Grading Papers

For the last three weeks I’ve been grading papers and other assignments nonstop. The way I figure it, one more week and I should be caught up! Some anthropologists identify primarily as researchers while for others their activism comes first. I think of myself primarily as a teacher, but there’s still no way around it: I hate grading.

There are two things to hate about grading: it’s tedious and it’s unfair. On top of this one might even question whether its an effective way of evaluating student performance in the first place.

On this last note I seem to be in the minority. In high school I was a bright student who didn’t have to try very hard to get by even when my equally bright peers were ultra-competitive. As a result I graduated outside the top 20% of my class. While my peers were headed off to MIT, Caltech, Harvard, and West Point I earned a free ride to a school without grades, New College.

At New College I fell in love with learning and discovered anthropology. In small classes I was nurtured to be an independent and self-motivated student. Everything was graded pass/fail with written evaluations. Fortunately not having a GPA didn’t keep me out of grad school. At UNC my graduate courses were all graded as High Pass, Pass, or Fail. It fit my personality but also worked to my disadvantage. I lost out on a Ford Fellowship when a reviewer noted that my transcript had so many courses marked Pass, and since there were also some High Passes a regular Pass must be equivalent to a B. Therefore I was a B student.

To a certain degree I have had to unlearn this culture of gradeless scholarship in order to teach traditional college students. My students still perceive me as unconventional, but I’ve toned that way down in the years since I first began. If there is one lesson I’ve learned from leading a gradeless life it is this: the vast majority students want to be graded. They crave it. They are satisfied only when you rank them in a coherent order and, for the most part, they aren’t interested in whatever “thoughtful” comments you might make about their essays.

So I’ve stopped holding myself to the standard of my former professors and now think of grading as a task to be dispatched with as quickly and fairly (ie, consistently) as possible. After all, they had the advantage of teaching tiny liberal arts college classes. I can’t afford to commit that level of care with my large classes. Thus I have developed the following technique.

Early in my career I would leave careful notes on all my students’ essays. Grammar and spelling was corrected, assumptions were challenged, tangents were suggested, and then a hand-written paragraph wrapped up my opinion of their work. A lot of this was boiler plate language, but it was a very time consuming process. Maybe 3-4 short papers could be graded in a hour.

Then one day as class was dismissed I observed students throwing away their graded papers on their way out the door. For the majority of them my precious notes were a waste and you know what? That’s fine. They are not going to be anthropologists. In all likelihood they’ll never write another essay outside of college. Instead of teaching them to write like anthropologists I’d rather start them on the journey (and it is an iterative process, for all of us) of trying to think like one. That process is something in the course itself and not necessarily conveyed by evaluating their work.

Yet an anthropology course must have some writing assignments. Therefore adapting to my students’ behavior is a necessity. Here is what I do. I make students opt-in to receiving comments. If you want me to mark up your paper and critique your writing then turn in a hard copy at the start of class. If you just want the grade then you can send it to me as an attachment in an email. The form has no bearing on the grade. The only difference is that one gets comments and a grade, while the other just gets the grade. I’ve been running this system for the past 3 years and it is an effective compromise.

Approximately 20-33% of the class will turn in a hard copy, this tremendously reduces the need to write comments and speeds up the grading process. This self-selected set includes both skilled writers and writers in need of improvement, but usually excludes the weakest writers. These I can grade at a rate of about 4-5 per hour.

The majority of the class just wants the grade. I’m happy to oblige because I can grade the emailed assignments at rate of 10 per hour. The same criteria apply and the same pitfalls must be negotiated so that grading remains consistent. It’s merely quicker.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

19 thoughts on “Grading Papers

  1. A pretty nifty system! If I ever end up teaching, it’s definitely something I might try out as well – unless your technique is copyrighted of course =)

    However, I’m wondering whether this would work in a context such as the British one, where all work is supposed to be anonymized. Very probably it would be questionable, at the very least.

  2. Sounds like a great system. I’m curious, though: do you ever get comments/questions/challenges from students who opted out of getting written comments? In the competitive and grades-focused university environment where I’m currently a TA, I can imagine being swarmed by a mob of petulant undergrads demanding to know why they got B’s when they expected A’s. (Sad, but true.)

  3. Let me propose an alternative system. I have used it only with graduate students in a marketing seminar and whether it is adaptable to the world of large lectures is, I agree, a critical questions. I began my seminars by considering knowledge as a picture of reality. There are two types of pictures.The first is a jigsaw puzzle in which the picture is given and the student’s problem limited to correctly assembling the pieces. For both professor and student this type of picture has an important advantage. It is easy to grade and to grade fairly. But life in the real world is rarely like that.

    The second type of picture is the one created when an artist confronts a blank canvas. The art teacher can offer useful hints about technique, but the artist alone is responsible for what appears there. Will the teacher be impressed enough to award an “A”? Perhaps. And there his no guarantee of fairness here. Teachers are human, with their own tastes and biases. A good one will make these clear enough that students have a fair shot at either meeting or challenging them. But an “A”? That depends on being impressive. Competence is only a “B.”

    What surprised me was that, when I used this approach, about a third of my students were amazingly impressive. They rose to the challenge and knock my socks off with what they produced. Most of the rest were “B” students. A few goof-offs got lower grades. This was, after all, a graduate seminar. The most unhappy were the “B” students who believed that they had done everything right, gathered data, constructed pretty presentations, and proposed not unreasonable ideas. What they hadn’t done, however, was take the risk without which all work remains mediocre. To me that was the most important lesson they had to learn.

  4. I did not know that the British system anonymizes course assignments. That’s fascinating! I’ve done it before for specific assignments where students use personal data collected from fellow students and it is a hassle. I imagine those who use it frequently must have a more efficient means of doing it.

    And no, I have never had a student who opted-out of comments challenge my grade. I have taught at grade grubbing schools before and my current position is NOT at such a college.

    The open-ended, blank slate assignment is what I got at New College for virtually all my assignments and as stated above, I had to unlearn that teaching style. Most undergraduates non-majors (even upper level students) need a greater amount of structure than that. Maybe some day I’ll have the chance to teach grad level classes and I can come back to that.

  5. OMG I have just, this semester, implemented an identical scheme. I had noticed, just like you, that I spent a huge amount of time making constructive comments, correcting grammar, and writing a personal note at the end of each assignment, always making sure to say something positive to the student no matter how difficult this was. Then I learnt, through asking around, that few students actually ever read what I wrote, let alone used my comments as a way to improve their work. This semester, for my largest class of 75 students, I have told them they will only get comments if they email me and request it. In the first week I received two emails. After three weeks (I’m no longer accepting requests), perhaps 20% of the class have requested written feedback.

    When I mentioned my plan on Twitter, I received some flak for giving students the impression that their learning wasn’t important to me. I figure that they’re adults, and it’s more a matter of how they value their learning.

  6. Yet an anthropology course must have some writing assignments.

    If you mean that some responses should be given in prose form then I agree. But if you mean “papers” should be assigned than I disagree. Paper writing is the close order drill of higher education. It’s the sine qua non of professionalism and few seemed troubled to justify why.

  7. The most thought-provoking assignment I received as an undergraduate was from a professor of Medieval History who, for the final exam, gave us twenty topics for essays and required that we write the lead sentence for each one.

  8. @Matt – I have recently come to the same conclusion. As I stated above, very few people are going to have the opportunity to write essays outside of college. Being able to think and communicate through the written word is important. Shouldn’t we think about assigning things other than papers? Something that might have broader applications?

    This semester I’m having my upper level students write blog posts. A friend of mine had students write wiki entries. For both of us, I think, this has turned out to be a mixed bag, but then the traditional essay is a mixed bag too. Have you encountered any non-traditional format writing assignments worth sharing?


    I figure that they’re adults, and it’s more a matter of how they value their learning.

    Yes, my sentiments exactly! Our mantra back in New College was “In the final analysis, every student is responsible for his or her own education.”

  9. @Matt, my trajectory had been nearly identical to yours. I began grading and commenting in exactly the way you describe, the difference being that I moved to commenting on PDF documents, which the students (at least those who took time to say so) absolutely loved. Of course I didn’t know that everyone was reading the comments, but they were not easily thrown out. This did lead to the occasional challenge, mainly when a student found a comment with which the disagreed. These comments, however, were typically misunderstood as being the basis for a lower grade when they were often merely meant to demonstrate how the paper could have taken a different tack at a given point.

    The problem was that the process was very time consuming. What I’ve done more recently is offered student more or less free access to me in the weeks leading up to a due date. Students can send unlimited drafts (at any stage of development) by email which I comment on. This of course benefits students willing to get out in front of the assignment and works against those who attempt to write the day before. A potential problem is that it works against another group of potentially “good” students, those perfectionists who fear handing in imperfect work. About 1/3 (enrolment of 29) of the students took advantage. The second part of the process is that I now write limited comments on graded papers and tell students that I am happy to write extended comments for anyone who asks. This past term, not one student took me up on this. Also, I began to attach a detailed rubric and ask that students make their complaints/inquiries about the grade with reference to the standards described on the rubric. Students seem very pleased at this kind of access I’m offering, and it hasn’t been particularly daunting in term so time commitment for me.

  10. Have you encountered any non-traditional format writing assignments worth sharing?

    In the Linguistic Fieldwork course I took at IU we were given an assignment similar to the following:

    Tomorrow you begin your trip home after a year doing fieldwork with Daza speakers. As you check in at the front desk at your hotel in Kano you are handed a package containing a leather-bound book with a note reading, “The old men in the village have been working to keep this record of our language over the past several years and have decided they would like to make it available to you before you leave Nigeria. Please leave it at the front desk of the hotel before you depart.” The following two conditions hold—1) Your departure ten hours from that moment can not be changed. 2) The only means of reproduction available to you is longhand.

    During our next meeting (five days later) you will be asked to discuss whether you did or did not depart Kano with the package in your possession and how you arrived at your decision. I find that writing about something forces me to identify any mutually contradictory ideas I might be holding in my head, so prepare a short written explanation of your decision for me, as well.*

    Last semester my better half had the members of one of her classes listen to this episode of Fresh Air. Later she asked them to write up a response to a prompt along the lines of “Do you feel anthropologists would have been able to offer suggestions beforehand that would have improved the outcome of the U.S. State Department program discussed in the episode of Fresh Air you listened to earlier in the semester? If not, why? If so, what might some of the specific suggestions have been?”

    *No word or page length was specified. When we pressed our professor about length he said something along the lines of “long enough to tell me what you think I need to know but not so long that I loose interest.”

  11. @möngke can you elaborate? I’ve never seen any assignments (outside of final exams) anonymized in the British system.

  12. This is a fascinating system. I’m in my second year of grading papers and exams as a TA and I have been repeatedly told that I spend too much time and put too much effort into leaving detailed comments on assignments. I think that whenever I find myself grading for a class of my own I will barrow this system of self-designation. Thank you for sharing your insight.

  13. Oh Matt, we could talk about this for days. Part of the issue is moving from a culture of self-driven learning to a culture of assessment–I’m not even sure whether my students even want to learn, or just be assessed. I think that a rubric is a good idea for standardizing the assessment part they hunger for. But I can’t give up that need to give them constructive feedback. I’m becoming more specific about my criteria for successful papers upfront, cutting back on my comments, and grading all papers as if they were drafts. I then give students the option to revise based on my feedback. It works wonders for the grade grubbers and those interested in learning to write, and I feel like my feedback isn’t wasted. But it’s a lot of work. I struggle more with making graded assignments (tests) meaningful for large classes.

  14. This is such a helpful discussion! The “Gen Ed” introductory classes are filled with students who are never to see anthropology classes again, as well as students who need several such classes for another major, and the recruiting ground for anthropology.

    I try to show the usefulness of an anthropological perspective for engaging in professional and personal life right from the start. In the 100 level class, I often ask students to start with a spatial analysis of of the room based on their “informant” expertise to determine the relationships, then to propose how to re-shape power in a room full of tables facing the white board and lcd screen. I also let them know that anthropologists seek debate and engagement within our community, so that I expect them to advocate and speak back to “power” in ways that bring us to greater insight.

    Work involves essays and researched papers, but are also integrated with reflective “field journals” of readings, video, and a brief class researched project (that varies—the most popular being a shared class study asking whether students are “Cyborgs”? and if so, what is the nature of Cyborg culture.)

    They participate in roundtable discussions, in which each group is assigned a separate set of questions. After the roundtables, the students submit their fieldnotes and a final reflective journal entry that comes up with further lines of inquiry.

    Why? This is how we work professionally. This is fruitful in that students who learn to engage systematically in thinking about the world benefit whether they take another anthropology course or not. They are more engaged in the classes.

    We also work in small groups to discuss classic and contemporary articles in order to come up with divergent (if possible) interpretations and questions before students write their essays. This helps those students who either weren’t engaged in high school or attended high schools in which critical thinking was not practiced before they write their essays. I also ask them to submit a bulleted outline that would make a good executive summary. This is because they may have to present that summary of ideas along with a report in some fashion in future life.

    I therefore try to help students to see how anthropology is related to social practice, can help them succeed in whatever they do, and that their writing is good training for what can come, and is performed in processes that are more reflective of the “real world” writing experience or support students from diverse educational experiences to come up to speed.

    My biggest challenges therefore are showing how the “hoop” of higher education is related to the world of work and adult life—even life in a college setting, as diverse as that is today, with working students, non-traditional students, returned vets, etc.

  15. @Linda, some very good points.

    “We also work in small groups to discuss classic and contemporary articles in order to come up with divergent (if possible) interpretations and questions before students write their essays. This helps those students who either weren’t engaged in high school or attended high schools in which critical thinking was not practiced before they write their essays.”

    I find that having students research other anthropologists’ rebuttals to what they’re reading helps them appreciate critique. I have also used in-class peer review as another way to show that criticism is a positive and necessary thing. If they can gain appreciation for the act of grading when made to assess the work of their peers, maybe they’ll respect our efforts a little more?

  16. Thanks, Fran, for the kind words. Your suggestion of including articles that represent divergent positions in the field is very helpful. My apologies for grammatical structures that would have earned comments on student papers. Morning coffee and an available send button are not a good combination.

  17. I wonder if anyone has any experience using a technique advertised by George Gmelch in Anthro News a while back?

    In a nutshell, Gmelch asked his students to turn in a blank cassette tape with their papers, then after marking up a paper with signposts (e.g. A, B, C …) to indicate where his comments would apply, turned on his voice recorder and talked through the paper. These days, with digital audio, it would seem to be an even more streamlined solution, since all you have to do is e-mail an mp3, rather than coordinating the tape-swaps. Has anyone tried this?

  18. I have yet to give up on comments on written assignments, though I do use a rubric for all exam essays and papers, which helps me streamline. I still write comments for 2 reasons. 1) for me. If I’m reading a 10 page paper, I highlight good points, comment on problems, and try to read all the papers first before I give anyone a grade, so I need to go back through a 2nd time, and those notes help summarize my feelings. 2) I always have to hope for the student who doesn’t say they want feedback, but in finding some, might actually read it and do something with it. A little positive feedback can go a long way with the right student. Maybe in 3 more years I’ll change my ways.

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