Fudging the Numbers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the semester, a grading dilemma always rears its head.  Here’s one.  What do I do?

Anjali’s earliest work was dramatically incompetent, but as the semester has worn on, it has steadily improved.  That said, most of her “improved” work has been done at home, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility that someone else is “helping” her a little more than is strictly acceptable.  She’s also been chronically absent – for the last month of classes I saw her only once – and at the moment has a failing grade, due mostly to missing in-class work.

Last week, I held office hours to answer last-minute questions on their final assignments.  To my surprise, Anjali showed up.  She had a draft of her paper with her.  It wasn’t a terrible paper, but it had some serious issues: her absences meant that she hadn’t understood a number of the requirements for the assignment.  We went over some of the most important problems.  Then I leaned back in my chair.

“Anjali,” I said, “It’s good that you’re coming to see me, but it would have been much more useful if you’d come ten weeks ago.  You’ve been failing all semester, and there’s not a lot we can do about it now.  It’s highly unlikely you’re going to pass this course.”

“But miss,” she said, “I’m on probation.”

“I see,” I said.  “That’s another excellent reason that you should have started coming to see me ten weeks ago.  And an excellent reason to get lots of extra help, and attend all classes, and otherwise fulfill all your responsibilities.”

“But miss, I had a very good reason for missing so much class.  But I know I should have come to talk to you about that.”

“Not necessarily,” I replied.  “If you had a medical reason, you should go request a medical delete.  If it’s not a medical reason, then it isn’t really relevant: passing a course means you’ve learned the skills the course requires, and you haven’t been in class to learn any skills.”  I handed her back her draft.  “Do your best, and we’ll see what happens, but you need to be prepared for the possibility that you will fail.”

She got to her feet.  “Miss, do you give any kind of make-up work?  To improve my grade?”

I shook my head.  “Do your best on this last assignment, but I don’t think you’re going to make it.”

So today I corrected Anjali’s final paper.  It has many of the same problems that her draft had, and all the strengths.  If I grade it according to my rubric, it earns between 65 and a 70 percent, depending on how flexible I am about certain criteria.  This isn’t enough; she will fail the course by two or three points.

However, if I look at this paper more holistically – if I ask myself, “Is this an acceptably organized and expressed paper that shows a good understanding of the texts, a paper that might earn a good grade in another course where the assignment requirements are different?”, then the answer is “Yes.”  It’s not a bad paper at all.  It’s just that it has some major weaknesses, and those weaknesses lie in areas that were emphasized in the guidelines and that were dealt with at length in class, when Anjali wasn’t there.

If I fudge her assignment grade to a 75%, she’ll pass the course.  Now, let me be clear: given her lack of overall effort, I don’t think she’s earned a pass, and I’m never comfortable “fudging” anything.  But based on this paper alone – and assuming that it is indeed her own work, and I have no clear evidence that it’s not, especially seeing that she came to see me with it – she has the basic skills she needs to manage fine in her future courses.  I could probably examine my rubric again and make a few generous tweaks so that everything adds up to the grade she needs.  And when a student fails a course by two points, everyone involved is much more upset than if she failed by ten.

What’s a teacher to do?

Image by Miriam Wickett

“I AM the Teacher”

After a long and infuriating day of grading final papers, here’s a random quote from my favourite writer that makes me feel oddly, ambivalently better.

‘You act,’ said one of her Senior Seminar students at a scheduled conference, ‘like your opinion is worth more than everybody else’s in the class.’

Zoe’s eyes widened.  ‘I AM the teacher,’ she said.  ‘I DO get paid to act like that.’ She narrowed her gaze at the student, who was wearing a big leather bow in her hair, like a cowgirl in a TV ranch show. ‘I mean, otherwise EVERYBODY in the class would have little offices and office hours.’ … She stared at the student some more, then added, ‘I bet you’d like that.’

‘Maybe I sound whiny to you,’ said the girl, ‘but I simply want my history major to mean something.’

‘Well, there’s your problem,’ said Zoe, and with a smile, she showed the student to the door. ‘I like your bow,’ she added.

Lorrie Moore, from “You’re Ugly, Too”

Evaluation Rubrics

I’ve been asked to sit on a panel in January to discuss evaluation.  One of the topics under discussion will be the use of rubrics to evaluate student work.  I’m curious about others’ experiences with using rubrics.

I have no idea how I’d manage without rubrics.  I sometimes decide to “give myself a break” by reducing feedback on less critical evaluations to general grades and comments in a few categories (usually content, organization, expression and formatting) instead of filling out a detailed rubric with criteria and subcriteria.  I usually regret it.  A table with checkboxes for each criterion and a space for comments is the easiest, most efficient and most mathematically neutral (which is not to say actually mathematically neutral, because evaluations never are, but as close as possible) way to give students some meaningful feedback and a numerical grade.

Each sub-criterion receives a grade between 1 and 5.

  • 5/5 = excellent!
  • 1/5 = WTF?
  • 0/5 = this essay shows no evidence that you were even aware that this criterion was being evaluated, despite the fact that you had this rubric in front of you while you were writing it.

Each category is then weighted according to its importance in that particular assignment.  Major essays in post-introductory courses are usually weighted more toward content, while a first version of an essay in a remedial intro course might emphasize grammar.

These rubrics are immensely helpful when students come to ask questions (as they are all required to at least once a semester in order to revise and resubmit), and when students challenge a grade.  Just this past week, a student came to me ready to burst into tears about an oral presentation grade.  I was able to say, “Ok, there are two different ways of looking at this.  The first is, ‘I’M UPSET!!'” (I wave my arms in the air and shake my fists.  The student laughs.)  “The other is, ‘I don’t understand why I didn’t do well on this particular aspect that I got 2/5 on.’  Let’s try the second approach.”  So we talked it through, and in the end, she got it, and no adjustment to the grade was made, because frankly, the presentation, although a valiant attempt, was a structural mess.  She didn’t know what was meant by that, and now she seems to understand a bit better.

Teachers: Do you use rubrics to evaluate your students’ work?  How do you structure them?  Do they help you?  Do they help your students?

Students: Do your teachers use rubrics to evaluate your work?  What kind of rubric best helps you learn?

You will find some more thoughts on the use of rubrics here.

Image by Steve Woods

F is for Facile

Let’s say a hypothetical student submitted a hypothetical essay containing assertions similar to those below.

(The assignment is a real one: a report on a series of oral presentations in which students “sold” books to the class.  The books were assigned from a list that I created.  The purpose of the report is to indicate which of the books the student will choose for his or her final reading in the course, based on the presentations and on excerpts.  For more info on the book list, the assignments attached to it and the structure of the course, go here.

Let’s assume, though, that these comments are fictional but are representative of the KIND of comments one student made.)

While listening to all the oral presentations, trying to keep my eyes open and fighting off the boredom brought by the students suffering from social anxiety…

Being mentioned that the story is about a girl being caught in the throes of war in an island made me realise two things that’s going to bother me during my reading. First, no sexist comments intended, I have a hard time putting myself in the shoes of a girl with all the crying and empathy. Second, they’re on an island? I don’t want to get to the part that they throw coconuts at each other.

To conclude, looking through all the chick-flick-like stories and bore-me-to-death-and-cry-me-a-river scenarios, my pick is…

Let’s say that this is just a sampling, and the whole paper takes this tone.  In fact, let’s say that the student has taken this tone all semester and that his teacher has very carefully “managed” him in order to put him, and delicately hold him, in his place and to minimize disruption to the class while avoiding the escalation he clearly desires.

Is it too hands-off, for example, to write something like this next to the first comment above?

Not relevant to the evaluation you are doing here.  Also, not a good way to inspire trust, which is important if you want to engage your reader.

Should a student’s grade on an English essay be affected by the fact that the essay is smug, snotty, misogynist and xenophobic?  How do you keep your personal feelings about students and their behaviour out of your grading practices?

Image by H Berends

Why Teachers Need Something Better Than Microsoft Word

Onscreen grading is a revelation.

I have resisted the transition from paper grading to onscreen grading for a while now.  I experimented last fall with having students submit a paragraph online once in a while, but I was reluctant to use Track Changes tools, as I knew most students weren’t familiar with them, and so I tried to mark by underlining and inserting comments in bold – tedious, time-consuming, ineffective.

This term, I clued in to the fact that if students are unfamiliar with reviewing tools, then it’s up to me to start making them familiar.  So I’m now in the process of having all my classes submit small assignments to me online.

I have a repetitive stress injury in my writing arm that makes writing by hand physically painful.  My hatred of grading is perhaps even more intense than other teachers’ because of this added physical suffering.  I had no idea, though, what an eye-opener onscreen grading would be.  I am actually ENJOYING grading these paragraphs.  I’m writing three times as many comments as I normally do – which is to say that the tools aren’t really saving me any time, but they are making me a better, less miserable teacher.

Microsoft Word, however, while it seems to be the best tool we have, is not the best tool we could want.  It is lumpy.  My most serious complaint is that when we turn on Track Changes, Word tracks every change.  This is a problem when I am marking up drafts, because I highlight student errors without correcting them, and my sidebar becomes cluttered with an endless series of red bubbles saying “Highlight,” “Highlight,” … I find myself triple-spacing the student’s work just to make all the marginal comments visible.

What’s more, if the student and I are using different versions of Word, some of my feedback is lost.  Those highlights I mention above appear instead as a weird font change or disappear altogether in the conversion.  I have no way of knowing what the student actually sees when s/he opens the document I have corrected.

Do any of you have tips on solving these issues?  How do you make onscreen marking as efficient as possible?  Is there any other, better marking software that you know of that either exists or is in development?  If not, can you please call up all your software programmer friends and tell them that there is a need here that desperately needs to be filled?

Image by Michael Faes

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