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Grading Differently

A staircase with blue books tumbling down it

The thing that I dislike most about teaching is grading. It’s not so much a problem of being sent to the salt mines (an expression that Natalie usefully interrogated a few years ago) or even the time that the task requires and which leads to the feeling of being locked in grading jail. In that post, Nels pointed out that we don’t like grading because we feel it is stressful but notes that the origins of that stress can come from very different directions. Perhaps these different stresses are the reason we have over 300 posts on grading here at ProfHacker (including another titled “Grading Differently“). It’s a topic that we’ve covered a lot more than anything else I’ve ever run a search on. If you’re looking for a place to get started on all of them, you might try Natalie’s summary of some of our best, early posts.

But let’s return to me, now shall we? The reason I typically don’t like grading is because my grading sessions often leave me feeling conflicted about the final scores I give students. “Is this essay an 87 (AKA a B)? Or is it an 88? How does it compare to that 84 I just read?” For personal reasons, my internal fairness meter gets really worked up by this process, and I have found that grading papers produces a bathetic (and pathetic) amount of handwringing on my part that is not productive in any which way. Since that handwringing also doesn’t help my students in any way, it’s worth removing from my process if at all possible.

So I’ve taken a different approach this semester. I’m teaching a first-year writing class, so there will be a lot of writing. And I’ve told the students that I will only be awarding straight letter grades on their essays—no pluses or minuses. My thinking behind this decision is that while it might be hard to know the difference between an 87 and an 88, or sometimes even between the dreaded B+/A- split, I absolutely do know the difference between an A and a B paper. I expect to see a sharp drop in the amount of stress that I feel as I grade the four essays I’m assigning this semester.

Of course my stress might lead to compounding that of students. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was taking this path, Jason suggested that my students might be a little nonplussed. And indeed, when I mentioned this scoring system on the first day of class, looks of concern appeared and I immediately got some questions about how this would work for their final grades. Specifically, they wanted to know if an A would be a 95, a 100, or something else. (On this point see Amy’s post about grading with letters or numbers.) I expect that I will get asked similar questions in a few weeks when I return their first paper.

But the class has already adapted well to my grading something differently: their blog posts.  As I’ve done in the past, I’m using a version of the blogging rubric that Mark developed a few years back on his own blog. The rubric is a four-point scale, and I find that students normally score a two or a three. Inevitably in the first weeks, the students get nervous about their scores and want to talk to me about how to improve. What I’ve found is that they assume a 4 is the equivalent of 100%, a 3 is 75%, and a 2 is 50% (AKA an F). To help them get over their concerns, I help them see that the rubric is there to evaluate posts and does not correlate to percentages or even the 4-point GPA scale. But I spend more time helping them understand that they don’t yet know how to write about literature (that’s the purpose of the class, after all), and that their scores will almost certainly improve throughout the semester. Students leave feeling better as they wrap their minds around how I grade differently.

I’ve got them on board with the blog scores now, but it remains to be seen how the grading without pluses or minuses bears out. I’ll be sure to report at the end of the semester. But I’m sure that there are many other options for how to change how we evaluate students. How have you graded differently? Did the differences make for a more productive work environment for you and/or a better learning experience for your students? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Grade cutoffs / Sage Ross / CC BY-SA 2.0

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