Friday, December 15, 2006


Ever wonder what faculty folks think about while they're grading?

First, I think most people try to grade ethically. We try to be fair and just.

But especially when essays, presentations, and such are involved, grading is difficult. Today, having finished one stack of papers this morning, finally, I'm going to talk about the difficulty on a sort of mechanical level. But there are emotional complexities to grading, too. That's for another time, perhaps.

Horace over at To Delight and Instruct has a post on random bits of grading hell. He asks about the grading of specific problems in papers. What to do about the paper with a brilliant premise that's a structural and stylistic mess? What about the paper that applies the obvious theory to an overdone text?

There's no "right answer" to questions of grading essays. Some people try to be more "objective" by creating an extensive grading rubric* that breaks down the grade into numbers earned by some feature of the assignment. Sometimes these rubrics seem really helpful, but by and large, when I try to use them, I feel like I'm pretending to objectivity.

I find it more helpful to spend time in a given class talking about the requirements of the assignment (an essay, for example), starting with what makes the essay "competent" as a C. (C as competent seems to make more sense in our discussions than C as "average." I'll rant some other time about the problem of "average.") In a first year writing assignment, for example, basic competence will happen when

~an essay addresses the assignment in a meaningful way (if you write about your summer vacation when the assignment asks you to explain a chemical reaction, it's not competent)

~an essay has a thesis that makes a point, and then argues, demonstrates, or develops that point

~an essay has an introduction that sets up a context and a conclusion that helps the reader understand why s/he's been reading, why the essay's important, or something similar

~an essay has appropriate organization and paragraphing

~an essay acknowledges the ideas and words of others appropriately

And so forth. Down at the bottom somewhere is proofreading and grammar. But if I can't make heads nor tails of the prose because of bad grammar and proofreading, the paper fails, even if there's a brilliant central concept because the essay hasn't communicated the concept.

I find thinking in terms of competency helpful as I grade my first year writing papers because that's the basic stake. Does the essay demonstrate competency at the first year college level?

Moving beyond the competency question gets tougher, but once I've answered that basic question, at least I know which direction I'm headed in.

Grading isn't only a matter of sticking a letter grade on an essay. In fact, that's not really what's most important, though our system values it highly (by recording GPAs and such). What's really important is what the reader communicates to the writer, the dreaded note. Students dread notes because they often feel harsh and don't seem helpful.

Instructors dread the note because it's hard to write, and we know that some students, probably the students who most should read them carefully, won't actually read them. We've all seen students get a paper back, flip to the grade, and then stuff the paper into a book bag. Ugh. On the other hand, most of us have also had a student complain about a note we've written, overreading, perhaps, or picking up on the weakness of our note. (I once had a student complain because I wrote "huh?" in the margin of the paper, right next to where she talked about a plot point that didn't have anything to do with the play she was writing about. I was a TA at the time, and got reprimanded by the prof for writing "huh?" No, he said, I was supposed to explain that the plot point wasn't actually in the play. In other words, I was supposed to take more time writing MY marginal response than she'd taken to actually write the paper.)

It's really easy as an instructor with a massive stack of papers to want to write a note that starts with a positive point and then moves to the contrast set up ("but," or "however") to explain why the paper got the grade it got. Let's face it, it's easy to justify putting an A on a great paper. But I know that when I give a student a B, if I praise the paper extensively, s/he's going to come wondering why it didn't get an A. So for anything less than an A, I feel the need to justify the lower grade. That's a systemic problem, I'm afraid. I don't know how to change it.

I do know that I'm unsatisfied with trying to write a meaningful response that reads basically [something positive] "BUT" [lots of negative]. (This is so stereotypical that Eye of a Cat actually did a Zork take-off on grading; hat tip to Ancrene Wiseass. I LOVE that!)

So I try to do things differently, without great success. I try to talk about what I see happening in the thesis, and how it could work better. I try to talk about the overall organization, or an especially smart point. I try to write more than one positive sentence, and to avoid transitioning with a "but" or "however."

And I suck at it. Really.

It's easier early in the term, when my first year students will have the opportunity to revise their papers for a new grade because then my comments really DO have a chance of helping the writer make positive changes. But at the end of the semester, grading is more fully evaluative than helpful, and that in itself is frustrating.

*Rubric - A rubric originally is a note on a manuscript in red ink (some sort of red lead concoction, if I recall). Here's a picture of a music manuscript with a BRIGHT red rubric. I think of rubrics as a sort of medieval hypertext, like medieval and early modern Bibles complete with massive commentary (a practice copied from the ways Jews commented on Torah and Talmudic texts, as I understand it). Just way cool, anyway, and having little to do with the grading rubrics as we think of them.

Oh, my, I've learned to use colors now. This could get ugly FAST!

1 comment:

  1. My rubric just sort of guides me (and maybe the students) along without using numbers. So I can point out under organization the elements that are indeed of A quality and circle some that might be more problematic and thus in the B or C range. By the time I've done 5-6 categories including style and mechanics at the end, a grade is already evolving.

    They do save me a lot of time and help me be consistent. I also have very, very few students coming in to ask about the grades.

    still -- I'm procrastinating and there are many more to grade in the next few days. the fun ones are done.