Friday, December 15, 2017

Experiments in grading? Maybe another time

Update 3/11/18: Jesse Stommel (below), in a thoughtful post, explains what he means by "ungrading": written evaluation and reflection throughout the semester; students assign their own final grades.

What better time to think about grading than when you've just done a bunch of it?

I'm overall pretty happy with my current standards and methods, which have been developed over the years with lots of help from readings in pedagogy, colleagues, and, probably most of all, experimenting from semester to semester to see what works and what doesn't.

This last, I think, gets underrated. We experiment all the time, trying an approach, a topic, or an assignment one semester and modifying it if it doesn't work. Right now we're being inundated with very self-righteous screeds from both sides on laptops in the classroom. The thing that they seem to forget is that you have to find a balance that will work for your and your students. 

Right now I'm fascinated by the accounts people who grade in non-traditional ways and have so many questions for them.
  • Cathy Davidson's version of contract grading sounds interesting. Students contract for a grade and then complete assignments graded by their peers S/U, while Davidson confines herself to comments. It sounds good but highly labor-intensive; she says that she has never used it in a class of more than 30, and she has a TA and a Teaching Apprentice to help with the 30-person class. 
    • Since the production of an edited video is part of the course, who pays for the software? (Maybe this isn't an issue since she teaches at Duke.) Who teaches them to use it and to upload it to YouTube? 
    • What happens if the required writing has some good ideas but some grammar or structural problems (like wordiness)? Problems like that can take several papers to get ironed out, and if papers can be handed in an infinite number of times to get to an "S" (not sure if this is the case), does the student get discouraged? What about the teacher? 
    • What happens if everything is grammatically correct but entirely uninspired? 
  • Jesse Stommel says he doesn't give grades at all. He says a lot about what he won't do but never says what he does, because he's apparently saving it for a future post. 
    • He makes some good points--grading on a curve is pretty heinous, true, and feedback is far more important than actual grades. But how does he not give any grades at all? I suspect that there's some semantic wiggle room going on here--that there's some "commenting" and "assessing" that he doesn't call grading but that the rest of us would.
    • At every university where I've been employed, I have to fill out a grade sheet at the end of the term or face some draconian consequences, like being fired. I can't just announce to the registrar that grades are part of a neoliberal capitalist oppressive system that disenfranchises students and march on out of there. Or can I?
  • Kevin Gannon's "How to Escape Grading Jail" at the Chronicle has some good suggestions. 
    • Smart "calendaring" that means not too many essays in one week. 
    • Rubrics, which I've never had any luck with but are always worth trying. 
    • Recorded rather than written responses. He uses Voisi, records comments, uploads them to Dropbox, and sends the students a link. For me, this would be more time-intensive than simply typing the comments (with the help of auto-text), but I've recorded comments before when teaching online. I asked the students how they liked it, and they seemed to like it as a novelty but didn't want me to switch to it. 
The main thing I took away from all these is the same thing with which I began: you experiment, and you ask for feedback, and you observe your class and students to see what works.

And don't think that you have the One Best Way. None of us has the One Best Way, or we could stop trying.

Other posts about grading here:


Fretful Porpentine said...

OMG, I am so glad I'm not the only non-rubric holdout. Lately, it seems like people think it's some sort of educational malpractice not to have one, but I never even heard the word "rubric" until grad school, and somehow my generation managed to get educated all the same.

I tried, for a while, in grad school, but what I discovered was that 1) I usually settled on a grade holistically after reading the paper and then tweaked the numbers to make it fit, which seemed dishonest; 2) it made grading papers take about twice as long, since I commented just as much, but spent a lot more time agonizing over the little decisions (do I give this a 3 for "style" and a 4 for "tone," or the other way around?)

What Now? said...

I experimented with recording comments on essays this fall, and so I smiled with recognition at the comment from your students that they liked the novelty of it but didn't want me to switch to it. And I did find it really labor intensive. I could imagine perhaps doing it on the first essay of the year, when I really want to express in a warm, personal voice to students that I'm glad to be working with them and that I'm eager to help them achieve their goals, but it was just too much to keep it up. And I found that the weaker students -- the ones who don't really read and think about the written comments -- also don't listen to the recorded comments.

undine said...

Fretful Porpentine--your experience is exactly like mine. It took twice as long to grade the papers because of the agonizing over decisions. And I was writing comments, anyway, as you did; when I stuck to rubric rules and didn't write anything--which is supposed to save time--I heard about it from the students. I suppose true believers would say that students, once trained to accept rubrics, prefer them, but it seems so impersonal, like one of the many customer service surveys that pop up on every website these days. In the comments, I was at least talking to them, something a check mark in a box can't do. And even if something is abysmal, I have a hard time checking the box marked "Needs Work" or "1" or whatever. It seems so discouraging.

What Now?--It really is labor intensive! I have some sympathy with your weaker students, since I go out of my way to avoid listening to videos and other recorded things--too slow when compared to reading. As another experiment, I had recorded narration for some of the online lectures via PowerPoint, but when I asked students whether they used them, they said that they'd rather read the lecture written out, so that's what I do now.