What goes into grading

By this time of the semester — classes ended, presentations watched, final paper drafts discussed — I feel as though my teaching is done.

And yet, I’m not done with the semester because I’m still grading.

There’s a lot of it to do, and it’s hard to get motivated because I feel as though the students’ attention and energy has moved on. Yeah, they are still taking exams, but they are already looking forward to the summer and perhaps to next fall. So, what is the purpose of my careful reading of and comments on their final papers? Why all this time spent on the minute calculations of the final grade? Seriously, it can take me 15 hours for each class (I have four) to read the final papers and put the whole thing to rest. Is there any relationship between that time spent and student learning?

Well, not directly.

Indirectly, there is a relationship between a teacher’s grading effort and student learning. For one thing, grading forces a teacher to re-confront her own values about education and enact them, and surely by doing that I reinforce and even improve my teaching, which improves learning. If I believe in fairness, for example, then grading according to a policy mitigates tendencies toward either favoritism or discrimination. I really can’t dock someone 5 points simply because he never smiles or looks at me in class, or award someone an extra 5 points because she always says “Hi” when she sees me in the hallway. (I can like friendly behavior — and I do — but not grade it.)

In grading, I also reflect on each student’s progress over the semester: How did the assignments and feedback help this particular student improve his writing? What were this student’s achievements? Are such achievements measurable (if so, that might affect the effort grade) or are the achievements simply noticeable (if so, I can write a little note to the student remarking on his consistent thoughtfulness during writing conferences).

I also reflect on the class’s progress. This second kind reflection helps me prepare to talk to my colleagues in a course (sometimes at MIT we have as many as 20 instructors working on one huge course) about what we could modify or improve for the next year. If all of the students still struggle with justifying their research in the report, then we have to teach that better and figure out, as a group, how to do that.

On each student’s or team’s final paper, I may only write a paragraph. However, in the act of preparing final grades, I think volumes and look ahead to how my learning might be applied to the next group.

Grading may offer more information to teachers, therefore, than it does students.

Of course, I recognize that students care a LOT about final grades, and the A or the B seems to be a communication for their eyes only. What they don’t realize is that the grade has meaning to me, too, as well as my colleagues and my supervisors. When we sit in a grading meeting and compare grades across sections, the first (silent) observation we might make is who’s a tough grader and who’s an easy one, and what does that say about that teacher (not students). Sometimes, whole sets of grades are adjusted up or down after a discussion of shared (and unshared) teaching values.

This is not a frivolous conversation, and it’s not horse trading. We’re not just negotiating grades; we’re negotiating our idea of the course, our expectations for outcomes, and our ideas about teaching.

Admittedly, it has taken me awhile to reach this position. For my first several years of teaching, it seemed to me that grading took too much time for too small an outcome: hours of work for a few points of distinction among students.

I do not know if grading is the best way to assess student learning, course design, or teacher performance. Well, probably not. But it does provide us with an opportunity for those assessment activities, as well as a common language that we at least think we understand.

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Photo credit: Grace Guterman, who took these images surreptitiously, as good little spies do.

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