Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Privileged Problem

I just turned back a set of papers that were fairly typical first year writing class papers. Overall, they were dismal in the way that such papers tend to be, but since students have an opportunity to revise them for a different grade, it's not horrific.

But I hate turning back papers. I find it stressful.

The students flip to the grade, and then they tend to look down, and I know they feel bad, and I don't want them to feel bad. I want them to write really good papers.

I know they've tried hard, but there's a point where trying hard doesn't always lead to stunning success. I can try as hard as I want, practice with massive diligence, and still, I won't succeed in the NBA. Or on the Tour. (And then, of course, there are degrees of "trying hard." I may ride really hard for an hour, but that doesn't compare to spending six or more hours on a bike just about every day of the week. Similarly, what counts as hard work for one student may not for another.) And I'm not grading effort.


  1. Anonymous8:55 AM

    I feel this post, too.

  2. See, this is one advantage of collecting and commenting on papers electronically: I don't have to see their faces when they get the grade.

  3. I've been using a new approach with papers -- I never grade the first draft, I only comment on it. When possible (it's really only possible with small classes and comp classes) I also schedule conferences over every draft.

    With this method, students aren't being judged on their first/early efforts. They're being taught how to revise an early effort into a seriously good paper. With this method, students see me, the professor, as someone who is on their side, actually teaching them how to create a better paper. (Most of them have no idea how to create a decent paper.)

    It's extremely labor intensive on my part; but I have made up for it (somewhat) by reducing the number of papers I assign in comp classes down to four. They're four good papers, though, by the time they are done, and students come out of the class actually knowing how to build a paper, instead of frustrated and angry.

    I use the same process somewhat refined in upper-level classes, except I don't schedule conferences. I just have students turn in an early draft, comment extensively on that draft, and then return it for revision, without a grade.

    Obviously, since it's not graded, and students KNOW it won't be graded, some students don't take this draft seriously; but for those who do, it's very useful.

  4. I remember the first time a kid said to me after receiving his paper, "But I worked really hard . . ." It was hard to explain that not all effort is equal.

  5. My response to "I worked really hard" is... "That's great, but apparently it wasn't hard enough this time." Then I ask about when they started, where they could have gotten help etc. etc. etc. I do believe that with enough hard work and persistence, almost all my students can meet my standards (the one exception: still haven't figured out how to get through to global learners, but they can pass the class with enough work!). But it generally takes more work than they've put in thus far.

  6. styleygeek6:18 AM

    Speaking of grading effort, I once asked students to (optionally) let me know how long they had spent on their last paper. Then I made a graph of time spent vs grades, for the students who agreed to participate. It was really telling. I showed it to the students (without names, obviously), and they were all pretty amazed.

    Most of them were amazed that ANYONE spent as much time on an assignment as the people at the high end of the curve did. But they were also quite impressed at how well time spent correlated with grades. I don't think I got anyone pulling the "but I worked so HARD" schtick that time round, because they could see from the hard data that compared to the other students, actually they really hadn't.

    Sadly, though, there were two or three students who had spent really long hours, like, twice as long as the average, on the assignment, and had still failed. Mainly they were ESL speakers, but still, my heart went out to them.