Wednesday, October 20, 2010

balance, pt. 7: grading

When I first started teaching, I spent far too much of my time grading. I commonly teach about 100 students per semester, and if that doesn't seem like a lot, I'll point out that classes here are expected to be heavy on papers, essay exams, and activities, and we have no graduate student TAs to help us with the grading.

I like to get feedback to my students as soon as possible, and I want my feedback to be substantive and constructive. As a result, my first couple of years here I would frequently be snowed under by a pile of grading. Nothing else got done, of course, and frankly the results - as measured by the usefulness of my critiques to the students - were not worth the effort.

So, I tamed the grading beast. Here are a few pointers that worked for me and for my students. These are mostly no-brainers, but they took me a long time to figure out, so I thought I might as well share them. YMMV.

Grading rubrics. An oldie but goodie. When grading an essay, paper, or presentation, I pick the 4-8 most important aspects of the assignment, and I decide how many points each one should be worth. Then I create a column for each of those items in an Excel spreadsheet and put the grades in as I read each paper. Not only can I set it up so Excel automatically adds all the points together to create the final grade, but I can use mail merge to give each student a print-out of their grade break-down with comments.

For example, let's say I've assigned a paper on gorillas, and it is worth 50 points total. I may decide that spelling and punctuation are worth 5 points, grammar and style are 5 points, coverage of basic gorilla biology is 10 points, description of gorilla social organization is 10 points, coverage of gorilla diet is 10 points, and coverage of gorilla conservation is another 10. Obviously, these topics should correspond to the directions for the assignment that I gave to my students. I put together an Excel spreadsheet with each one of those categories as a separate column. As I read John Doe's paper, I put a number in each of those columns, and in the last column I write general comments. Mail merge can then create a Word file that can be printed and stapled to the papers to be returned to the students. More frequently, I copy and paste the relevant paragraph to the end of the student's electronically submitted paper and send it back to them. The file usually looks something like this, and only takes minutes to create for the whole class:
Paper 1: Gorillas
Doe, John

Spelling and punctuation (out of 5 points): 3
Grammar and style (out of 5 points): 4
Basic biology (out of 10 points): 8
Social organization (out of 10 points): 7
Diet (out of 10 points): 10
Conservation (out of 10 points): 6

Total points (out of 50): 38

Comments: Good job on this paper overall, John, but I'd like to see more detail in your discussion of gorilla conservation. I particularly liked your section on gorilla diet, but be careful of typos. I'm pretty sure you didn't mean that gorillas eat their chests.
The beauty of the system is that you've given feedback on where the student went wrong, (John now knows which parts of the paper were strong and which ones were weak), but you don't have to spell it out for him. If you want, you can always add another comments column by each grade, and add that to the mail merge. For example, the grade for spelling and punctuation could have the number, followed by the comment "Please watch for typos. They are very distracting!" I find this system much faster and easier than trying to decide on (and justify) an overall grade without breaking it down in this fashion.

Typical-paragraph comments. A friend of mine is an English professor, has taught one bizillion sections of Freshman Comp, and runs the Writing Tutorial Center at Tiny U. She put me onto the idea of only correcting one typical paragraph, rather than trying to correct grammar, spelling, and organization problems throughout a paper. This is an absolute God-send when one of your students is barely capable of writing a complete sentence, and frequently fails to reach even that mark. My friend maintains that it's the best way to teach students how to write (when paired with the requirement that they re-write one of their essays). If you correct every mistake a student makes, all they will do is go through and make the changes you pointed out to them. If, instead, you mark the major problems in one paragraph and tell them to change similar problems in the rest of the paper, then they have to truly understand your corrections. As a bonus, it takes a lot less of your time!

Pick your battles. This is another tip from my friend the English professor: don't try to fix everything. Whether the paper is excellent or excruciating, pick no more than three problems for the student to fix. Those three things may be the details that turn a good paper into a great one, or they may be things like "try outlining your paper to improve organization", "please craft a legitimate thesis statement", and "for the love of all that is Holy, learn how to write a complete sentence!" It can be tempting to try to fix all of a student's problems, but if you dump all over a paper, the criticism will just be overwhelming. I don't mean that in a touchy-feely, don't-damage-their-poor-little-psychies-by-using-a-red-pen kind of way. What I mean is that too many problems to fix will lead to no problems being fixed. Many students will just give up. It's just not possible to overcome the failure of 12 years of pre-college education in the two weeks before the next paper is due. But if you give them two or three specific tasks to accomplish, they can master those before moving on.

The internet is your friend. I have created an on-line component to all of my introductory classes. Pre-labs, reading quizzes, exams, and activities can all be put on-line using a Moodle or Blackboard system. The initial set-up is a bear, but once they are up and running, many of these activities can be automatically graded by the computer and the grades put in the student's online grade book. Presto - no more grading! Obviously, cheating is easier under this system, but I've moved toward open book and open note exams, with the result that average grades have actually dropped! Why? Partly because students think they don't have to study if it's open book, but also because I can skip a lot of the easy questions and focus on questions that really test comprehension of the basic class concepts. (Yes, it is possible to test comprehension using multiple choice and matching questions.)

An added bonus of creating an on-line component to your class is that students can upload their papers and written assignments to the class web-page, which allows you to request electronic manuscripts without having your e-mail box fill up. The papers are conveniently located in one area on-line, and you won't have to hear any more excuses about failed e-mails.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, this is extremely helpful! I too spend WAY too much time per paper on grading sometimes, I will have to try some of these tips.