Thursday, September 20, 2007

Grading Students

My Victorian Literature students are doing their presentations this week -- this week and last week -- which is a useful part of the semester, as it allows the class, most of whom know very little about Victorian culture (and what little they think they know is usually wrong). This being so, it's rough for them to read George Eliot, or even Dickens: what's a Whig? Is it anything like a wig? Why do these people get upset about rick-burning? Going in for Chartism -- that's a health-craze, right?

So I assign topics, as I call them, and one student looks into who Charles Lyell was, and what he has to do with anything; and another looks into what Higher Criticism of the Bible is, and why it matters; and another investigates Malthus; and another Chartism; and so on; and each day five or six present to the class what they have learned, and I tell them if they can show how it effects literature of the period they will make me a very happy professor.

Which they do -- some of these presentations are really excellent. I have told them not to get hysterical, because this is only worth five percent of their grade, but we have got some fine students right now, and all they know how to do is run top speed. So I'm getting these Power Point presentations that explain things I never knew about how Darwin is connected to Lyell is connected to this guy over here and how the Royal Society started it all, complete with links and photographs and bits of poetry and music, and the writers all this influenced, and I'm meant to grade this.

Because they all want grades.

That's the bit that bothers me.

Grading students.

Here's my confession: I never have liked grading students.

I like teaching them. I like working with them. I like sitting down with them and saying, right then, look here, you see why this part of your paper really isn't working? See how if you do this, it will? I don't even mind marking things wrong on their exams, because, you know, if things are wrong, then they are wrong, and students need to know what they've gotten wrong, obviously, so they can go and find out what the right thing is.

But why grades? Grades, unless they're all A's, feel like punishment. And punishing people, well, how does that ever help anyone?

In my comp classes, that's how I do it, at least for as long as I can. I won't grade the essay until it's an A essay -- that's what I tell the students. I say they have to write it and rewrite it and keep rewriting it until it's an A. (Or, I tell them, they are welcome to give up. I tell them if they ever want to quit, they can put it in their grading folder and give it to me and I'll grade it at the level where they quit. Oddly, none of them take that option.) I say they can keep writing it until it's an A or until they run out of semester. About half the class reaches A papers this way -- the others, I'll admit, just stop revising and turn in the unrevised or barely revised work at the end of the semester. But they, at least, meant to try for the A, obviously.

Grades strike me as such a bad idea. They put me in an adversarial position with the students, for one thing. I'm not there to help the student; I'm there to judge the student. And the student is there to get past me -- to sneak, to con me, to try to wrangle an A out of me against my will. Instead of this, obviously, the student and I should be working together: we should be here to learn. Instead of the student trying to hide her ignorance from me, we should be working together to find the best way to mend that ignorance. Instead of me trying to punish the student for the high crime of not-knowing, I should be trying to help the student know.

Also, it pits the students against one another. They vie for the best grades, to win in the classroom; they worry about being caugh cheating; they want to be the smartest. It becomes about the grade, not about the knowledge.

(Here's a story: when I was in graduate school, studying Greek, there would always be some male graduate student in the class who, when I turned out to be the smartest one in the class, would be first astonished, and then furious: because that could not be right. (a) He had always been the smartest and (b) I did not have a penis. How could a non-tool bearing student be smartest? Not possible! I remember one fella, after I finished first on the first exam, coming up to me in the hallway when we got the exams back. "How did you do?" he asked, ever so casually. I showed him the exam. I don't remember what I got, but it would have been a 98 or a 99 -- Dr. Levine, whose class this would have been, never gave 100s. He said there was no such thing as a perfect exam. I remember his grade, though also an A, was lower. He scowled at me, and then attempted a smile. "This won't do," he said, and he tried to pretend he was kidding. But he wasn't. He spend the next five or six weeks trying to out-study me -- studying as hard as he could, so that he could finish faster than me on the quizzes, score higher than me on the tests -- and? When he couldn't? -- he dropped the class.)

My point, and I do have one, is why must we grade students at all? What does it help? Feedback, yes. Advice, yes. Helpful criticism, by all means. But grades? I can think of only one grade that did me any good, the C- that was given me by Raeburn Miller when I was 19 years old, and really, the note he wrote on the bottom of the paper did much more good: he told me that no matter how well I wrote, if I did not learn to spell and proofread, no one would ever care what I said. All the rest of all the dreadful grades all my teachers gave me all the years of my life just made me angry and resentful, just like all the smacks in the head I got growing up did. None of them taught me anything.

My point, well, what is my point.

(1) I am not convinced grading does much good.

(2) I am half-convinced it can do active harm.

(3) It takes up inordinate scads of time.

(4) Who thought it up, anyway. (Cough patriarchy cough)

(5) Can't we do something else? What's up with this?

So that's my rant for today.


Sugared Harpy said...

I want to come and work with you. Period. I'll sit under your desk.

I could not agree more. You just said everything I have felt about grades. I am a firm believer in constructive criticism, in allowing students to do it until it's right (otherwise, they turn in a paper, I give a C, then they move on...never learning HOW to do it!), and in encouraging them to find their voice within the constructs of acceptable grammar and structure.

I currently assign two short papers now before the term paper. (I teach art history). Students consistently thought that an argumentative paper was an ANGRY paper, not a paper that had an opinion. And then? I found they didn't trust their own opinion at all. Beaten out of them years ago.

So I do the two short papers as warm ups basically. To get that criticism in early, before the heavier term paper.

A side note: I did the do-over method at my university. I allowed students in a Humanities 101 to rewrite until they got an A or gave up. I ended up with a good, hardworking class that received about 3/4 A's at semester end.

And then I got in trouble for allowing so many A's.


CB said...

When I grow up, I'll be like you....

Recent experience with grades:

I have this class where I have to revise a paper and this teacher (quite fun; I like her alright) goes through the paper, marks it up with red ink (icky), and puts a grade at the bottom, so we have an idea of where we're at on the grade scale, I suppose....

And that grade at the bottom hasn't done anything for me, but cause anxiety. It's not teaching me anything, not like the comments.

Diane said...

I would have to do a lot of serious thinking before I came up with an answer I could definitely stand by, but offhand--I'm in favor of grading (and I have taught at a univeristy).

What I'm not in favor of is the habit students have of sharing their grades with one another. I think that is horrible. But since there are practically no boundaries in this culture anymore, it is not surprising.

By the way, Victorian Lit was one of my favorite classes. I took it from a kind of fussy older man who used to make tea for me, and who gave me my very first amaryllis plant. I recall writing a paper (I may still have it) comparing rock lyrics of the 1970s with the poems of Arnold and Tennyson.

Bardiac said...

Grading (especially in writing classes) seems to put our mentoring of students at odds with our evaluating their work.

I wish I had something useful to contribute to changing things.

Jennifer said...

I am struggling with this right now while teaching Developmental Writing. Some of the students respond well to comments, but others don't really care about anything but their grade. Despite the fact that they only really receive a grade of Pass, Fail, or Repeat at the end of the course. They all want that familiar scale of A through F.

I got a lot of questions like, "You said I did a good job. How come I got a B?" They no longer see a C as average but as a sign of utter failure.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. If the goal is educating, then we should educate. But the focus seems to be on grades, unfortunately. Everything has to be competitive and there ALWAYS has to be a #1.

Anonymous said...

wait a second...

we've all gotten grades before. anyone in the school system in the USA knows and has received grades. so pretty much everybody learns, as they grow up, about this thing called grading.

why then is it so shocking to be graded?

I do not believe grading is some nefarious evil inflicted upon the poor student populace as punishment. not everyone has the same capabilities, and to pretend they do does a disservice to everyone involved.

the problem, as I see it, is that some [many? all?] students see grades as a gift bestowed upon them for attempting an assignment. A very wise Muppet once said, "Do or do not...there is not try." The assumption is that all students do their best...and some will end up doing poorly. Why is it wrong for them to get a bad grade then? Some simply do nothing and still expect a good grade!

The model you all are proposing assumes that all students have the potential to do gain expertise...and that they all want to work for excellence. I just don't think that model has ever existed except in some imagined Teacherworld where we all get energetic, involved, interested students.

I too hated giving grades, but I never, ever will understand why so many people think that an evaluation of work product is a punishment.

delagar said...

Ask the question this way, anonymous: why is it right for students to be graded?

Not evaluated: I think evaluating the students' work does help students: but why grade them? Who is helped by being put in the C box? Or the D box? Or even the A box?

The evaluation isn't the punishment: the defining of the student as a failure, without giving the student any way to do anything about that failure, is (a useless) punishment. And, I think, useless, pedagogically.