2. Interesting. This is not an issue I face much in teaching high school, as very few students have the wherewithal to complete assignments ahead of time and ask for feedback.

    However, high school students are also much more likely to misinterpret directions, so most high school teachers learn early on to be extremely pro-active about giving directions. We give examples of successful work from previous years and we have students spend time reading and discussing the directions and rubric in class rather than trusting that they will read and understand them on their own. Saying stuff like, "Circle the three most important directions on this assignment description and then compare what you circled with your partner" has dramatically decreased the number of misinterpretations of assignments I've given. Of course we want college students to be able to do that on their own...but...

    On the other hand, our goal as teachers should be to help students learn and improve. If we can do this by giving additional feedback on work before it is turned in, then often we can do the student a service.

    Personally, I think I'd draw the line at responding verbally versus via email. Someone who takes the time to come talk to me (and they occasionally do) has shown some initiative. Someone who shoots me an email in the middle of the night is just being lazy.

  3. One approach is to have a policy that you will give specific feedback in response to a specific question but will not give comprehensive feedback (e.g. when students say "read this and tell me what else I have to do to get an A). This approach works well for homework, though I haven't tried it with papers/essays. This approach works best when you announce it up front and put it in the written instructions for the assignment and/or syllabus.

    Another approach, if your school has a writing center for students, is to refer students there for non-content questions, which greatly cuts down on requests for pre-grading. What I usually do is to require students to make and keep an appointment with an individual writing counselor at the writing center 1 week before the paper's due date; they are instructed to have a draft of their paper to discuss with the counselor. At my school, the writing counselors will, at the student's request, send me a brief summary of the session - the time/date of the appointment, the nature of what they worked on. I tell students to have the counselor send me this report, that it is required to get a grade. This have several benefits. First, the quality of the writing is higher in the average assignment. Second, it forces them to have a draft 1 week before the deadline, when otherwise some of them would write the first draft just before the deadline and turn it in with minimal to no revision. Third, for many students, this is their introduction to the writing center, and some of them realize this is a useful resource they can take advantage of for other courses.

    And finally, it reduces requests for me to pre-grade their papers.

    I like commenter Sarah's suggestion of drawing the line at email. It takes no effort for a student to email you a paper and ask what they must do to it to get an A. But it takes some initiative for them to bring a printed draft to your office hours, have you look it over, and discuss the paper together.

    Besides, this, after all, is what office hours are for. The evenings - when you would likely read the emailed paper and respond - should be your personal time.


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