Stop Complaining about Grading

If you’re an academic and on social media, now is the time of year where we’re expected to commiserate with our colleagues across the country as they sit down to grade final papers, exams, and projects. Universally, there are cries of disappointment, hilarity, and unhappiness directed toward the grading project. I understand, of course, that some of this is just a marker of academic solidarity. We complain about grading to raise our hands and say “I am an academic.” Some of it has to do with end of the semester exhaustion, being overcommitted to projects, and our eagerness to get on to the next phase of our professional years whether that’s summer teaching, writing, or research projects. In other words, some of the “hatred” of grading is just a thing we say to mark the end of one phase of the year.

At the same time, I do wonder whether some of it is genuine. So I got to thinking about why we hate grading?

1. Too much? There is always too much grading to do at the end of the semester, but this is mostly our own fault. In most cases, faculty make the assignments and schedule their due dates and subject themselves to the end of the semester crush. We bring this on ourselves.

There is a tendency to conform to certain standards and templates that align (with varying degrees of precision) with our pedagogical or assessment goals. At the same time, I wonder whether we’ve become a bit complacent. As a historian, of course, we require a research paper at the end of the semester especially for our upper level classes. While the death of the research paper has been greatly exaggerated, I do wonder whether convention outweighs the continued utility of large term papers. The same goes for final exams and other cumulative projects in which “rigor” (typically associated with length) supersedes their value as assessment of student learning. In other words, many of the basic lessons learned in a lengthy term paper will be visible in a shorter assignment. 

2. Is grading teaching? I make comments on anything a student turns into me. I see it as an opportunity to continue the teaching process even after the semester is over. At the same time, I do recognize that students tend to be less interested in reading comments at the end of the semester and that there is a frustration of writing “ghost comments” that students see only out of the corner of their eye as they move to the final grade.

It does make me wonder, though, whether putting the cumulative assignment at the end of the semester limits the potential for meaningful teaching experiences and shifts the learning encounter to the process rather than the product. Taking time to evaluate, assess, and comment on the product of the student learning experience frequently seems pointless because to be meaningful it relies on the idea that the student continues to build on work in later classes. Teaching and learning doesn’t end at the end of the semester, but continues through the student’s career, and grading that final paper, might be less onerous if we think of it as teaching

3. Learning by grading. One of the most rewarding things about grading is that we can learn what we do well as teacher and what we do not do well. I often see as much about the kind of assignments that I write as the kind of knowledge that students produce at the end of the semester. So at bare minimum, I learn whether my assignments work on not during the grading process. More significantly, however, I get to understand the range of outcomes from my class. As much as we’re told to design our classes “backward” from desired outcomes, most classes present a range of outcomes with the most consistent often being rather marginal to the desired outcomes of the class. Some of these unexpected outcomes can become desired outcomes as the class iterates, and some of the unanticipated outcomes can be nefarious weeds that tweaking assignment language and course content can stamp out.

Grading is never as straight forward as deciding whether a student learned a skill or mastered a body of knowledge. It is always a reciprocal relationship between what the students know and the tools we use to evaluate that. Grading teaches us how well we calibrate our tools. 

4. Doing our job. I also wonder whether the outpouring of solidarity among faculty for the horrors of grading doesn’t undermine our credibility a bit. I mean, I’ve taught long enough to get it. Grading can be a drag, even when it’s self-inflicted and pedagogically informed. At the same time, it is vital part of what we do. Grading involves managing our expectations, creating assignments that are reasonable to grade (and not soul crushing), and recognizing the value of our work in both the lives of our students and our own professional development.

Complaining about it – even just in jest – seems to undermine the value of the work we do when we grade. Like a stock broker complaining about brokering deals constantly or a doctor complaining about diagnosing patients. It seems to me that end of the semester grading is something that we should enjoy as a chance to contribute to the larger process of university education, to calibrate our teaching, and to demonstrate out professional competence. Complaining about it makes us sound bad.

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