April 21, 2003

Grading Hell

I'm about to descend into the ninth circle of the hell that is grading. I won't bore you with all of the details, they are exceedingly tedious and tiresome. Just a few of the highlights (or rather, lowlights):

Term Paper-Related:

The B paper that will never be an A. The A papers are easy. Not because they are "easy," of course, but precisely because they're not: they show evidence of complexity and a sense of difficulty, they do something interesting that makes them worthwhile to read. The C papers are depressing and dispiriting, but also easy enough to grade in their own way: it's a matter of pointing out all of the ways in which the paper fails to meet the minimum standard (the minimum is now a B to B-) in style, substance and mechanical execution. But there's a certain type of B paper that always gives me trouble. Not the B paper that could have been an A if only the student had done X, Y or Z, but the B paper that will never be anything but a B. There's nothing really wrong with it, there's just nothing about it that makes it more than good enough. In other words, it's average (and once upon a time would have been a C, which is now the punishment grade for work that falls below the average). It's really hard to explain average to many of today's students: the expectation is that everyone is above average, and many students now see an A- as the default. Though I have to say, the students I have this semester are not grade-grubbers, which is a refreshing change from what I have come to expect.

The paper that reads as though it were hastily scrawled on the back of a brown paper bag. Of course it doesn't look as if it were quickly scratched out on scrap paper: word-processing and laser printing make everyone's paper look clean and tidy and letter-perfect. Looks can be deceptive. I feel cheated.


Handwriting that resembles some ancient hieroglyphic code for which I lack the keys to decipherment. I don't care about the trees: if your writing is hard to make out, skip lines. Skip two lines. This is not a waste of paper. Have another blue book.

The essay question "answer dump." Here the student responds to an essay question not by writing an essay but by dumping as much material as possible onto as many pages as he or she can churn out before the buzzer goes. Sifting through the extraneous and unrelated detail is like going on an archealogical dig. I get nervous when a student asks for another, and then yet another, blue book. That is too many blue books. Don't you care about the trees?

The cut-and-paste. Here it seems the student has attempted to perform by hand what word processors now do for us automatically. It doesn't really work to do this by hand. Answer A is running along nicely for 4-5 pages, but now here are several pages scratched out with instructions to see end of Book 2, following Answer C. But no, that's wrong, because the student wrote the instructions before completing Answer C, completion of which required another blue book, so now we have Answer A, part 2 following Answer C in book 3, and what happened to Answer B?... I'm getting dizzy.

Yes, I am feeling a little bit cranky. In fact, there's a part of me that looks forward to reading my students' work to see what they have done and discover what they can come up with. But at the moment I am dreading the descent into grading hell.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 21, 2003 04:40 AM

As someone who just graded 75 research papers, you have my complete sympathy. I've often tried to articulate the "B-ness" of certain papers, and you realy captured it. Also as someone whose official university designation is "temporary faculty," I realy appreciate your attention to the plight of adjuncts in the academy.

Posted by: chuck tryon at April 21, 2003 02:21 PM

Nicely timed, and right on target. Tempted to print this for my students and hand it out with the term papers. You're *so* right about the "B papers that will never be an A." And about how relatively "easy" it is to grade really good--and really bad--papers.

Posted by: Liz Lawley at April 22, 2003 02:35 AM

Maybe it's because I still feel so close to my time as an exam-taking undergrad, but I use a fairly low standard for timed essay exams. I personally think that such exams test for a skill that is almost completely orthogonal to what I aim to teach them in a political theory section. So I'm more than willing to accept answer-dump for an A-, so long as it's controlled (I definitely penalize for info that's badly irrelevant, but not for rambling or somewhat extranneous detail).

As far as cut-and-paste goes; again, one's ability to plan presciently on a timed essay exam seems to be pretty unrelated to the skills I'm trying to teach in my section. And I was until not long ago a repeat offender.

Yeah, the hieroglyphics irritate me, but again, my handwriting was pretty bad. so i try my best whilst cursing. It seems to me that one's grade in a university course should not rest heavily on one's orthographic skill. Some day very soon all exams will be word-processed, so this shouldn't be a problem for much longer.

I don't see myself as a softie; I just don't think students should be penalized for bad institutional design. OK, so I also have some philosophical issues with grading...but still, I don't think it's unreasonable to critique certain forms of evaluation as somewhat flawed. If and when I get to design my own courses, there will be no timed essay exams for my students, unless I'm forced to do so by TPTB. I really hate them.

Posted by: Eric at April 22, 2003 04:23 AM

Has "A-" really become the default? I'm a student, and I generally regard my papers as "B" material. Though I've never given it much thought before now, I agree with you: there's nothing that sets my papers apart from the rest of the bunch, save for an anal-retentive attention to spelling.

When I get an "A," it's because I'm interested or passionate about a topic, and I've put some extra effort and thought into it. Otherwise, I expect an A no more than I expect a free trip to the moon.

Posted by: Adam at April 22, 2003 04:24 AM

B papers are difficult to grade not only because of the work of grading them but the migraine-inducing certainty of the B+ paper's author coming to argue about the grade. Why wasn't it an A? Because it wasn't good enough to be an A. But you worked hard? You can work hard and still earn a B.

Ok, back to grading.

Posted by: Nicholas Packwood at April 22, 2003 01:40 PM

Ah, Adam...that's why I always enjoy having you as a student. :-)

Alas, you're the exception, not the rule. At *least* 50% of the students who receive Bs from me on papers or projects are in my office within days expecting an explanation of why it wasn't an A.

I start most of my classes (as you well know) with the warning that if you do everything I ask of you, and do it properly, you've earned a B. To get an A, I tell them, you must go beyond the basics of what I've asked. This mystifies many of them, who have apparently developed the expectation that an A is their reward for showing up and completing assignments on time. <sigh>

Is it June yet?

Posted by: Liz Lawley at April 22, 2003 07:48 PM

Liz nails it on the head. Many students think A/A- is the standard, and then want to know why the instructor deducted or took away from that default in order to arrive at a grade of B.

Eric: I don't penalize students for sloppy handwriting or messy exam booklets (the answer dump is another thing altogether: I don't give As for essays that aren't essays). And I do sympathize, I too can remember the strain of exam time. But I reserve the right to be a little bit grumpy as I contemplate the pile of papers and exams that I will soon have to grade.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 22, 2003 07:59 PM

A couple of quick comments:

1) I agree with the horror of the 'unimprovable B.' It's the paper that makes my heart sink when I look at papers.

2) I also agree with Liz Lawley and the IA that A- has become the default expectation for many students for humanities/social-sciences/design classes. (And since my school doesn't recognize +/-, this means the default is an "A.") This is exacerbated in part by my state's scholarship program, which guarantees in-state students certain rebates if they meet certain GPA requirements. I teach at an extremely competitive engineering school, too, so students often need an "A" in first-year writing in order to make up for their other grades.

3) I can't say I get anywhere near "50% of those who receive Bs" complaining, though. That's probably a heady stew of disciplinary expectations (my students already think they can't write, but they'd probably think they were good at IT), gender stereotypes, and other things I can't think of at the present. (Interestingly, I did get more grade complaints at the private, more liberal-arts-y research I school where I got my Ph.D., for whatever that's worth.)

Fortunately for my present sanity, this semester I arranged things so that group work, rather than individual papers, was due at the end of the semester, since I was worried about my personal life happily intruding into my work.

Posted by: Jason at April 22, 2003 08:54 PM

"I reserve the right to be a little bit grumpy as I contemplate the pile of papers and exams that I will soon have to grade."

IA: I wouldn't ever dream of denying you this inalienable right of the grader. Sincere apologies if I suggested this. I myself have just survived producing pages and pages of comments on 1st draft papers, and I'm not exactly chirping at the thought of being hit by a pile of final drafts and final exams in a week-and-a-half. Long live our right to grumble, at least to ourselves--how could we survive otherwise?!?

I started writing a response to Liz's remarks about what should be a baseline grade in the social sciences, but it got very long, so if you're interested, I direct you to the post on my site: http://antidotal.blogspot.com/2003_04_20_antidotal_archive.html#93097078

Anyway, back to putting together this last-minute conference paper...best wishes with all of your work, IA...

Posted by: Eric at April 23, 2003 05:37 AM

I urge you to read and ponder, if you have not already, "Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts:
A Study in Educational Epistemology", by William G. Perry. I read this essay more than 30 years ago, and it changed my view on answer-dump (or as the author calls them, "cow") papers forever.

Available online at http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~lipoff/miscellaneous/exams.html

Posted by: John Cowan at April 26, 2003 03:16 PM

John Cowan,
Thanks very much for pointing us to that essay. I have read and will now ponder.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 27, 2003 03:52 AM

Ah, the smell of grading in the morning...

Am I evil for sometimes wishing to assign in-class exams because

(1) Blue books are quicker to grade than take-home essay exams, and
(2) They are more likely to contain entertaining bloopers?

Also, does anyone else succumb to the tendency to sort papers and exams by length and fonts/handwriting?

(In my defense, I offer my dedication to assessing weekly response papers, daily feedback cards, and way too many project drafts (what _was_ I thinking?) to show that I'm not a complete slacker...)

(Did it work?)

Posted by: Rana at April 28, 2003 08:29 PM

I am sometimes tempted to play the role of a Calvinian God, sorting the exams according to a doctrine of predestination. (Don't worry! -- I've yet to succumb to this temptation).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 28, 2003 09:38 PM

I love the idea of pre-destined grades... it would save so much time!

I did want to clarify -- I sort for ease of reading (shorter exams with neater handwriting for the end of the day when I'm tired) not grading. Though, oddly, I've observed that people with obsessively neat printing tend to write short exams and therefore not do so well as they might. (Just one more reason I'm a fan of take-home exams, when feasible.) :)

Posted by: Rana at April 30, 2003 04:28 PM