Posts Tagged ‘Grading’

In my first ten years of teaching I had no shortage students complaining about their grades. In one instance, a student who had earned a B+ was so sure that his grade should have been rounded up to an A- that he sent me a series of e-mails with quotes from his parents’ friends, who were professors, stating that they would have rounded his grade up if they had been in my position (including one who said, “Honestly, the guy sounds like a jerk”). Eventually, despite threats to appeal the grade, the student relented. Later in his academic career, the student asked me for a letter of recommendation. I suggested that another faculty member might be able to write a more positive letter (jerk status confirmed!). This is a rather long way of saying that I have had many students complain about grades, but I have been lucky not to have any direct contact with their parents. Until now.

This semester, a student earned a grade that was less than ideal. I did not, however, receive an e-mail from her asking me to change it. No, the first message I received came from her mother. I did hear from the student after I explained that FERPA prevented me from responding to the mother’s questions but that I would be happy to discuss the issue with her daughter. My explanation to the daughter was apparently not sufficient, because the next e-mail I received was from her father. The issue has not yet been resolved, but I am appreciative of the people in Academic Affairs who have taken the matter over. Since it is largely out of my hands at this point I’m not sure if I will receive the forthcoming e-mails from the student’s siblings and extended family.

Aside from the idea that students (and their parents) think that my grading practices are so arbitrary as to be easily changed, these situations are the most frustrating to me when I have given students multiple opportunities during the semester to work with me to improve their grades and they have not taken advantage of these opportunities. Since I do not foresee myself providing a mid-summer extra credit opportunity for my spring students, I would advise them to be proactive about their coursework while they are still in the course! Otherwise, their options are: (1) Appeal their grade; or (2) Invent a time machine…

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It is common for posters on various academic forums to note how they wish they had been on the job market in the 1990s or 1980s or 1970s or, basically, any time that is not now. These people long for the days of yore when one publication would get you a job and two would get you tenure (though a penis and white skin were probably required for both). (Actually, somebody should make a time travel movie where a graduate student from the present goes back to the 1970s to get a job at an R1 and then grows old and becomes the “dead wood” that graduate students in the present wish would retire so that they could get jobs.)

Anyhow, Elizabeth Popp Berman’s travels into the LBJ archives reveal that not everything was different back in the olden days. In the papers of Donald Turner she finds that he complained about grading, publications, and alcohol. Combined with Tolkien’s complaints about teaching, we have evidence that professors have been whining for over 70 years!

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After a brief lull as the eye of the storm passed overhead, grading continued early this week. Now that the storm is passing it can be confirmed that a record amount of grading has taken place in the past week. This storm included:

  • 80 papers from three courses
  • 60 traditional exams from two courses
  • 20 take-home exams from one course
  • 30 research proposals from one course

The total? 190 assignments/exams graded in 14 days. While the weather can be unpredictable, I hope to never find myself in this sort of storm again!

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Over the years, I’ve tried various approaches to grading, from spreading things out to allowing for relatively intense periods of grading followed by relative peace. This week, though, I have run into a perfect storm of grading. Due to rescheduling some things early in the semester, I moved one of my exams from before Thanksgiving to the week after Thanksgiving, where it was met with a paper assignment and another exam. In a two-day period, then, I collected 20 papers in one class and gave 61 combined exams in two other courses, totaling 81 things to grade and, thanks to the impending end of the semester, not a lot of time to grade them. In response I have stocked up on bottled water and canned goods in hopes of hunkering down and surviving the storm.

Is it Christmas yet?!

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A recent article at Slate by Karla Starr has me considering the effects of order on my grading practices. The subject of the article is the question of whether Olympic gymnasts benefit from performing later in the program and the answer appears to be, “yes”. Starr writes:

Step-by-step evaluations by highly trained judges also suffer from a myriad of biases. In Olympic gymnastics, evaluators are given direct instructions by the International Gymnastics Federation to base the participants’ scores on an ideal version of a performance with the same elements. The first performances are thus typically judged against a mythic, Platonic idea of perfection. Early in competitions, judges also tend to dole out moderate scores in the event that later routines will be even more deserving of high marks.

Later performances are scored according to the judges’ revised standard of performance: namely, that established by the first performances. In addition to inadvertently lowering their standards, judges tend to focus on the unique, positive traits of the later performances—something that’s impossible for them to do for the first performers. One of Bruine de Bruin’s studies, which analyzed figure-skating results from 1994 to 2004, found that the last to perform had a 14 percent chance of winning, compared to a mere 3 percent for the first participants.

Performers also suffer or benefit from social comparison, an effect that’s been verified by researchers Lysann Damisch and Thomas Mussweiler from the University of Cologne. Their analysis of the 2004 Olympic gymnastics competition concluded that a major influence on a gymnast’s score was the performance of the previous gymnast, which can alter a score by up to two-tenths of a point. As long as your performance isn’t marred by errors, going after a skilled gymnast actually increases your score.

The paragraphs above could easily be applied to the process of grading. I wonder about the extent to which most instructors take the time to counteract these effects and whether there is a more elegant (and time-effective) solution than grading papers and exams multiple times in different orders. If not, maybe we can make the process more fun by wearing different hats on each run through and pretending that we’re graders from different nations. Then we can leave bizarre comments on student work. For example: “The French judge may have liked your paper, but the Russian judge says it stinks!”

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The bloody exam

While I don’t recall ever using a faux British accent to complain about exams (I have used other things that started with f…), this year I had the distinct pleasure of an exam that was literally bloody.  During the exam, I noticed a student getting a tissue out of her backpack, which was not particularly peculiar.  Instead of blowing her nose, however, she just held the tissue by it.  Glancing in her direction a few moments later I could see that part of the tissue was bright red.  While her dedication to the exam was commendable, I quickly walked over to her and told her that she was free to leave the classroom (likely in a tone that implied that I strongly preferred that she do so).*  She returned a short time later and continued her exam with a tissue nearby.  When grading the exams I realized that there was, in fact, some blood on the exam.  Thankfully, there wasn’t a lot of it and it didn’t obscure any answers.  Regardless, I think that I prefer my exams to be bloody in the British sense.

*I don’t have any sort of “no leaving the classroom during an exam” policy, but I think that hiding a capsule of fake blood in a tissue, holding it to your nose, and breaking it would be an effective way around such a policy if a student had a friend with all of the answers waiting in the restroom.

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Of course, by “Celebrating” I mean “mentally preparing for the exhausting task of.”  Though a celebratory drink or two might not hurt the process.  Here are two recent episodes from PHD Comics that allow us to reflect on the most frustrating time of the year:

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In planning to teach three classes at the same time last semester I was careful to space exam dates and deadlines in order to avoid having more than a few things to grade at any given time.  As the semester went on, however, I realized that by spreading things evenly over the course of the semester there was no point at which I didn’t have grading hanging around my neck like an albatross.  Still, I was able to grade most assignments within a week so from the standpoint of my students this approach was probably a success.

Preparing for this semester two of my classes remained the same so I left their deadlines and exam dates alone.  For my third class, however, I didn’t think to coordinate with my other courses.  As a result, I inadvertently had essays due in two classes on the same day.  It turns out that I appear to deal with constant grading much better than a periodic onslaught.  While neither assignment on its own was particularly burdensome their combined weight (and my ever-present disorder) prolonged the amount of time that it took me to grade them by a number of days.  I doubt that my students noticed but I can only imagine the delay that a buildup of longer papers or exams might cause.

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After another rash of first-exam failures, this time in another course, I have identified what I am calling the “wait-and-see approach to exams.” In this approach, students view the first exam as an unknown entity.  Because they do not know what to expect from a professor in terms of exam style, difficulty, and grading they apply minimal effort in their studying.  “Maybe,” they think, “this professor writes easier exams and grades more leniently than all prior professors, in which case spending three or even four hours studying would be a monumental waste of my time.  By waiting to see how the first exam goes after 10 minutes of studying I can minimize my effort and in the event that it is unwarranted.”  (An alternative approach would be to over-study for the first exam in the event that a professor writes harder exams and grades more stringently than all prior professors.  I suspect that these students exist in much smaller numbers than their wait-and-see counterparts.)  Alternative explanations for this performance are that “they just don’t care,” that “Dr. Smith doesn’t show enough videos to keep students interested for an entire 50 minutes,” that “like this year’s East coast snowstorms, this class of poor students is an anomaly and is likely never to be seen again,” and that “Dr. Smith is a poor professor.”  The final option has been rejected in the interest of mental health.  Besides, at least I’m trying.

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