October 27, 2010


Filed under: assessment,writing — jrice @ 10:09 am

As most academics are in love with the cultural cliches circulated by PhD Comics, they also love to maintain cliches like the burden of grading. Cliches, like any metaphor, offer comfort. They re-enforce fixed beliefs and they allow one to feel less alone in a feeling (others share my experience). They also distract and encourage problematic thinking (the stereotype being the best example, but these ideas regarding disciplinary work generate distortions as well that become difficult to overcome).

Even though Steve has a very honest response to the grading thread (a response that I do not think is cynical),  I still see some missing elements of what grading should do. Grading is a small part of what is a necessary process of teaching that no one can do the “one and done” work. Grading is the least important part of the process other than the feeling it gives to the teacher (punishment or reward) and the student (punishment or reward). It has little to do with the teaching of writing.

Grading distracts from feedback. The Canadian Literature PhD who laments over the five stages of grading (in the above link) does his/her readership a service by re-enforcing its own frustration (“I”m not the only one who is upset!”) but seems to fail to recognize how this burden could be lessened. If one must collect papers/projects at one time in a semester’s period, then one will be overwhelmed. If one does not set up a process of staged feedback over a period of time, then one will likely be disappointed with much of the work turned in.  In other words, pedagogy may be to blame just as much as the supposed low quality work. There is no divine rule that tells teachers to make up an assignment, wait a period to collect, collect it, write all over it, and turn it back to the student. This is a cliched practice.

At this point, the typical critique that I am making will highlight what the one doing the critique (me) does in the classroom. I can do that, but what I do is not a universal model for both limiting the burden of assessing writing or for receiving quality work. I can give you instead a model based on two simple principles:

1. Stage the feedback. Feedback given once when papers are collected is not feedback. It does not allow the writer to do anything. “But I require revisions,” the response states. Revisions to what? To a list of comments given once? That is not revision and the stakes are at this point “give the teacher what she wants.” A staged feedback process involves anything from giving presentations one week, doing drafts another week to working out ideas along the way, doing research together, writing portions of a project together, etc. To do that kind of work, of course, the fetish of coverage would have to yield. And the instructor would have to be invested in work along the way, not just the final product.

2. Stage the feedback so that you know what students are doing over a period of time (let’s say four to five weeks). When work is turned in, there are no or few surprises. There is no need to “correct” writing since such issues have been worked out over the staged period, there is no need to go through “denial” or “anger” since you already know what the work is, and there is reason to offer – for the most part – positive commentary on what you’ve read.

If these two basic principles are adopted, of course, the instructor loses this love of complaint. At the heart of the cliched circulation of complaints regarding student writing is the desire to complain. Remove that, and most of these folks might actually have to re-imagine their own teaching. If one has to do such re-imagining, one, then, actually has to do more than repeat passed down, yet ineffective, practices.


  1. I, too, hate grading, but it’s not because it’s time consuming (it is) or because my students are overly focused on their grades (they are). It’s because I feel like students have been programed to see grades as symbols of their own worth, not just the evaluation of an assignment. Every time, I write B+, I feel like student questions, “Why aren’t I an A students?” not “What about this paper needed improvement?” I hate grading because I feel like I’m judging my students as people, though they helped design the rubric by which I grade, wrote self-evaluations complete with the grade they would have given themselves, and gave them plenty of helpful feedback and resources along the way.

    Grades really are just a gate-keeping device, and I hate to be the guard that stands between them and their dreams, especially since most of the aren’t dreaming of becoming English majors any time soon. On the other hand, I would probably be given a stern talking to if I simply awarded all of my students A for effort (and most of them do deserve it).

    Comment by Nicole P — October 27, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  2. I think this is what you mean by the feedback issue, but I think the idea of making a distinction between “grading that provides feedback for revision” and “grading that tells you why the grade is what it is” is key. If I am grading something that students can’t revise for whatever reason, I don’t write any comments. What’s the point? On the other hand, if I’m commenting on something that students can revise, then I make comments in an effort to encourage that. Though even in those circumstances, I want students to come and talk to me.

    I guess what I’m getting at is I think that grading is an opportunity for opening a discussion with students and not an end-point. At least commenting on student writing is like that.

    Comment by Steve Krause — October 27, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

  3. Of course, I’m talking about methodology, and the methodology that makes sense to me is not “collect and comment” for a revision. Feedback staged over time makes much more sense. It makes sense for the student who is working over a period of time and not merely “fixing” according to an instructor’s comments; it makes sense for me. When the work’s done, I already know it. I don’t have a stack of so called papers to wade through. I must be an anomaly since I’m never burdened by “grading.”

    Comment by jrice — October 28, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

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