Grading, grading, grading.
As the kids say, I literally cannot even.
Where do I begin?
Grading, to me, is one of the necessary evils of education–along with mandatory monthly fire drills, whole-building staff meetings, and standardized tests. I have disliked it for the duration of my teaching career, as I have disliked all of those things, but I still have not found a way to avoid it.
When I left the high school classroom last May, one of the things I was happiest to let go was grading. (That and those damned fire drills.)
But I didn’t expect to come to loathe grading even more when I began teaching college students.
There were a few reasons I disliked grading in my new job: first, I found that, by dint of the course designs I inherited, that the only “grades” given were at the very end of the semester. This meant that what little formative feedback was built into the course wasn’t seen as valuable–by the students nor the other instructors I was working with. I sat in meetings where a colleague complained about “having to do all that reading and write all those comments for nothing” (“nothing” being no grade). I thought to myself, wow, you’re missing the whole point of formative feedback.
Another thing I loathed was that most everything was electronic. Any assignment due was expected to be turned in via email/eCampus/Google Drive two days prior to the class meeting, and the instructor was to give feedback and a grade before class began on Friday. This meant that the only feedback about a student’s work was always only given by the instructor, and that students never saw one another’s work.
So, as the semester moved along, I began to make some changes to the course design: more formative feedback, more frequent turn-in checkpoints for large assignments, lots of ungraded, low-stakes drafting of ideas in class. We all hobbled to the end, adjusting assignments and expectations as we went.
But over the winter break, as I reflected and gathered the many post-its of ideas I’d stuck here and there, seeking to refine our syllabus and clarify our goals, I thought of one major change I could make that would solve a lot of my problems with the course.
Return to paper.
Good, old-fashioned, print-it-out-and-bring-it-to-class-and-turn-it-in assignment submission.
This practice has had a few key benefits for me so far this semester. First, I am seeing much more clarity of thought in my students’ talk in class–I suspect because they’re treating their weekly one-pagers as first drafts of their thinking, and then re-reading them, as evidenced by their frequent typo corrections or asides to me in the margins.
Second, the issue of opacity between students’ assignment submissions is gone. Each class meeting, I try to build in a time to share our writing, whether by trading papers, using our papers as an artifact to support some talk, or asking students to comment on one another’s work. I ask students to read not just for content, to glean multiple perspectives, but also to read for structure, to see how other writers think through the issues we’re grappling with. As a result, I’ve seen a great deal of growth in how students structure their writing, as well as a transformation in the confidence of their writing voices as they engage with (and often question) the ideas in the texts we read.
Third, we’ve been reading Visible Learners this semester, which encourages the practice of documentation for the purpose of reflection. By having concrete documentation of our thinking in the form of hard-copy papers, as well as hard-copy documentation of responsive thinking in the form of my comments or their peers’ in the margins, it is much easier to trace patterns and progress in our thinking.
Fourth, I’ve found that removing laptops or tablets from the equation when students share work actually improves the quality of their conversation. I’ve been reading widely about how detrimental our devices can be to our talk, so I’ve made a conscious effort to reduce our screen time in class. Fewer devices lead to more robust dialogue, which leads to better thinking and writing and time together overall.
Finally, my students are now accustomed to receiving frequent formative feedback and have come to expect and welcome it. Initially, the students were a little wary when they saw my scribbles, assuming they were all corrections, but then were delighted when they actually read the feedback a peer or I had left. Now, they hunger for the moments when a friend hands them back their paper with a handwritten note, or I return assignments the next class.
Switching to hard-copy grading has improved a great deal of my work with my students, and although I still haven’t come to love grading, I am enjoying it a lot more this semester.
Now to tackle that huge stack of one-pagers that’s been staring at me all morning…!
Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.