Friday, October 14, 2005

 

Grading papers

The approach of the second Teaching Carnival has called forth a spate of interesting posts on grading essays from GZombie, New Kid on the Hallway, and ADM at Blogenspiel.

I find these kinds of posts very helpful since I'm still learning my way around the classroom and experimenting with different means of student assessment. And I'm glad the academic blogosphere provides these kinds of exchanges between teachers at different institutions. My sense is that academics are much more open to discussing their research with other scholars than they are to discussing their teaching with other teachers. Academic life is organized around intellectual exchanges in public--whether in seminars at individual departments or in reports in professional journals and at conferences. We routinely let each other into our archives, studies, and conference rooms. But letting other teachers into our classrooms, literally and figuratively, is still something that I think doesn't happen often enough.

So, about grading. During the 2004-2005 academic year, I taught two courses--a freshman seminar and an upper-level seminar--in which the writing assignments were very different. In the freshman seminar, students worked throughout the semester on an original, biographical research paper about an African American abolitionist of their choice. I devoted two class periods to talking about the paper: in one of them, I invited a librarian to talk to students about the library's resources, and in another, I talked about the research and writing process, using as an exmple some research I had recently done for an entry in the African American National Biography. The upper-level seminar, on the other hand, was an intensive reading seminar, meeting only once a week, and students wrote three short papers over the course of the semester. I distributed prompts at the very beginning of the course, and on one of the papers, I gave students a choice of three prompts.

My experiences in running the two courses confirmed what I already suspected: I prefer assigning a series of short papers, and that's what I'm doing this semester. With the short papers, I made marginal notations on the paper itself and then typed out detailed comments (no more than a page) that spoke to the paper's strengths and weaknesses as a whole. These extensive comments on Paper #1 (hopefully) help students write Paper #2 and also make clear what I'm looking for as I'm reading the papers. By Paper #3, that should be even clearer to students. Since, however, I basically used my comments on Paper #1 as the major means of writing instruction for the course, I also weighted the grades for the papers so that they become progressively more valuable over the course of the semester.

In the freshman seminar, though, since the research paper was a cumulative writing assignment for the course, I distributed a rubric in advance. (PDF.) The rubric assigns numerical values to particular aspects of the paper, but it also uses a series of qualitative questions for each aspect. These questions let students know what I'm asking myself as I'm evaluating the paper. And the numbers also correspond to qualitative terms like "excellent" and "fair." To be sure, assigning numbers to essays may not be the ideal way to assess writing. (See this post from June at Scrivenings for a good discussion on this point.) But I think rubrics can be devised that combine qualitative measures with some fairly specific and non-arbitrary numbers. And as with the papers in the other class, I was still able to give students a typed-out page of comments in conjunction with the rubric.

Because the rubric was distributed beforehand, I had no complaints about grades from students after the paper. In the upper-level seminar, however, in which I just assigned letter grades to the papers along with my comments, I did have some complaints. Nonetheless, I feel like the "series of short papers" better served students, and communicated to them that I was a reader of their papers who happened to be the grader, whereas the idea that I am approaching papers with rubric in hand makes students think of me first and foremost as the grader. I realize there's no way around that: students know I'm handing out grades, and that's always going to be on their minds. But if I want my students to learn to write by thinking more generally about the audiences for their writing, then I want, as much as possible, to model for them what an engaged reader of their papers has to say about them. If they internalize that model, then they are more likely to become good readers of their own work. It doesn't help them, in the long run, to be good "graders" of their own work by stamping a rubric over their writing.

Nonetheless, both systems have their advantages. I think the rubric worked especially well for a freshman seminar; many of the students were taking their first history class and writing their first paper, and for them, perhaps, prose comments on their paper might not have been as useful as a holistic rubric. In upper-level classes, though, I think the rubric may have less usefulness, since advanced undergraduates ought to be moving as quickly as possible towards writing practices in which they imagine themselves as communicators with an engaged reader, rather than as trainees working for a grade.

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Collective Improvisation:
Thanks for sharing your grading rubric, very interesting. I notice that it only covers 40 points--did you assume 60 merely for turning it in?

I also use numeric grades but think it's more a matter of personal style than better/worse--I think we all go through the same process whether it gets expressed as a letter or a number. For instance, your rubric asks the same questions I consider while grading, and explain to my students in various handouts. (I think I weight differently, though)

I love to talk about teaching--with other profs, with my students--but you're right, I'm terrified of letting anyone actually into my classroom. But discussions on teaching are one of the main reasons why I check academic blogs.

Posted by Anonymous Dee on 10/16/2005 12:10:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks, Dee! The rubric added up to 40 points because I used a 100-point system to determine grades in the course. The paper was worth 40 of those 100 points.

I think you're right that numeric grades are not absolutely better or worse than letter grades. We have to figure out some way to evaluate, and I agree that at some basic level, all of us are going through the same process when we grade.

Also, although I did let that word "literally" slip into my line about opening our classrooms, I didn't mean to stress that word. I think that these kinds of exchanges on blogs are ways of opening up our classrooms for constructive peer review; for some people, actual observations are helpful too, but I don't think they are the only way to break down our resistance to discussing teaching with each other, and in some cases, they may not even be the best way.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 10/16/2005 08:24:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the response. I also found your "first day of class" post quite helpful/thought-provoking.

Posted by Anonymous Dee on 10/17/2005 06:58:00 PM : Permalink  

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