Unless your internet has been cut off in the latest round of institutional budget adjustments, you probably know by now that Cathy Davidson has become frustrated with the superficiality and pointlessness of grading, and many people are upset about her decision to try to do something about this. I’ve never tried peer grading, her experimental solution, but one of my goals is always for students to internalize the course objectives, so in that sense it would not be entirely inconsistent. (In the particular digital humanities course Davidson discusses, it is also related to the content in interesting ways.)

I am interested to hear about how contributors to The Long Eighteenth (and anyone passing through) have confronted this quandary in teaching. It seem like something much grumbled about but little discussed.

It took me a long time to figure out why writing endless comments on student papers felt so unsatisfying. Then once a colleague said to me, “I don’t mind giving the grades; I just hate the part where you have to justify them.” In that moment  it occurred to me that much of what I was doing on these papers was, indeed, justifying my decision to give the paper a B or a C. I was explaining to the student what was good about the paper, but also the various ways in which it fell short. This took a tremendous amount of time and did not feel particularly satisfying. Years of entanglement with outcomes assessment helped me realize why it was all so awful: I was pouring huge amounts of time into evaluating the paper, but only minimally contributing to the student’s learning with one of the most time-consuming aspects of the course. While in theory the student was supposed to recognize the strengths and weakness of her work by reading my comments, it didn’t really feel like this was happening, or at least happening enough. Often, I think, the student would read those comments to see whether or not I had indeed fully justified the grade rather than to see how she could improve in the future.

So now I have students write most of their papers in drafts, which separates the learning process and evaluation into two different phases. I did not, of course, invent this method (I copied it from a colleague), but for me it has turned grading from an onerous chore to something that feels purposeful and seems to contribute to learning. When the first draft comes in (electronically), I add lots of comments and queries using the markup function in Word. I find this engaging because I am explaining to the student exactly how he needs to rethink the argument, the support, the writing, the organization, etc. I try to ask pointed questions about whether or not particular assertions are supported by the text. I note the places where evidence, or a topic sentence, or an argument, is needed. At the comment stage, I am not evaluating and there is no grade. When the second draft comes in, I give a grade but little or no commentary. In this method, all of my commenting steers the student toward better writing, criticism, and analysis, and none of it justifies a grade. By the time the student gets the second draft back, he knows how the paper was supposed to improve and pretty much knows whether or not he has done it. I think I get to know the students a little better this way, and as an added benefit in my experience students rarely contest a grade under this system. I also post a rubric on the course web site, which I don’t actually use for scoring points but that lays out exactly what the paper is supposed to achieve. So in theory, by the end of the course students in fact should be able to grade themselves and each other, although I don’t think they come in being able to do this.


12 responses to “Grading

  1. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Laura, for passing along Davidson’s post and your own thoughts about grading.

    The comments on Davidson were as interesting as the original post, because they reflected the contradictory expectations we have for students and ourselves. Ultimately, I think it’s impossible to reconcile a belief in the existence of objective, external standards with a belief in the importance of self-motivated learning. These are active vs. passive models of learning, and I think our notions of assessment will follow from the model we pursue. So I think a lot of the anxiety in the comments seems to be about the validity of the active learning or inquiry models, which is always at least as much about peer teaching as it is about the teacher’s direction of the class. I, too, have learned that students who were lavishly rewarded in the passive learning model do get very resentful, and need plenty of re-tooling to understand the point of what I’m asking them to do.

    My favorite comment came from the assessment guy from Ohio who pointed out that the account of the course did not seem to discuss which competencies she wished students to learn, which I think was a fair criticism of her account, though I suspect that she’s an experienced enough teacher, with motivated enough students, that this is not necessarily an issue.

    In your discussion of grading, I really liked the way that you’ve separated the commenting and assessment stages, because I too share this problem with writing justifying comments on papers that essentially get ignored. My solution has been similar, in that I typically have students hand in the paper in stages, so that they know precisely what improvements I’ve asked for. I still get students, though, who will defeat this strategy by handing in work too late, or skipping stages, so that they are still ignoring opportunities for feedback at the end of semester.

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, I agree that he makes a good point by refocusing on learning rather than effort. I’m not sure that students would be able to evaluate evidence of learning in each other’s work, although I hope by the end of the course they would have some sense of good quality work that would be consistent what I’m trying to teach them.

    Re the strategy-defeaters: what do you do about them? I have tended to accept those papers, but this year I am experimenting with not giving them full credit. I could see arguments either way.

  3. Dave Mazella

    In the past, I’ve given full credit, but the result tends to be that I get a handful of papers at the proper time, and a bunch of others all at once on the last possible date. Next time, I think I’ll put it into the syllabus that they need to get it in on the appointed date, or lose a certain number of points. But I’ve also had students ignore the opportunity for feedback, and just hand in everything early all at once, to get it over with, which also feels disappointing. I need to get over this, but it does feel strange how unpredictable they are about my feedback.

  4. Eleanor Shevlin

    I very much like commenting on student papers (I offer the option of sending me electronic drafts and receiving comments in advance of the final work, too. Most students avail themselves of this option), but I still dread the final grading process. Adding another stage in which the draft receives a preliminary grade might ease this dread.

    I still give extensive marginal and final comments for the final work (it takes me about an hour or so for each paper–no lie). In these comments I point to the strengths of the work–and ways to use those strengths to better advantage in future papers–and also the weaknesses and ways to diminish those shortcomings in future works. I have found that using comments to look ahead to future work makes students take notice of them. I also quote from student papers and use MLA parenthetical documentation in doing so. I am not sure why I started using the documentation, but I have received very positive response from students about this practice. It seems as if the MLA documentation drove home that I am taking their writing and ideas very seriously and that their papers indeed form part of what I call in class “the ongoing scholarly conversation” about a work. (I explain that a paper assignment represents a formal request to join that conversation.)

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    I like the idea of the paper representing a formal invitation to join the scholarly conversation. When you say you document quotations, does that mean that you refer to papers written by other students?

  6. Eleanor Shevlin

    Yes, the conversation theme has worked well–students seem to get it–and it also helps them see both the secondary critical readings in a different, less intimidating light. As for their own roles, this idea creates a place for them as actual contributors and not just recipients.

    I don’t think I have ever quoted another student in a comments to a specific students paper. Rather I am quoting the student whose paper I am grading in my comments–almost as if I am writing a review of the paper.

    I have created handouts with excerpts from student papers (not identified) as a discussion tools–and told students if they want to identify themselves as the authors, please do…. I don’t cite here because I don’t want to put students on the spot. Because I don’t allow anonymous Blackboard postings, handouts from these discussions include student names.

  7. Eleanor Shevlin

    I had meant to comment briefly on peer grading. My forays into this practice have been extremely limited. I have an evaluation sheet that all students complete in response to in-class presentations (several variations exist–some address individual presentations and others deal with group). I also have an evaluation sheet that each member of a group project completes; the sheet asks the student to evaluate each of his or her fellow members’ work on the project through a series of questions and oepn-ended comments. These responses are factored into the student’s grade, but usually on very limited basis.

    Based on what I see in editing workshops (I have a very detailed, 3-page editing sheet and students submit the completed editor’s comments with their final drafts), I would be hesitant to embark on any full-scale peer grading for a variety of reasons.

  8. Dave Mazella

    Peer-grading is a great strategy for teaching students how to assess themselves, but it’s very labor-intensive, and I’m not sure how helpful it would be for actual evaluation, rather than additional input.

    Eleanor, how well do the students evaluate each others’ work on group projects? Does this work pretty well, or do they resent or game the system?


    • Eleanor Shevlin

      I too am quite skeptical about using peer-grading as the prime basis for evaluation–I use my evaluations as extra input….

      And I’ve been very pleased with how students evaluate each other’s work within their groups. They seem to take the task seriously and almost always take pains to be fair and honest in assessing the quality, time, and effort/contribution that each student made to the project. I also have them evaluate their own work/contribution. That I give each student an individual grade for the evaluation based on its thoughtfulness, specificity, and quality of expression helps. (The evlauation is usually worth 5%). I’ve never had a student resent these evlauations. That said, I do encounter students at times who resent peer editing.

      In evaluating in-class presentations, some members of the audience/class are far too harsh, while others show little or no discernment. Most, however, offer fair, helpful remarks.

  9. Amanda Licastro

    In response to Dr. Rosenthal’s original post:
    In my English 101 classrooms I have a very similar model of submission and comment to the one you describe in your post. The students submit electronically and I return papers with comments via Track Changes on Word. I employ both the review feature and the comment bubbles, along with an old fashioned paragraph at the end of the paper followed by a formal rubric. After experimenting with different strategies, I find that using these tools in the draft stages is the most effective. However, unlike previous commenters, I give the students the option to revise. To clarify, if the student receives a “C” or below on a formal essay, they must revise, and if they receive above a “C” they have the option. The terms are laid out clearly in the syllabus. Students have one week to revise, and can earn up to five points by making both global and local changes to the essay. If the student turns in the first draft late, they lose the option to revise, no matter what grade they receive. Unless a student provides proof of extenuating circumstances, late papers lose five points a day. This brings me to a crucial element of my grading system: the points scale. By creating a points system where every assignment is worth a predetermined amount of points (50 for in-class essays, 100 for formal essays, 20 for MLA exercises, ect), students ALWAYS know exactly where they stand in the class. Since they can all access the Gradebook function of WebCT, every student can add up the total possible points at any given point in the semester, and divide by the points they have earned. This allows students with various external pressures to evaluate the need for them to revise. It is obvious that the five points possible for revisions can make a huge difference on a fifty point paper. Also, in a university of largely science and business majors, this system translates as more familiar and objective, relieving some of the mystification around the subjective nature of grading writing.
    This model addresses the issue Davidson discusses in her article by clearly laying out expectations and allowing the students to decided how much effort they wish to put forth in order to obtain the grade they desire. However, I disagree with Davidson’s assertion that competition is crass. Part of the success of peer editing/evaluation is that students want to impress their peers. Ideally, this means students desire to score higher than their peers, which in a writing intensive course means flaunting their intellectual prowess in a way that engages and entertains their peers. This not only encourages students to view themselves as authorities on the subject they are writing about, but it also highlights the importance of developing a voice and writing to a specific audience. These are the tenants of any writing course. I use peer editing in the initial stages of writing to help promote these objectives, and even go as far as having the students vote on the best paper. The finalists read their papers out loud to the entire class, and they vote on one winner. This process has absolutely nothing to do with the grade they will receive on the paper, but continuously results in a higher level of writing from most of my students.

  10. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Amanda, for your insights. I do think that there’s an element of peer competition that really does help along learning in classes, and I’m not sure Davidson has really come to terms with this aspect of motivating her students.

    The problem is that there are other kinds of competitive impulses that really do work against learning: e.g., when the desire to impress the instructor or score points off one’s peers actually gets in the way of mastering the skills or the content of the course. We all know examples of students who miss the point in this way, and end up learning less than they could because of misguided priorities.

    Ideally all these things should be in balance, though we know they rarely are at any particular time with a particular student. I do think that trying to keep the students’ own interests and curiosity in play is crucial to their success, but some students are always better than others at the business of intellectual display, so I like to give my quieter students opportunities, too, in more research-oriented assignments.

    In general, I’d say that the more varied the assignments, the better the chances that you’ll get a full picture of your students’ individual abilities, and the better the chances you’ll be able to reach the full range of students actually in your classroom.

  11. Laura Rosenthal

    Thanks Amanda for your response. I think the idea of having students always have full access to their grades is a good one. I’ve never used this feature of Blackboard, but maybe I’ll try it.