“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

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