Grading Woes

Earlier this week my friend Emma the Grecian Sailor lamented that grading for her fluid mechanics class takes up too much of her time—there are only precious few good sailing days left this season, you know. And she’s right. How does one give a responsible, formative assessment fast enough to have time left over to bat around on the Charles? This question is as old as grading itself. Likewise, Verena has complained that Physics 15b has taken over her life. So, to my grad school buddies, I have an illustrative anecdote and suggestion: Like a magician would, confuse your students—divert their attention.

A few years ago, I helped teach what has since become a notoriously large freshman honors math course: Math 23ab tries to train those heretofore uninitiated in mathematics to think, write, and speak like a mathematician. We try to sneak in a little multivariable calculus and linear algebra along the way. (I threw in a little geometry and physics, too, when I could.) But being high-performing over-acheivers, these kids were super-aware of their grades. When one of the teaching staff gave one student a full zero out of ten points on her set, she objected and cried—in class! We had an emergency staff meeting to discuss the matter. The grading, it seemed, had to change.

Isadora and I complained that the last set had taken us each more than twenty hours to grade. (And for those of you economists and computer scientists out there, we weren’t doubling up on the work. Each course assistant graded exactly one problem from the set each week. If the problems were shorter, sometimes two.) As is usually the case in any collaborative venture, we couldn’t come to a consensus. We did have some wonderful lunches together at the faculty club, though.

To address the problem personally, I devised the following tactics:

  • Never grade out of a small, round number. Tens, twentys, and hundreds are strictly out. Kids can figure out their percentage right pretty easily if you do. And that means they’ll protest their grades more often. You don’t want them to pass their sets back in once you’ve passed them out. It’s just no fun.
  • Use outrageously large, unround numbers instead. Typically, I’d increase the worth of each question the further we were into the semester. Say, for example, a question might be work 268 points in September; 94760 in January. When the point values climb, students are less likely to care if you took 79 points off for something. Also, they almost never divide out to find their percentages anymore. Who cares what 6432/7356 is? Those are mean-looking numbers, after all!
  • Vary point values throughout a single set. If I had more than one question to grade, or one multi-part question, I’d mix it up. Part A might be worth 2305 points, whereas Part B was out of 7342. It shifts the focus off the grades, and off of you.
  • Don’t worry about strict consistancy. Setting up and maintaining a rubric is hard work, especially if you change your mind thirty-three sets into a hundred. Because the point values are so wacky, the students will assume that your grading schema is complicated and often won’t challenge or compare grades. It risks entering the rigamarole of your mind. That said, try hard to be fair.
  • Write encouraging remarks on their work. My favorites were wizard, way-to-go, good effort, and ingenious. Always follow your comments up with an exclamation mark.
  • Never grade in red. It puts them in a bad place, psychologically. And by bad, I mean nervous and contemptuous. I prefered orange Crayola markers. If I felt especially fiesty, I’d use purple.
  • Give explanatory feedback when appropriate. One former student reminded me that I had once graded her set, “This is impossible. [short explanation] See solution set. 10/10.” To be fair to me, she had it conceptually correct, except for, of course, the part that was impossible, which I circled in orange.
  • Write clear solution sets and post them in a timely manner. Another student, who had turned her set in late, told me that she used my solution set for help. I asked if she cited it. She had. My answers looked right to me. And so she got full-credit.

Hopefully, these techniques will redirect the students’ attention from their grades (product) onto their arguments (process). The idea is to retrain them, many of whom hold strongly developed outcome-orientations, to care about how they got the answer, and not merely that they got the answer. (Last night Michelle told me that a biologist told her that you can train just about anything larger than an amoeba, and that includes people. Of course people in social learning theorists have been saying that for years.) [Check out an old post for more.] And with any luck, it’ll make your life as a grader a little more comfortable.

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