Marking student’s work is hard for many people. Emotionally hard. This example captures how that emotion affects your work process:
Grading is a very unpleasant activity; even for those of us who enjoy coming to class and engaging our students in lively discussions about the subject of the day, grading is one thing we have to put up with. … grading flips my life around, and I’m generally in a stinky mood for several days. … I go from blissfully ignoring the papers for a day or two to fretting over how long it’s taking me to read this one paper over and over and over again … For days I feel anxious, I don’t sleep well at night, and I can’t focus on other things (like my dissertation) because I have this ongoing monologue in the back of my mind.
(Liana Silva, Don’t Look Back in Anger, Words Are My Game, May 2011)
It gives fodder to your gremlins about how well you teach. You are torn between your expectations of the student and quality of the work in front of you.
I sometimes wonder if you make it harder for yourself. When I see things like “I take off points for …” I wonder if you approach every assignment or exam with a vision of the excellent paper and mark down from there.
If you do, it’s no wonder you find marking discouraging. You see every single student in terms of their deficits. Face it, most of us only have 1 or 2 really excellent students in a class. That’s a lot of disappointing papers.
The benefits of marking out from “average”
Early in my career (mid-1990s) there was a post on the WMST-L email list that strongly influenced how I approached marking. The approach described started with focusing on the average student, the one who works steadily and mostly understands but doesn’t really have any brilliant flashes of insight, misses a few details, and so on. Let’s call that a C (or in my case, in England, a IIii).
The advantage of this model is that the vast majority of the papers and exams you read are going to meet or exceed this standard. That is going to make you feel good about your teaching and your students.
Furthermore, by articulating the difference between the different grades before you actually have papers in front of you, you separate the grades from particular students. You are definitely not making this up on the fly. You thought it through. You are now applying those standards to the work the student submitted.
The advanced practice would involve giving this list of clearly articulated expectations to your students. Doing this can enable them to do better. This can be particularly useful for first-generation or other non-traditional students who may be working really hard but misdirecting their efforts. Some students don’t care to get an A/I in your course but those that do can see clearly what they need to do to get there. You aren’t just admonishing them to work harder. You are telling them the specific things they need to work harder at. The students can make better decisions about whether that extra work is worth it for them.
Start by defining “average”
Get really clear on what that “average” piece of work looks like. This is your C/IIii work standard. If you’ve determined learning objectives, make the connection explicit.
Then figure out what a B/IIi paper looks like. What does this student do that makes their work better than the C/IIii paper? That might be about quantity — they know more. Or, it might be about quality — they can use the knowledge in different ways. Articulate the difference as clearly as possible.
Do the same for the A/I paper. What do the excellent papers have that the average and above average papers don’t.
Then go back to your average and think about the paper that doesn’t even do this. What is the minimum that you need to see for this to pass. This one will be a deficit model though if you like you could start here and go up. Hopefully you never have to give a D/III or fail someone but articulating where that line is can be very helpful.
It’s not that easy
Articulating the criteria you use is hard especially in the absence of actual papers. If you find yourself saying “I know it when I see it”, you might start with your current practice and then try to articulate for each essay, what it is that makes you want to give it this grade. Adjust your descriptions as you go along.
It might take you a couple of years to be comfortable with your grade descriptions. They may not conform to the kinds of rubrics that are circulated as examples, but they will capture what it is that you are looking for when you are grading. If you already use a rubric but find it uncomfortable, like a pair of pants that doesn’t quite fit, then try to articulate what isn’t working so you can adjust next time. This is why I said that sharing your criteria with students in advance is an advanced practice.
This process may also help you clarify your learning objectives. They tend to become much clearer when you are determining whether students have met them.
Edited March 28, 2016.