Saturday, January 07, 2006

Grading: Ugh. Why?

Having just slogged through another, particularly heavy round of grading, I had plenty of time to ask myself: "Why does grading suck so much?" I can think of many reasons; call it a case of overdetermination. Herewith a list of causes, ordered roughly from most to least obvious:

1) Grading, because it demands repeating essentially the same task over and over again, bores me.

2) Opportunity costs. Do you realize what great surf we've been having in SoCal? So I heard, at least. I had to grade during the best of it.

3) Our curve demands that I give many low grades. Even if it didn't, some students would deserve low grades. But whenever I give a low grade, I cannot help imagining the distress it will cause the recipient. The grade I give may force a student to drop out of law school, losing thousands of dollars and months of effort. Even when I think a low grade entirely appropriate, I don't like inflicting it on a student. Granted, thanks to blind grading, I don't know to whom I'm giving a low grade. But that doesn't really help very much. I end up picturing the faces of random students, with the dismal mark I've given reflected in their tear-stained eyes.

4) Inevitably, some students will miss some pretty easy questions. You never know why that happens. No teacher worth his salt can avoid wondering, however, if he perhaps failed to teach the topic well. Such self-doubt makes for better pedagogy, but it doesn't make for much fun.

5) Sometimes, very rarely, I have to give a good grade that I don't think a student really deserves. That may be because I suspect cheating or because I think that the student has gamed the system so as to maximize points without demonstrating comprehension of the material. You may well counter that proper assessment of students should rule out those possibilities. Given that we live in a world of scarce resources, however, I suspect that no reasonably cost-effective grading system can avoid such false positives.

6) Grading requires me to spend hour upon hour reading horrible prose, badly written and often barely comprehensible, reeking of panic, desperation, and fear. Exams prove the worst, of course. But even student papers, prepared over months and after several drafts on which I've commented, often demonstrate woefully bad writing. Some people probably wouldn't mind. I savor good prose, though, and feel like a gourmet on a Mac 'n Cheese diet when I have to read a pile of blue books.

Does grading offer any charms? Some of my colleagues seem to enjoy learning how their students did. That doesn't move me, though. For reasons I won't get into, here, I make a point of trying to remain ignorant of which students get what grades.

I will say this for grading: If I didn't do it, I'd lose my job.


Chris Fulmer said...

I'm a law student. A bunch of my fellow students would disagree, but the mandatory curve is a great thing. As an undergrad, I graded for a large (~200) person sophmore-level course. The professor was a young softie fresh from Harvard (of grade inflation fame) who gave A's to over 1/2 the class. The outstanding students who truly deserved it did no better than the average kids in the class.

The curve means that a couple of bad grades don't hurt that much because there are so many of them given out. Getting one of the hundred Cs given out this semester (across all professors) is much better than getting one of the two. Getting one of the hundred As given out is also better than getting one of the thousand.

Jeff Brown said...

Tom, you list among reasons for disliking the grading process that you have to give bad ones to some people you’d rather not give bad ones, and good ones similarly. You do not, however, mention what I would have thought was the hardest thing about grading: Having to be familiar with any ranking on students, even an accurate one. Most of the people I know don’t like to rank humans, unless they are distant humans. For instance, I would feel okay ranking my politicians, but not my friends.

Econ-minded individuals might counter that rankings on humans are crucial to all sorts of decisions, such as who to befriend, where to send gifts, who to marry. I would agree. But I think a lot of people do a lot of work to keep those rankings subliminal. It might even be built into our language – for instance, when we use “I love you” rather than “You win!”

Newton3 said...

and what would your reasons be for not knowing who did what? Perhaps the fear that some of your above-articulated disdains would materialize? Or feeling awkward when a student to whom you gave a really poor grade next eyes you hesitantly...perhaps in a subsequent class (whereas if you didn't know what grade you gave him, you may dismiss it as simply another spaced out student)

Tom W. Bell said...

CF: Agreed that above-average students like strict curves, which help to distinguish their excellence. But I don't think the below-average students would discount the effect of low grades as much as you do. Students have to think not only about intra-school comparisons but, once they graduate and start looking for jobs, inter-school ones.

Jeff Brown: Hmm. Maybe. I cannot say that, when I introspect about it, ranking people *on the basis of their academic performance* bothers me much. But I concede that self-deception may cloud my judgment.

Newton3: I don't know what you mean by "disdains"; far from disdaining my students I sympathize with their plight. And I don't disdain grading. I just don't like it. I will cop to disdaining some of the poor writing I see in student papers (I can somewhat excuse it in exams), but that doesn't seem to have any relation to your comment.

Anyhow, I think your second guess comes closer to the mark. I want to leave it in my students' hands to tell me their grades, if they see fit. That allows students unhappy with their grades to rest assured I won't prejudge them. It also helps to guarantee that the better students don't think they can rest on their laurels.