First Round of Papers

I just finished grading my first batch of papers for the term, and ya’ll, it was a bleak scene.  I had begun the semester resolved to be a little tougher since I already allow students to revise their assignment for a better grade, to insist that students with scintillating analyses go back and polish up the rougher spots in their prose before getting an A and to give out D’s where they’re warranted.  That goal has certainly been met.  The average grade for this assignment is well below normal, but I suspect that that is not so much a product of higher standards as it is an indication of the vast range of ability levels I’m dealing with in one class, and that range makes my strategy going forward unclear.

I have freshman students who clearly are struggling with the difference between analyzing a text and using a text as a jumping off point for talking about whatever it is they want to talk about, and given that this is a course called Literature and Religion, the results are, well…  For example, I received three papers that interpret entirely different narratives as allegories for the Christian life as the student understands it based on a criteria so broad that just about anything could be read as an allegory for the Christian life (which is more or less what I said in comments).  Coming from a religious background, I understand where it’s coming from.  Kids who grow up in evangelical environments are pretty accustomed to hearing popular films, songs, and books interpreted in this fashion in sermon illustrations and books on spiritual life, and for many of them, reading a narrative in this way is an important strategy for justifying their own interest in it.  So, when I get a paper on how the film 300 is an allegory for the Gospel, I understand that at least in part, this kid is trying to rationalize the fact that he likes the movie 300 by projecting Christian themes onto it.  So getting that kid to see that what he’s doing is, in fact, projection rather than an accurate interpretation of the film is, in a way, taking something rather important away from him.

Conversely, I have at least two seniors in their final semester, both of them intellectually talented but lazy.  Unfortunately, one of these students was the one who told me he “has to get an A” in order to graduate. Nevertheless, it’s clear that while I have some students who need to be acquainted with the basics of textual analysis, who really need to be taught how to accurately summarize a text before they can even begin to analyze it, and I have a few others who are bored to tears.

So in addition to the dilemma of how to conduct class in a way that addresses the needs of the weakest students without alienating the stronger ones, I have the question of how to assign and present grades.  In previous semesters, I’ve simply refused to assign a grade to the first draft as a way of encouraging everyone to revise.  However, students were clearly expressing a desire to know where they stood.  Furthermore, a bad grade early on can act as a wake-up call for students who are simply lazy, though I run the risk of students in the first category becoming discouraged and simply shutting down.

It occurs to me now that I worry a bit too much about how students will respond to a grade, that how they choose to move forward is entirely on them, and it is simply up to me to provide thoughtful, honest feedback and allow them to take it from there.

4 thoughts on “First Round of Papers

  1. I don’t know if this is an appropriate suggestion for either your subject (I studied digital arts) or the American system, but our teachers gave us a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade on our first assessments.

    Basically, satisfactory meant you understood the material and were progressing well, while unsatisfactory meant you had to improve something (whether that be your understanding of the material, or just your time management skills).

    I found it gave the security of a benchmark, without the anxiety of feeling like there was no way to improve if you did get an unsatisfactory comment. Whereas when I was in school, if I got even a C, it made me feel like I was already doing so badly there was no way I could possibly pull myself out of that hole.

  2. I also let my students revise all of their papers, and I always give them a tentative grade for the first draft with my comments for revision. There are three things I like about this tactic:

    1. A tentative grade, of course, lets the students know where they stand.

    2. I saw that a tentative grade usually made the students more eager to revise their work. It may have something to do with the fact that the students get to set their own goals (B+ to A, C- to B) and the reward becomes more visualized in the process. In my experience, students on the B range displayed an incredible degree of eagerness to boost their grades to A. Those below the C level weren’t devastated either, as most of them took their grade as a kind of purgatory with a way out. I also suspect that this made them take my comments a little more seriously.

    I once worried that giving an A as a tentative grade will make a student neglect her revision. But it turns out that students who get A’s for their first draft are usually the most responsible ones, and in most cases did better jobs on revising than the rest.

    3. Complaints on grades practically disappeared after I adopted the tentative grade policy. Since the students were given a second chance to set their own agenda with comments that clearly pointed the way to their goal, who else can they blame for having wandered astray?

    1. With several days to reflect and assess student reactions, I’m now inclined to agree with you. Thus far, the students who did worse than expected have shown signs that they are willing to take my feedback and work on the things they need to work on. I have individual midterm meetings with each student scheduled, so I can talk with anyone who seems to be in danger of shutting down or giving up then.

      Thanks for the encouraging comment!

  3. Things are very different in Australia, you get one shot and if your work isn’t up to snuff you are stuck with the grade, in the knowledge that your other assignments will have to make that up. Usually the first task is small enough that it doesn’t matter if you screw up. You’re giving your students a very generous chance to assess their ability before giving them a final grade, so they have a chance to improve. They are adults though, if they’ve gotten so far as college and choose to “shut down” after getting a bad grade… Sometimes they are going to get bad grades.

    You’re absolutely right, you can only guide them.

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