Sunday, November 04, 2007

About to Be Caught in a Grading Vortex

I have a lot of grading of student papers to get caught up on. Finally I had managed to clear a complete weekend to try to get caught up -- and then found myself crippled yesterday by a fierce headache. It came back this morning. Coincidence? Bad luck? Or did I create the headache as an excuse to keep postponing this difficult task?

Why do I have such a block about grading? Why is it a task that has become harder over time instead of easier?

At the beginning of the semester I resolved to grade each set of papers at once and get it over with -- but that noble plan has long ago collapsed into dust.

Part of the problem is that it takes such time and energy that I feel I need big blocks of time to do it and get it done. There is nothing more frustrating than to do three or four papers and then have to put it aside, so that when I come back to it, I have to re-read those papers to ensure that my grading standards are consistent across the batch of papers. So I tend not to grade in small doses like that. I wait for big chunks of time (which are very hard to find in my complicated life) -- and then get so overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before me that it's hard to get into it when I do have the time -- or a fierce headache suddenly attacks me, like this weekend.

There are other factors that make the task difficult too. I think I've written about this before. But I bring it up again simply to ask for help. Do other teachers out there have this problem? Have other teachers found a way to deal with this better than I have? Are there any secrets to how to just grade a batch of papers immediately when they come in, efficiently and effectively, without a lot of angst?


  1. You're not alone at all. Right now, I'm sitting on over a hundred papers (and I'm a writing teacher, so each paper takes at least 15 minutes to comment on). I don't even want to add up the number of minutes it'll take to get them all done. At any point in the semester, I'm walking around in a state of overwhelm. It doesn't help when students (understandably) ask, "When will you have our papers back?"

    The only solution I've used with any success is to set a timer for a full 60 minutes and make it a race to see how fast I can be.

  2. CS,

    I haven't been good about commenting on your recent posts but I have been reading them. Here's catch up.

    I think you are wise to realize you do not have a gift for administration. You filled in and did the job when circumstances called upon you to do the job, but you learned that it is not your permanent calling.

    This realization on your part is connected with your insights about "selfishness" and integrity. I agree that you should not embrace the word "selfishness." It is part and parcel of the "greed is good" trust-the-invisible-hand false morality of the Reagan era. No, greed is not good. No, the invisible hand of the marketplace will not see to it that everyone is treated well or even decently. No, the profit motive does have to be restrained. So reject "selfishness" as the tag for the truth you need to see here. But allowing other people to dictate your priorities is a kind of betrayal of yourself and of the leadings of God that are directing you. Suppose God wants you to be focused on writing and on your students. Then calls to serve on this or that committee are calls away from what God is telling you to do. Good people see selfishness all around them and want to be cooperative. That's a fine instinct. But being cooperative doesn't mean agreeing to drop whatever you are doing and dance to someone else's tune. Be strong and resolute in following your own leadings.

    Grading papers! At our after meeting for worship coffeehour a Friend who is starting to go into retirement said if she never grades another student paper that is perfectly alright with her! It is a hard and usually thankless task. Students need hard and honest criticism and it's human nature not to want to hear it. They also need a pat on the back and a "good job!" too, but giving the needed negative feedback is the emotionally hard part. I'm not sure it works better but when I have a pile of papers to grade I read the whole pile without making any comments at all. Then I go away and do something else. When I come back then I write actual grades and comments during a second reading. Perhaps you are writing too many comments. It's hard for us to admit but very often students don't even read the comments, they just look at the grade. You should consider writing fewer comments but be prepared to discuss the paper in office hours with any student who wants detailed feedback. This way students who will appreciate the feedback can get it and you don't waste so much time giving feedback that isn't taken seriously.

    By the way I do plan on making it to FAHE this summer. I know the date has passed for programming but what do you think of the topic of religious experience from a Quaker philosopher point of view. I've written about the topic in the past and I know you have an interest in it. Do you think others would be interested as well?

  3. Thanks to both for your suggestions.

    Back when I was a graduate student, I was a teaching assistant for a professor who wanted us to get students' papers back by the next class session. I had three sections of 25 students, so 75 philosophy papers to grade in two nights. If that was all I had to do in life, it would still be a challenge -- but doing this on top of attending to my own classes was nearly impossible. Philosophy papers can take a half-hour to an hour to read and respond to well, but to meet these deadlines, I had to use the timer method, giving myself about 10 minutes per paper! But this was a large university where the expectations were different from where I am now. All I had to do was assign a grade, give one positive comment, and one critical comment. Somehow, I managed to do this. (In practice, it still took me longer than 10 minutes per paper...)

    Now I teach at a small liberal arts college, where the expectations are different. So, although I have smaller classes, the grading expectations still feel heavy, because we are expected (and I agree with these expectations) to give more assignments and to give helpful feedback.

    Gradually I do find myself developing a method like Richard recommends. It is helpful to read all of the papers first and let myself mull over them before trying to respond.

    Then when I do respond, I try to limit my time with each paper so that I am not over-responding. I don't comment on everything: I choose what I regard as the one or two most important bits of guidance I feel the student needs to hear at this point. Even so, framing this guidance clearly and thoroughly can take time, even if the comment does not end up looking very long.

    I think what I'll try in the future is to do the pre-reading that Richard recommends right away, as soon as the students turn them in. If I delay looking at the papers, it gets harder and scarier to face them as time goes by. But if I could read them all right away, without pressuring myself to respond right away, and while my own thoughts are fresh about why I assigned this, then maybe it will all seem less daunting and I'll be able to write responses quickly and efficiently.

    I'll try this and report back!

    But meanwhile, I still have this set to finish -- my headache did slow me down this weekend, unfortunately...