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.
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?