From Grading to Helping Students

[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker on December 11, 2012.]

For all the pleasures of teaching, grading is not one of them. We have a bunch of ProfHacker posts about this, and also a number of ways to make your grading process better or help you change the way you think about grading. I want to propose one more idea.

If it takes me on average 30–45 minutes to grade a research paper, only a small amount of that time is spent evaluating the student’s work in the sense of assigning a grade. I know the final grade of the paper with a high degree of certainty in about 5 minutes. It helps that I’ve read first drafts and discussed them in conferences with the students, and it helps that I’ve adopted Brian’s idea of giving only As, Bs, Cs, etc. (or in my case, As, high Bs, low Bs, Cs, etc.). But I suspect that most other teachers can give a ballpark grade very soon after starting to read a paper.

The implication is that for the remaining 25 to 40 minutes spent on a paper I am doing something other than assigning a grade. The physical action is marking up the paper. But the mental action is more important. If I think of that time as justifying or defending the assigned grade to the student, I’m invariably frustrated. But if I think of that time as helping students to learn by making comments about how they can improve, then I feel like I’m doing useful work.

The change in thinking is this: the bulk of the grading session is moved from a category I dislike (exercising power over students) to a category I find rewarding (helping students to learn).

Thinking this way helps me be realistic about what kind of comments will be most useful to students. Instead of structuring my comments as a “praise sandwich” (which has been recommended to me) where opening flattery and concluding flattery bracket a justification of why students aren’t getting the As they surely believe that they deserve, I structure my comments as things the student is doing well already and things the students could do better. I also try to focus my comments on a few areas to work on (say, revising sentences that begin with “this” or entering the worldview of historical actors with more sympathy) rather than marking up everything about the paper that is wrong. Since students are far more likely to take action on the comments on a first draft than on a final draft, this approach also helps me grade final drafts with more dispatch since I’ve spent extra time on the first drafts.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Sam Hames / Creative Commons licensed