Lessons Learned from Teaching: Part 4, Grading

This semester I taught my first undergraduate class, a freshman-level survey of global literature with a heavy writing component. In this week-long series, I will discuss some of the things I learned over the course of the semester. On Monday I wrote about the development of my syllabus; Tuesday about classroom discussions; yesterday about the students; today’s post is about grading.

My mom once told me that she decided to become a teacher because she liked to grade papers. I’m not sure if she was pulling my leg or not, but there is something sadistically awesome about being the Key Master.

There were three types of assignments in my class: classroom participation (including quizzes), a daily journal, and 5-page papers. The papers were worth 75% of the total grade, the other assignments making up the remaining 25%. As I mentioned in a previous post, I held in-class peer review workshops to help the students improve the quality of the papers. I graded their papers with the assumption that they had gone through it at least once more.

Grad students have a reputation for being much more difficult graders than faculty. I think it’s because we are constantly being critiqued and held to an incredibly high standard for everything we do, and we pass all our stress and anxiety to our students through our assessment of them. Either that, or we’re out for revenge.

I would say that each paper is graded based on its own merit, but no two writers are the same. Writing is highly subjective no matter how much we try to level the playing field. Some students have more natural talent than others when it comes to the written word. But aside from strict mechanics, the quality of the thesis matters a great deal in assessment. Some ideas are better than others. If you have a perfectly executed bad idea, it’s still a bad idea. But I would say for undergrad papers in particular, the mechanics of writing trip them up more than the ideas. Thinking is connected to writing, and if their prose is chaotic, it’s likely that their thoughts about the subject matter are too.

Some professors have different grading strategies. Some like to grade harder at the beginning of the semester than toward the end. The theory goes that if a student sees a lower grade than he or she expected, the student will work even harder to make up the difference. I think this theory could be taken too far (I once had a professor apologize to me at the bottom of his comments for pulling this stunt because he gave me a B instead of an A—I mean, c’mon, what is that.). But this tends to happen naturally, especially if you and the student are doing a good job and the student improves over the course of the semester.

Not every student will turn into the perfect writer. But the comments on their written work (as well as discussions of writing in class) can help.

Another issue I faced is grade inflation. It happens. I’m not happy about it, but it’s sometimes very difficult to justify giving a B+ when the grade could easily have been an A-. Plus, the students are smart. They’re naturally talented. But sometimes they write crappy papers. It happens to the best of us. Do they deserve a lower grade because of a bad case of writer’s block? I don’t know. I only get them for one semester; it’s difficult for me to track changes over time. I can only try to give them a grade that reflects their effort, performance, and potential as best as I can manage.

So, ok, I wanted to end this post with, like, that scene in Clueless where Cher tries to get her grades changed? But it’s not on youtube. So I found the trailer in HD instead. It’s, like, every awesome quote from the movie in under 3 minutes.

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6 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Teaching: Part 4, Grading

  1. L.G.Smith says:

    I wonder if this thinking process translates to agents. Only, instead of bumping a B+ up to an A-, they look at an A- and decide, nah, rejection. As if.

  2. Neurotic Workaholic says:

    What bothers me about grading is some students' sense of entitlement. When they complain about their grades, they say that they "deserve" an A because they showed up to class every day, or because they worked really hard, or because they've always gotten good grades before. But I tell them that what they deserve is the grade that they earned.

  3. Libby says:

    I'll be more than honest, I never once thought about how or why I got the grades I did for papers I wrote. I feel like a little silly now, it never occurred to me about comparison to other students or grade inflation.

  4. Lori Oster says:

    I still struggle with grading papers, although I keep telling myself it will get easier. Eight years in and I'm not so sure. I preferred to have grad students grade my papers in undergrad. Their comments were always so considered, and helpful. I really love this: "If you have a perfectly executed bad idea, it's still a bad idea." This is something I see quite a bit in my developmental writing courses. These students often struggle to place into English 101 because of this very issue. They know how to format and organize and present their ideas, but it is the quality of the ideas that are lacking. Our task is to help them improve the quality of their ideas in one short semester so they can retake the placement and enter English 101. This is what I find difficult. I love this line, too: "Thinking is connected to writing . . . " This could my mantra. I work so hard to help my students surrender to the process, so they can experience the discovery that happens in writing. But if they aren't believers by now, as young adults, how am I to convert them? I'm so happy to have found your blog. Off to read more now.

  5. Christine says:

    Really interesting post. I teach high school English and that is the absolute worst part of the job (I dislike it more than the punks that tell me to eff off). My kids need the grades to go where you are, and your kids need the grades to get jobs. I think we need to be paid more.

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