Grading Shortcuts


For years I provided very extensive comments on students’ papers. What stopped me was one of them, finally, saying “thank you.” It immediately struck me that hundreds of students over many semesters hadn’t cared enough to say anything to me about the comments, and in fact probably hadn’t cared about them at all. I switched to a more minimal commenting approach, at least on lower level courses.

But perhaps we can forgo nearly all written comments. That is what Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate and adjunct professor, suggests as an option. She uses a rubric that includes pre-written statements with grades and weights for various parts of the assignment. She checks off boxes on the rubric, thereby “commenting” and grading the assignment. She provides no line or marginal comments. Instead, she says: “Pass it back with a two-line summary about the paper in general, and then this note: ‘I would be delighted to give this paper an extensive line-by-line reading in my office hours, or by appointment!’ The students who want this will come to you. For me, it’s between one and ten students per paper, out of 35-60 total. This method is unassailable, because any student who wishes to have line comments gets them–they just have to make a slight time commitment about it, too, which every Dean would think is fair.” Schuman’s account of the process, along with examples of her rubrics, are over at her blog.

Have any philosophers attempted this approach? Or perhaps you have other grading shortcuts that, at this time of year, you can make us wish we had used?

UPDATE: Marcus Arvan at Philosopher’s Cocoon strongly objects!

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James Camien McGuiggan
James Camien McGuiggan
6 years ago

My department has detailed comments, an obligatory ten-minute one-on-one session in which the comments are orally communicated and elaborated upon and in which the student asks any questions, and a requirement on the students to revise the essay in light of the comments. This ensures that the comments are not only listened to but worked on. This means they really learn, in practice as well as in abstract, the comments. It’s extra work, but much more rewarding. And I think it’s generally better for a university to err on the side of education, rather than, as Schuman advocates, on the side of mechanisation.Report

BunnyHugger
BunnyHugger
Reply to  James Camien McGuiggan
6 years ago

I teach 4/4, often with all 4 being intro-level classes capped at 45. Although I write detailed comments on the rare occasions I teach a smaller (usually upper-level) class, under normal conditions it’s either minimal comments or they don’t write a paper at all (instead they write essay exams which are modestly commented). More often it’s the latter. Lavishly commented papers, and grading successive drafts, is surely ideal — no one can deny that — but I envy anyone who actually has classes small enough for that to be a reasonable expectation.

My sense of students at my institution is that the vast majority do not care about comments. I have even seen students throw away their papers as they walk out the door once they’ve glanced at the grade. I have also had semesters, like this one, in which I have a sizable stack of never-picked-up midterms because the students weren’t in class when they were handed back and never were curious enough to ask me for them later.

I have considered, though never actually been quite able to convince myself it’s a good idea, letting students have a choice: they can ask for detailed comments but will get exams back later, or they can opt for no comments and get them back sooner. Offered a choice I am confident 90% would much rather just have their work back as soon as possible.Report

KateNorlock
KateNorlock
Reply to  BunnyHugger
6 years ago

BunnyHugger, I have met several instructors who do exactly that, and they all find it successful. I’ve yet to do it myself, but the lavish comments are a bit draining to write.Report

Steve
Steve
6 years ago

Using a rubric for final papers is great since so few students ever pick them up, and if they do they just glance at the grade.

For early papers, using a rubric at the expense of detailed marginal comments wastes an opportunity to teach students what you are looking for from their papers.Report

Tom Polger
6 years ago

Yes, I have used this approach, particularly with oral presentations but sometimes with written work. It is almost essential when team teaching.

Using rubrics is not a grading “shortcut.” It is a method for fairly, consistently, and objectively grading. Rubrics can (should) be distributed in advance, so that students know what is expected and how they will be graded. Students also can and will enforce the rubrics on one another, commenting on draft papers and practice presentations, after which they frequently (but not always) improve their own work.

For further information (not from my institution), see: http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/rubrics.htmlReport

Nancy J. Matchett (@njmatch3)
6 years ago

While all dedicated professors want to believe that students will read and learn for their comments, all available evidence suggests that only a tiny percentage do, and that we are very bad at predicting which students those are. So, unless you are requiring re-submissions based on comments, Schuman’s approach makes more sense. The note at the end is crucial, by the way, so that students who do want detailed feedback know they are welcome in office hours.

I’ve been using a Schuman-ish approach for roughly 10 years now. There are extra benefits for students and profs by combining digital rubrics with anonymous marking (both of which are easy to do with most online grade books). Students submit online and the program masks their identities while I grade. I click buttons on the rubric while scoring. The nice thing is that the computer aggregates results across the rubric categories, which I can share with the whole class (since they are anonymous and aggregate); spending some class time working on common errors together means I know the feedback is being received by the students who are present. Grading anonymously and with a rubric keeps me focused on features of the paper in relation to the assignment. Plus, when I reveal names after grading is complete, I always gain insights into my students and my relations to/assumptions about them: rarely is the best or worst paper written by the student I would have predicted based on participation in class. And, since I began doing this (technology only facilitated the anonymized part about 5 years ago), I get a few more students coming back for more detailed comments-I think the fact that they are graded anonymously helps students understand that the grade isn’t a comment on their character but on the quality of work they produced, which makes for more comfortable discussions about how to improve. I also allow students to just resend their paper via email and request margin comments, which I return via email.

This approach isn’t a panacea – there are still shockingly few who email or come by for individualized feedback. So again, I think as much as we want to believe that all students learn from detailed margin comments, if we look clear-headedly at the evidence we have to accept that most don’t. Requiring re-submissions based on comments is one way of ensuring that students will actually receive, and hence be more likely to learn from, the feedback we painstakingly provide, and that is of course the goal. But in large classes and/or for professors with heavy teaching loads, a rubric-based approach is a sensible way to meet our responsibility to provide feedback while also sensibly managing our time. At least, it helps me sleep at night.Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Nancy J. Matchett (@njmatch3)
6 years ago

Nancy, is there a particular rubric software you recommend?Report

Matt Zwolinski
Reply to  justinrweinberg
6 years ago

I’m curious too. The plagiarism detection software I use, Turnitin.com, has this kind of functionality built in. But the apparently high start-up costs of figuring out how to use it effectively have dissuaded me from ever looking into it seriously. I’d be interested to hear if others think it’s worthwhile, or if there’s a different software package they recommend instead.Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  justinrweinberg
6 years ago

I have found the rubric software in Turnitin to be pretty useful, and not too hard to figure out.Report

Asaf Bar-Tura
6 years ago

When I taught intro courses I used a similar method: The rubric had three columns: (1) content, (2) style, and (3) citations. I then gave a grade between 1 and 5 (with explanations of what each number means) for each column and for each question in the paper assignment. I also explained to the students in advance how to cite, which stylistic errors matter, etc.

I also explicitly gave the same option noted above: any student is welcome to come for an in-person review of the paper during office hours or by appointment. It worked beautifully.Report