Sunday, December 20, 2015

Why is Grading so Hard?

It's not hard like breaking rocks or using a short-handled hoe, but it's hard.  Anyone who grades knows that.

But why?

It's repetitive, but so is playing solitaire.

It's repetitive AND takes a bit of concentration, but so does playing solitaire.

So why is grading what I'm avoiding, and solitaire what I've been doing to avoid?

I think solitaire has little rewards built in; you feel a little good when you solve the game.  But shouldn't I feel a little good when I grade an exam?  (I'm down to exams now.)

Maybe grading is higher stakes?  So it's repetitive and takes concentration, but unlike solitaire, you have to focus on getting it right or there will be problems.

And unlike solitaire, real people will be affected if there are problems, and I care about those people a fair bit, and want them to succeed for real.  (And not just in a letter grade sort of way.)

I wish I felt that there were an ethical way to give scantron exams in a lit course.

So, what is it?  Why does grading feel so hard?


  1. If we could answer this question and figure out how to make it not difficult, it would change EVERYTHING about the job!

  2. Because you have to read a lot of stuff that isn't, objectively speaking, very good, and be able to articulate precisely why it isn't very good, while at the same time being supportive and encouraging and looking for the bits that you can honestly praise? In other words, it's mostly not the grading, but the commenting. (I find final exams much easier, since I don't comment on those at all; still, there's a certain kind of despair inherent in the task that sucks up a lot of energy, because I'm always hoping the students will do better than they actually do.)

    I always found scoring AP exams ridiculously easy, by comparison, because the students were complete strangers, I wasn't responsible for their work in any way, and I didn't care in the least whether they did well or not.

  3. I'm with Fretful Porpentine -- it's the despair factor. I find this to be especially true with final papers / exams. I had all semester to teach these people something, and *this* is the result?

    It's soul-killing, especially when you have to read (say) 20-25 terrible exams / papers in a row, with only a few good ones thrown in.

    And yes, when I score our assessment packets (students I don't know at all), I breeze through those. This one is terrible? Who cares!
    That's nice. Who cares! Another terrible one. So what!

  4. I, too, think the emotional component is the exhausting part. I wonder how to be both encouraging and honest/fair, I wonder whether they would have done better if I'd done something differently, I wonder why they're still doing *that* (for any of a number of definitions of "that") or not doing that other thing, when I'm sure I mentioned in class, conference, the assignment, etc. I see glimmers of understanding and wonder whether I could have nurtured them better, earlier, etc. I think about things I could do differently, and then think about how much time they would take and the fact that I'm already having trouble keeping up with grading, prep, et al. for the class I have, and realize that I probably can't/shouldn't/won't follow up on most of them.

    And it's repetitive, and boring, and requires both concentration and shifting focus regularly, all while fending off the various thoughts above long enough to get the job done.

    I'm beginning to want a drink just thinking about it, and I don't often drink.

    Also, I managed to mess up a file sync and overwrite the results of some grading I did earlier this week, and only figured it out yesterday (when grades were technically due; fortunately, the registrar does not seem to have opened the office on Sunday to identify and scold faculty who are late with grades, and I think I can fix the problem by tomorrow. But right now, w/ a few papers to go in one section, I'm going to go have dinner at a friend's, because we planned on it, and I need a break). So another thing that sucks about grading is that you're trying to do a lot in a short period of time, all the while trying to be vigilant about not screwing up something relatively high-stakes (though, realistically, one grade in one class, and certainly not one gen ed class, isn't really high stakes in the great scheme of things).

  5. I find grading very personal and emotionally hard - both about me (am I really that bad a teacher? Do these students not see how hard I worked for them, do they not care that these things matter, how can they be so OBTUSE? How did I fail so badly? What is the POINT of my job if all the things I thought happened in the classroom actually didn't change anything?) and for them (I worry about their futures, about how much grades matter to them. I question and requestion the grades I give - in my department and my part of STEM most of the university level work is in the form of essays, exam essays or reports, so grading is a judgement, not a nice quantitative list of right and wrong answers - one reason I like teaching statistics is that despite the very large classes, the grading is easy, as the answers are right or wrong, the writing at the level I teach mechanistic and objectively measurable, so it's easy to write a detailed rubric and just add up points scored). I stress about the process - am I being consistent as I work through this pile? Am I marking this mistake more harshly when I see it for the twentieth time than the first time? Are my comments appropriately phrased, balancing positive and negative, concrete things and intangibles? How do I avoid the impression of damning with faint praise without using any of the "words indicative of specific categories of grading" on a weaker piece ("fair" and "adequate" are the main words for that category)?

    Just writing that exhausts me and I didn't do any grading today! Sigh...

  6. It takes longer to grade the bad stuff so it seems like there's more of it than there actually is.

  7. I think the way we use our students results an indictment of our teaching, as if if we'd been better/clearer/whatever, they would have understood that concept/event/ etc. So when I'm grading, student failure is my failure.