Notes from a conference III, or: why you hate grading

It’s probably bad to write three posts, one straight after the other, but hey: tough.

We’ve got more grading/assessment-related posts coming from people more on it than me, but a couple of times in the first days of ISA, we’ve had the classic teaching-related panel moment of everyone nodding along to ‘but everyone hates grading, right?’

[Parenthetically, one of those moments led to talk of how good it would be if our jobs didn’t including grading at all, whereupon I noted my job doesn’t include it, to many jealous looks. I’m mostly happy that I have so little grading to do (like a dozen scripts a year little), but part of me does miss it, mainly for the reasons set out here.]

The obvious question that no one really seems to keen to investigate is why we all seem to hate grading.

After all, it’s the main mechanism we have for evaluating student learning and, by extension, whether our teaching is getting the results we intend. It’s more rigorous than a chat at the end of class about learning gain or the impressions we glean from observing debates in the classroom, so why are we so down on it?

Let’s consider the usual suspects.

First up, ‘it’s repetitive’. Sure, if you have a pile of a hundred essays on the same topic, that is super-dull, especially if there’s a lot of overlap in the intellectual sources your students used (your lectures, the core textbook, the readings you suggested): it’s a rehash/mangling of what you’ve taught them and it’s probably not pretty.

So don’t make that your assessment. Give them choice, make them responsible for finding their own sources, get them to bring something more personal and individual.

My old negotiation course asked students for their only assessment point to tell me what they had learnt from the course: I was emphatic that it could be absolutely anything, as long as it was grounded in what had happened in class and was connected out to whatever literature they had found useful. Result was such a rich variety, every time I ran that course.

Second up, ‘it takes such a long time.’ Partly that’s about the time-elongating/mind-numbing of reading the same stuff a bunch of times that we just discussed, but partly it’s our demands of the process. Often, we normalise the essay of X pages or Y thousand words as proof of learning, even as we rool our eyes at ‘all that text’.

So go for concision, not length. You know it’s harder to produce a good short text than a good long one: the demand to focus much more tightly on what’s important, to lose the blah, is something we find tricky (to judge by the number of ropey abstracts you and I have read). Set a much shorter length piece, or ask for a 2-page policy brief, or a poster, or an infographic, or a 3 minute video.

Of course, shorter assessment outputs doesn’t automatically mean quicker grading, but it helps. As does trying things like videoing your feedback, or asking students to make their own evaluations of their or their peers’ work.

Finally, ‘students find it boring/unpleasant (and so do I)‘. Find me the student who loves to do assessments and I’ll just start wondering what happened to them to make it come to this. I get that everyone thinks it’s an imposition and chore.

So involve your students in finding assessments that engage them more/turn them off less. Amanda’s breakfast exercise for research methods is my go-to here: super-fun, super-engaging allowing them to really capture their experiences in an assessment.

If assessment is about cementing the bond of teacher and learner, then why wouldn’t you want to bring them in to find a mutually-satisfactory assessment regime?

Unless you’re working under a highly prescriptive institutional system, you hold the power to make your assessment and grading less boring. So use it.