Graded musings

It’s that time of the semester when many of us in teaching positions lock ourselves away in “grading jail”, as we cope with stacks of term papers, exams, and other miscellaneous assignments. As the name implies, grading jail is not a place we go to have fun. It’s a poorly-kept secret that grading is many faculty members’ (and TAs) least favorite part of the job. For me, it’s been a consistent low point in my professional duties – one of the things that hasn’t gotten easier or more enjoyable as I’ve gained more experience.

Image by Jorge Cham, Originally published 2/6/2008. Click link to go to original. Thanks Dr. Cham for so well depicting our collective grading angst!

Image by Jorge Cham, Originally published 2/6/2008. Click image to go to original. Thanks Dr. Cham for so well depicting our collective grading angst!

Professional wisdom and tradition suggest that grading is important. Or rather, giving timely, frequent, and constructive feedback on students’ work is important to help students learn and to evaluate the job we are doing as teachers. Conversely, letting the grading stacks pile up for weeks or designing our syllabi to minimize grading decreases student interest in learning.

On the other hand, grades are extrinsic motivators that have attracted numerous critiques. Among these critiques are that assigning grades encourages students to merely do what is sufficient to achieve the desired grade (often, memorize facts), rather to engage deeply with – and learn – the material. Grading has also been critiqued for reducing students’ preferences for challenging tasks and for reducing the creativity of students’ thinking. Sadly, even providing lots of feedback along with a grade may not diminish the deleterious effects of the grade on student motivation. However, these critiques have themselves been critiqued by those who argue that extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation to learn are not inherently at odds.

Like them or not, grades are not going to go away anytime soon at most American Universities (though there are notable exceptions).   So I guess my colleagues and I should just get over ourselves and stop whining about it, eh?

Yet, as I’ve sat at home this holiday weekend with a pressing pile of grading, I haven’t been able to help myself from trying to figure out what makes grading stink and how I might make it a better experience for myself (and my students) in future semesters.  (For context, I mainly teach upper-level science courses with enrollments of 20-30 and no TA.)

Grading is a drag. If a student does well on a question or an assignment it’s a pleasure to grade… and it doesn’t take very long. Therefore, most of the time I spend grading is on the student responses where there are problems. So inherently the balance of my grading time is spent focused on the failures – of student learning and of my teaching – which doesn’t set me up to have a good frame of mind about it. Further, most assignments fall into one of two categories. Either, by the time I’ve read a few papers, I’ve seen where students are having problems, yet I have to continue to read dozen(s) more, providing the same feedback over and over. Or, the students find all the possible unique ways to go wrong with a quantitative problem. Intellectually this is more stimulating and enjoyable than the sameness of essays, but it carries with it the mental gymnastics of trying to figure out how a new form of wrong answer fits into a carefully constructed rubric or grading scale. The solution to these woes is clearly not to give only assignments where everyone will get all right answers. Copy and pasting stock responses speeds assignments with repeated problems, and I guess I should just develop some equanimity about the non-absoluteness of grading scales.

Another irking thing is that grading takes time (lots and lots of time), and time is a faculty member’s most precious resource. Time I spend grading is time I’m not spending on the research that forms the primary part of my professional evaluation. Worse, its not even time spent on the enjoyable parts of teaching – preparing for class and interacting with students. It’s the insidious invisible part of teaching that probably doesn’t even show up on student evaluations (unless you’ve done a spectacularly bad job of it). So, finding ways to make grading take less time would be good. Also, finding ways to make myself allocate time for grading (and not always at the expense of my weekends) would be good.

Abhorring high-stakes testing and following the wisdom that students benefit from practice and feedback, many faculty (including me) have designed courses with multiple, lower-value assignments that give students many chances to build up key skills over the course of the semester. For example, this semester my course goals included getting students to read and comprehend journal articles and to develop some field-specific quantitative skills. The consequence of that course philosophy though is lots and lots of grading. This semester, I’ve had something new to grade almost every week, in one course alone. And when things like grant deadlines, conferences, and illness have popped up, I’ve fallen behind on my grading and had a hard time catching up.

As I push myself toward the end of this semester (84 more things to grade, yes, I’ve counted) and contemplate my new course prep for next semester, I thinking about few ideas to improve my grading prospects. First, I think I need to pick only one course goal where I will focus on giving students repeated practice to build skills. This alone should reduce my grading load substantially. Second, I think I need to make specific blocks in my schedule to accomplish grading. Right now I set aside chunks of each day or week for lab work, writing, meeting with students, and teaching prep, but I don’t set aside time for grading. Yes, the dedicated chunks of time get over-ridden with some regularity, but just knowing that a doctor’s appointment took my hour to write makes me more likely to make time to write later in the day. Without dedicated grading blocks, I never do it during the “work day” and I never compensate for lost grading time. No wonder I’ve gotten behind. But both of these strategies address the time problem and not the “depressingness of wrong answers” problem. I’ll confess I don’t have a lot of ideas on that front. Do you?

What strategies have you developed to make grading easier or more enjoyable? Yes, wine and chocolate may be included in your answer, but beyond palliatives, are there ways to make grading better or to make better peace with it?


17 thoughts on “Graded musings

  1. Grading is one of my least favorite parts of my job. I find it better in groups. If I have one or more TAs, if we sit together and try to get through it all together, we can work on consistency/reliability across graders; divide up tasks (if it’s an exam, we can split which questions we each do, and specializing cuts back on amount of time on each question); check in with each other; and laugh, when necessary. Otherwise, apply wine and/or ice cream. And reward myself with something (treat? TV break? sleep?) when reaching milestones in # of papers done.

    • Thanks so much for the enlisting help suggestion. A lot of the classes I teach are mixed undergrad and grad, so I can’t ask grad students to grade. But this semester I am giving separate final exams, so I’m definitely going to take your suggestion and recruit a couple of students to help with the grading,

  2. I will take them in sets of 10. You can’t get motivated to grade 84 essays, but grading 8 sets with a bonus mini stack is much easier. And it keeps me from getting angrier as I go. I’ll take a set and then take a break. Then I’ll dive in for another quick set before lunch. I find this helps.

  3. Ugh, this is a timely post. I spent all of yesterday grading and still have a pile of 25 assignments for today. I place them in stacks 5 high and time myself. I’m not necessarily trying to go as fast as possible, but just keep myself on pace and use the time as a motivator.

  4. Like Eva L suggested, groups help.

    One prof I worked for organized grading “parties” with other profs and TAs. We’d get together in a common room or classroom with a lot of table space (conference rooms where departmental meetings and suchlike are held work well, as do spare classrooms, so long as the door may be locked to prevent students wandering in and the walls are decently soundproof for confidentiality), bring your own coffee/tea and optionally snacks, and grade for 3-6 hours. It’s so much less tedious when there are others around to complain at, plus you can often get good ideas for how to explain troublesome concepts from your colleagues. If you have a hard time with procrastinating unpleasant or tedious tasks as I do, the scheduled “get it over with” helps prevent a backlog, too.

    As a first-year TA a few years back, I admit I rolled my eyes when I heard my prof was going to make it part of our work schedule since I’m really really really not at all a party person. I even avoid potlucks. So I figured it’d be a disaster for me. Contrary to my initial expectations, I found it really helps to break the ice and build camaraderie among the teaching staff, it helps prevent procrastination and last-minute-dash-induced carelessness, and it helps make the act of marking far less unpleasant than it would be otherwise.

    As an added bonus for big courses with many TAs but one marking scheme: The prof is right there so if there’s a problem with the marking scheme, it gets spotted and corrected right away. Likewise, if there’s something ambiguous, the prof’s right there so the TA doesn’t feel like they have to guess at how the prof wants them to mark. Finally, discussions amongst teaching staff about how to handle common situations can be had – for example: If a student messes up step A, but does all the following steps correctly, should they lose marks for steps B-Z, and if so, how many? – so that everyone’s on the same page and everyone knows why the prof wants them to follow a specific marking scheme (this reduces headstrong TAs disregarding marking instructions and deciding on their own, thus reducing marking consistency in the course – “problem” TAs I worked with often ceased to be problems in that regard when they knew where the prof was coming from).

    For me, the parties were very draining as I’m autistic and large groups like that are difficult for me to follow conversations and interact successfully in. However, overall, it was a net positive due to the benefits discussed above and because the activity was structured, there was a reason for us gathering together and a common topic to discuss, and if I wanted to just buckle down and work and not make banter, people didn’t mind because we were there to work. So I’d encourage even those who have difficulty with such environments to give this idea a try – you might find it surprisingly helpful. I did.

    • Thanks for sharing this, and I’m glad it worked. But for those of you who are in the position of organising these events, please be aware of any staff (particularly part-time or casual staff) who have family responsibilities – for them, it might just be impossible and they will get more done if they can fit it in around childrens’ mealtimes or soccer practice or when they have a break from whatever other duties they have, which may be in short bursts or whatever.

      When I was working part-time, and had a long commute and 3 kids and a hubby working away from home all week, and no family nearby to do babysitting, there was no way I could have attended such an event, no matter how much it might have improved my productivity.

  5. I actually do this at night before I go to bed. I get all cozy in bed, pick out a number I want to finish, and do it when I’m so brain-dead that I can’t really do anything else productive. My husband is usually sitting there reading, so I’ll read off some of the outlier comments (either good or bad). That’s the only way it’s tolerable for me as any other time, I feel like I’m wasting precious brainpower on something that really doesn’t need it.

  6. “First, I think I need to pick only one course goal where I will focus on giving students repeated practice to build skills.” This is an excellent idea (1) it is a better learning opportunity for students (for those that take the time to build the skills, some don’t bother – sorry to be negative, too much of my life spent grading!!!!) and (2) it is more positive for you. But don’t kid yourself that it will reduce the total time, it will just be less boring and less of it will be in blocks.

    I actually think it is so onerous because it is boring. Pure and simple.

    The other thing to consider (from pedagogical and time-management and boring viewpoint) is that feedback given at the end of the semester is not really useful to the students. Many of them just want to finish and get on with next semester. So having smaller assignments earlier in the semester (whether or not you give a chance to resubmit) is again better for all.

    And if you put more numerical emphasis on several short quizzes, which can be multi-choice and either computer-marked or marked with a simple template, to ensure they are actually learning some of the ‘language’ can reduce the number of end-of-semester assignments and therefore their load and your load. (I don’t advocate this as giving them the majority of their marks, but it is useful for the reasons I mentioned).

    If you have what we call ‘tutorials’ – small group sessions for discussion, seminar work, or helping with numerical problen-solving, then you can also allocate part of the grade to their participation (which can also include asking questions, or demonstrating they have done the pre-reading, not just getting the ‘right’ answer) and that can reduce the number of end-of-semester pieces of writing you have to grade, and it takes no time as it is done in class by you or the TA.

    These are things I found useful. But nothing, nothing, nothing avoids the boredom and time involved, and angst at all the misconceptions that you know are too late to correct. And as you mention, the absolute annoyance of spending 90% of the time on the 10% of poorest students – often trying to see if there is one more mark you can find so they can get a passing grade, whether or not a pass is ‘deserved’.

    Sometimes, if students complained that they got 48% that it was ‘almost’ a pass and i should review their paper, I would ask them that if their Doctor got given a ‘pass’ when he/she only got 48% of the anatomy exam correct, would they be confident in consulting that doctor?

  7. I’ve been grading for 20+ years now and still hate it. My solution of late has been to teach as many writing-intensive courses as possible, to stop given exams entirely, and to spend lots of time one-on-one with students *talking* about their work rather than scribbling in the margins of papers. I provide frequent and (I think) formative feedback throughout the semester, BUT I don’t put scores on anything except in the final product. No “points” for drafts, outlines, annotated bibliographies, etc., though there are penalties if you don’t do them. I’ve found that once the task of calculating “points” to differentiate between difference levels of performance is set aside, simply providing feedback on how to improve is not that hard.

    And it’s more like real life; after all, how many times would your boss ask for drafts of that critical report and give you credit for trying?

    • Good on you, Kiwanda. A fantastic strategy. If this is possible, you are right, it is more like real life. And as a bonus, it gives you an opportunity to pass on your enthusiasm for your discipline, something students really appreciate even if they don’t follow you into that discipline.

      However, with courses of 200+ first-year students doing a mandatory course that they don’t necessarily like, then your strategy poses a problem. One I overcame by having small-group teaching sessions with penalties for NOT participating. However, towards the end of my career, even these were abandoned because of funding issues. (Some lab sessions can be used for this purpose too, I used to insist the TAs question the students about what they were doing and just get them to talk about it in their own words … but the ability to do this to everyone in every session is also limited if the lab exercise is actually going to get finished).

  8. I don’t teach but I have a few words of wisdom. If your work seems tedious think of another job that’s worse. You could be pumping out septic tanks. Or pulling the transmission out of a school bus.
    I do see where it’s hard to teach creativity when most of the world is pass/fail. You wire an electric motor and it runs, pass. If it hums and smokes, fail.

  9. This semester I’ve been using feedback forms that list the questions relevant to each of the course criteria. As I grade each question I mark it satisfactory or not on the form, with maybe a short note. This has been working well, because it’s easier to look at the summary form than to skim through the whole marked paper to evaluate the student’s strengths.
    I also divide them into smaller piles, and reward myself by doing them at Starbucks. At one time I did them on the exercycle, but that doesn’t work with many models. I sometimes see a woman at my gym grading on the stair stepper!

  10. My strategy is this. In the first half of the semester I have a few low-stakes assignments that I grade either a 1- 5 points or check minus, check, check plus. This is largely to get them to focus on content and provide an incentive to do the readings etc. and I can quickly see where the students are at in terms of the material. In the second half of the semester they produce a draft of a paper that they then workshop with other students. I break them up in to groups. Problems here are getting them to turn in something substantial in time, and getting them to give constructive criticism to each other. If anyone has ideas on this I would be grateful. Bonus here is that the next draft that is turned in is slightly less horrible. This second draft is the one I grade carefully. This does take time and I use many of the strategies listed in this thread. Then they have a final draft at the end of the semester that theoretically they have worked on three times and they are required to show some consideration of my comments and appropriate changes in order to earn a higher grade. I go through these final papers very quickly. It is helpful to have copies of their draft papers saved with comments so I can compare them side by side. This system seems to work (sometimes better than others) for teaching them both content and writing skills. I got tired of hating reading their poor writing. But grading writing assignments is so unbearably taxing (as this whole thread seems to agree), I used some ideas from a “how to grade writing” workshop to develop this system. The low-stakes assignments and peer-review tasks help me get through the semester.

    • Justine, like anything, giving constructive feedback needs training. Have you thought of having a workshop session or even devoting a lecture session to teaching the students how to do this? Perhaps when they have their partner’s draft, and you can go through a check-list of things to look for.

      The other comment is this: they perhaps feel constrained about criticising someone who is a friend – they have not yet learnt to separate the personal from the professional. Have you thought of collecting the drafts and distributing them at random, maybe with a code identifyer and not the student’s name?

  11. For written assignments, does anyone use online submission for drafts and ‘track changes’ programs for making comments? surely if you then save these, you have something to check against when the final is submitted – whether online or not. The downside, of course, is that it restricts where you can do the grading (although even this is changing with the use of smart phones and tablets, which can be used at Starbucks if not the gym).

    With online submissions, you can also use a standard set of comments for common mistakes, and cut and paste them when appropriate – saving a lot of potential RSI of the writing hand.

    I realise this is not possible for all types of assessment, but for the longer formative assessments during the semester it might help, and it makes the final reading that Justine talked about easier to compare with the draft.

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