Tag Archives: Grading Policy

Why Do They Care About Grades So Much?

At the end of every semester, I hold what I cheekily call my “group therapy session” about grades.  For about 20-30 minutes on one of the last days of class, I go over how I calculate grades, appropriate ways for students to talk to me about grades, and what frame of mind they should bring to their grades as they view and think about them.  In order to combat the inevitable anxiety, I usually say a few words about how employers generally don’t care so much about grades earned in lower division courses, that the difference between a B and an A in a sophomore level lit class doesn’t mean a whole lot in the long run.  Then, one of my innately brightest students (who also struggled that semester for a variety of reasons) called me on what he pretty accurately judged was a bunch of happy horseshit.  “The difference between an A and a B,” he said, “is the difference between Flagship State University Law School and Regional College Law School.”  And you know what, he sort of has a point.

I’ve written before on this blog about grade grubbing, and given where we are in the semester, just a few weeks before midterms (how is it October already?), it’s no surprise that conversations about student laziness, excuses, “snowflakiness,” and sense of entitlement to unearned grades are starting to pop up on academic sites.  Though really, as someone who actually did get mono during exam week as an undergraduate, someone whose grandmother did pass away during the final week of classes just two years ago, and someone who had a student nearly die due to a chronic illness last term, I have this to say to the haters:  Don’t be a douchebag.  Treat claims of illness and family emergency as legitimate unless you know for sure that they aren’t.  Don’t treat these things as an occasion for a free pass, but help students work through the situation in a way that satisfies requirements for successful completion of the course without, you know, sending them into therapy, prompting them to quit school, or compromising their health.

But back to grade-grubbing:   I wonder if we, as instructors, spend so much time complaining about the way they expect awesome grades for merely average work and treat instructors like magical A-dispensers, that we’re missing a bigger point about the pressures that students face in a vastly more competitive and ever-shrinking labor market.  I wonder if we are too quick to explain this behavior away as selfishness, immaturity, and the result of a consumer-based education system that we miss the fact that such behavior may, in fact, be a rational response to the shrinking of opportunities for all but the most exalted (not to mention well-connected) individuals.

My extended family members are frequently astounded by my generation’s approach to education.  On both my mother’s and father’s side, their generation was the first to ascend to the middle class.  My father’s parents had no college education.  My mother’s father went to college–much later than the traditional student–after the Korean War, on the GI bill.  Both of my parents and all of their siblings, by contrast (there are 9 of them, total), have at least some college education.  Many of them have graduate degrees, and most of them own their own businesses or occupy senior management positions in national corporations.  But most of them will confess to having spent their teenage years in a state of total rebellion, not really giving a flying frack about grades.  Most of them scored about 1000 on their SATs (I know that scores are inflated now) and still got into the best two public universities in the state.  A few of them dropped out of college for various reasons and then returned to get their degrees.  I doubt that my grandparents were really thrilled about that, but they accepted it and seemed to manage the expense of those lost years without too much trouble.  My father put himself through medical school, which cost less than $1000 a year in the early 80’s. I say this all just to point out that the costs and outcomes of higher education are, by all measures, changing radically and rapidly.

The grandchildren–my generation–were all raised to care intensely about performance in school.  Part of that increased emphasis on getting good grades was, I think, a result of generational differences in parenting, but it also seems to have been an acknowledgment of the shift in college admissions standards and the fact that a college education is now compulsory for anyone hoping to make a middle class income in adulthood.  My sisters and I all scored 1300 and above and still sweated about getting in to the very same universities our parents sailed into without a worry with much lower grades and test scores.  College admissions have gotten ridiculously competitive, resulting in what is, effectively, the professionalization of the teenage years, when every class and every extracurricular experience is carefully selected based on how it will look on a transcript or a resume, when students are increasingly encouraged to begin thinking about college in middle school, when top high schools routinely engage in the practice of grade inflation in order to give their students an edge.

This is a system in which it becomes very difficult to learn how to deal with struggles and failures, because you can’t afford to have them. In my junior year of high school, my grades began to slip, not because I was lazy or unmotivated but because I was mired in an undiagnosed and untreated depression, a slip that most certainly cost me my top choice college.  The teenage years are fraught with experimentation, crisis, and yes, failure, and those are all experiences that contribute to adult growth, but the consequences of that period is frequently so dire and unacceptable that it’s sort of no wonder that students begin looking for dishonorable but frequently effective ways mitigate those consequences.

Much of this thinking is catastrophizing.  Plenty of people make B’s in various classes and move on to gainful employment.  Plenty of people drop out of college and return.  Plenty of people do not get into their first choice college or law or medical school and have rewarding careers.  But students occupy a space that is part alternate reality and part actual reality, a space in which the stakes for being slightly less than extraordinary increasingly feel bleak.  Middle class wealth is shrinking, not growing.  The only group that continues to get richer is the superstars, the celebrities, the CEO’s, and many students still operate under the assumption that the U.S. economy is a meritocracy, that brilliant grades and admission to a top business or law school signify entitlement to all of the riches the world has to offer and that all they need to do is keep presenting the case that they are meritorious (even if they aren’t) and the rewards will follow.  My grandparents aspired to join the middle class back when it really was something to aspire to.  Now, increasingly, it isn’t.

So why do they care about grades so much?  Because they think they have to.  That’s not a call for instructors to indulge them in their quest for unearned rewards, but it is a call for empathy and a call for those of us who have the opportunity to intercept these kids at a particularly delicate time to help them successfully enter adulthood, to educate them about how to manage setbacks responsibly.

On No. 2 Pencils

A variety of specialty artists' pencilsHistoriann has been hosting a lively discussion of helicopter parenting and its impact on student attitudes and performance at the collegiate level that prompted this apropos reflection on “the larger forces that have shaped our students and their approach to higher education before they darken the doors of our unis.”

As Squadratomagico said in response to last week’s post, “Now I better understand the student who inquired, when I asked if there were any questions about the final exam, “Can I use a blue pen?” They’re paralyzed with indecision and fear of making a mistake on their own, because they’ve never had to decide before!”  I too have anecdotal evidence of increasing student apprehension–but I’m not sure if that’s due to parenting or the No Child Left Behind-style of test-driven education, which has put I think too much pressure on children to perform particular skills and not enough on creative problem-solving.

I have very little to say about helicopter parenting.  I’m not a parent myself, and both my parents run their own businesses and have my three sisters to attend to, so I have a hard time getting them to even call me back.  Actually, I sort of adore them for that.  But being married to a public high school teacher and still being temporally close enough to both college and high school to remember the confusion and anguish brought on by pen colors, I have some strong feelings about the degree to which the enforcement of arbitrary standards have hampered the intellectual and social development of many very bright students and discouraged many struggling students from even trying in the first place.  If I had to make a list in my head of the top questions I field in emails from students, it read something like:

  • How do I cite a corporate-authored website in MLA format?
  • Is it ok if I use loose leaf paper in a binder for my journal instead of a composition book?
  • What should the header on my paper look like?
  • Do our papers need to have a title?
  • Where should the page numbers appear on our paper?

Ok, sometimes students want to run a thesis by me or have a question about comments on a previous draft, but it seems like a great deal of my energy is taken up responding to (and student energy is taken up asking) questions the answers to which go something like:  “I’d have to look it up.”  “Don’t care.”  “Don’t care.”  “Sure, why not.”  “Don’t care.”

I mean sure, I clearly state on each assignment page that papers should come out to so many words, typed and formatted legibly, with MLA documentation, but it seems like in absence of instructions about what astrological sign students ought to write their papers under, some students will still experience panic attacks over what I like to call “No. 2 pencil” issues.  No. 2 pencils, of course, are the required writing implement for all standardized tests that students begin taking soon after they acquire the motor skills to wield one.  And if  use a No. 3 pencil, of course, your test results will be invalid, and something horrible will happen to you.  No. 2 pencils have become the emblem of the bureaucratization (that’s totes a word–my spellchecker says so) of education, of the arbitrary rules that teachers are expected to enforce, rules that have some root in common sense that has been long forgotten.

Why do we use No. 2 pencils?  According to someone who had the time and inclination to do the research, pencil grades have to do with the hardness of the lead, and therefore the darkness of the mark.  No. 2 pencils are the medium grade and the ones usually sold for everyday purposes, like filling out multiple choice bubbles.  They’re dark enough to be read by the scanner and light enough to be effectively erased to avoid scanning errors.  But basically, “No. 2” pencil is just fancy-talk for “garden variety pencil you buy at Wal-Mart.”  It’s not really that complicated or threatening.  I guess everyone sort of knows that intuitively, but it’s rarely articulated in the presence of, say, anxious second graders, who are only beginning to figure out that horrible things might happen to them if they breach rules that don’t always make complete sense, that don’t have any basis in an objective moral code (or even common sense), that aren’t really tied to academic performance but nevertheless seem to have DIRE IMPLICATIONS for their educational future if breached.

But, of course, that’s how things work in our highly bureaucratized world.  I fork over the $200 to have my tax return done at H&R Block purely because I fear that I will be carted off to prison for tax evasion if I don’t fill out my form properly.  We’ve developed an entire service industry around making sure that we are in compliance with laws we wouldn’t know existed if there weren’t experts to tell us.  And while that’s sort of a nuisance, I get that this is how things have to be in a society this enormous.  Life is complex in the twenty-first century, and I suppose there is some value in teaching students to mind the details, to read the directions, to put their name on the top of the test paper.  But, I don’t know, maybe there’s value in giving students a break every once in a while, or at least not dole out academic punishment for non-academic offenses or oversights?

This is, to a certain degree, what I’m talking about in my diatribes on participation grades and draconian late penalties:  some policies designed to police those details, while well-intentioned, are a distraction from the actual process of learning, critical thinking, and discovery.  While ingraining good habits with regard to direction-reading and punctuality is great, I think it’s far more helpful to simply take the time to make those policies transparent, to explain how they help keep things running smoothly.  It helps to, on the one hand, recognize that students have probably never heard an explanation as to why their paper needs to be double-spaced, while on the other hand treating them like reasonable people who are capable of getting the fact that instructors who grade by hand need room in order to legibly mark a paper.

As another example, let’s think about citations.  Citation, whether it’s in MLA, Chicago, or APA format is designed to do a couple of things:  1) Protect the intellectual property of the person who had that idea or said those words in the first place, and 2) Give people who are interested in your topic a way to find your source.  Once you take those two things into consideration, the format for citation starts making some sense.  In APA, the convention of putting a date in addition to a name in a parenthetical citation is there because in scientific writing, knowledge sort of has a shelf-life, so you want to put the date in there so that people know that you are citing the most recent studies, or, conversely, that you are referencing some classic or foundational work.  Dates tend to be less important in the humanities, but people who do literature are concerned about editions and such, so you need that info in your works cited.  I try to give this little speech to each student who comes into the writing center with citation questions, then I remind them that most people don’t have every single bibliographic format memorized.  This goes for professors too, and the conventions change all the time.  I’ve had professors correct things in my Works Cited that were correct according to the current edition of the MLA handbook.  So, marking off a point for using a comma instead of a period or whatever is distracting for the student and preoccupies them with stuff that, in the end, would get corrected by a copywriter (who might herself be wrong, depending on which edition she’s working from) if they were publishing on a professional level.

The students who get shaky when they forget to bring the right color pen to a test make me shake my head, but the most distressing part of this emphasis punishing people for stuff that really doesn’t matter that much (other than maybe a slight annoyance or inconvenience) is the thought that there are probably some kids who don’t even make it into a college classroom for these very reasons.  There are probably kids who, in the second grade, were shut down because Mom and Dad were working 100 hours a week at minimum wage and couldn’t think about making sure that their kid had the right kind of writing implement or properly ruled notebook paper (OH MY GOD when I think about how hysterical some teachers I had in middle school got about “college-ruled” vs. “whatever-I-can’t-even-remember-ruled”).  There are kids who have enough trouble paying attention to the content itself–for any number of factors ranging from undiagnosed disabilities to hunger–to remember the myriad arbitrary details pertaining to how their notebooks are supposed to be organized.

I mean, yes, teach kids how to get themselves organized.   Teach kids to be punctual.  Teach kids to pay attention.  Teach kids to read the directions, but let’s at least make this stuff transparent.  And let’s quit doling out academic punishment–which has distressingly real implications for students’ long-term opportunities–for non-academic crap.

How to Get a Better Grade

Back when I wrote these posts on grade grubbing, I had every intention of writing a companion piece or two directed at students (I know some students read this blog).  Then I got distracted.  Basically, I wanted to give students some advice about how to potentially improve their grade by improving their relationships with instructors, by not being “that guy”–you know, that guy that teachers rip to shreds on their blogs.  And while July seems like a strange time to be writing about school, I figure that some students are winding up their first session of summer school, and, you know, it’s never too early to start thinking about the Fall term.  So here we go:

“She just doesn’t like me. She gave me a D on my paper.” I used to hear this statement a lot from the guy I dated in high school. Throughout our four years at Evangelical High, he cultivated academic persecution fantasies that would put David Horowitz to shame. Then, I would take a look at his paper, point out that there wasn’t a single complete sentence in the entire first paragraph, and he would turn on me. We did not date long.

“My teacher doesn’t like me” is a ridiculous excuse, folks. First of all, what does “like” even mean in this case? What do you consider to be a sufficient level of affinity here? Do the two of you need to be so close that you stay after class to talk about your feelings? Does the instructor need to be willing to walk your dog and drive you to the airport? The truth is that students and instructors can have wonderfully productive relationships regardless of whether or not you want to go have a beer together. You can even have productive relationships when you are entirely indifferent toward one another as people. Yes, there are some instructors out there in serious need of a personality transplant, even a few who are inappropriately punitive in their grading policies. But let’s just start from the assumption that the VAST MAJORITY of secondary school and college instructors are just pretty decent people, people who want to do their jobs, people who took those jobs because they are in some level interested in working with students, whether or not they feel super close to each individual.

So, starting there, how do you build a working relationship with an instructor that is likely to get them interested in helping you, in letting you make up or redo work, in maybe listening to a petition for a better grade (that last one’s a tall order)? How, in short, do you get an instructor on your side, whether or not they actually “like” you, whatever you think that means?

The answer is actually pretty simple and actually goes beyond just performing well in their class. I’ve had plenty of smart students who drifted through my classroom turning in great work without seeming to try, but I wasn’t ever interested in bending over backward for them. The key to getting an instructor on your side is to show a sincere investment in their class, whether you are “good” at that particular subject or not. Note: this does not mean sucking up and telling the instructor how brilliant they are and how much you want to major in this topic. In fact, it’s possible to build a good working partnership even if you are open about your ambivalence or historical difficulties with that subject. Showing investment means actually investing your time, your effort, and your focus. Here’s what that looks like in a practical sense.

Cover the basics. Show up on time. Observe the attendance policy. Don’t ask questions that can easily be answered by looking at the syllabus. Turn in assignments according to schedule. Put forth an honest effort on each assignment. Study. Respect the class rules. Policies are usually there for a reason, and habitually disregarding them is a sign that you don’t respect the instructor’s time or effort in putting together the class. If you have trouble with any of the imperatives in this paragraph, it’s time to take a steady look inward. Barring extraordinary circumstances, which I’ll discuss in a moment, your instructor is not the reason you are doing poorly. No, not even a little bit.

Be up front about any accommodations you need. If you have a disability, your instructor is required to provide the accommodations listed in your Disability Services letter. Beyond that, if you have a particular issue, like a scheduling catastrophe that may make you late on occasion, it’s better to get out in front of it on the first day. Don’t just assume that your instructor will figure it out. In the absence of other information, he’ll probably just assume you’re a jerk.

Don’t wait until the end of term to address a bad grade. For one thing, waiting til the eleventh hour to try to manipulate your way from a B+ to an A just reeks of grade grubbing. For another thing, any time you want to talk about your grades, it should be in the context of your performance on individual assignments. Furthermore, your performance on a particular type of assignment and your mastery of content will improve if you seek extra feedback in a timely fashion. This means that the day you get a test or paper back with a grade that was less than what you were expecting, you seek out the instructor within a week. Don’t just walk up to her after class. Take some time to absorb any written comments. Then, a day or two later, send an email that looks something like this:

Dear Professor X,

I was really disappointed with my performance on the last test. I studied the entire week beforehand, but I guess I did not understand the material as well as I thought. I’d like to talk with you about how to improve for the next test and make sure that I understand everything. Could we meet during your Tuesday office hours?

Thanks.

Or something like this:

Dear Professor Y,

You probably noticed that I did not do so well on that last paper. I had three exams last week and did not anticipate the amount of time it would take to study for them. As such, I did not do my best work on that assignment. I was wondering if we could meet some time to talk about my thesis and how I might improve it. I know you allow us to do one revision, and I want to make it count. Unfortunately, I work my shift at Chipotle during your office hours, but I am available to meet any time on Friday or after 1:00 on Thursday.

Once you have a meeting set up, it is imperative that you keep it, especially if you need to ask for time outside of office hours. If you need to reschedule, make sure you get in touch with the instructor ahead of time. Most teachers are not inclined to schedule extra meetings with students who blow them off.

Once there, focus the conversation on your performance on that particular assignment/exam and try to avoid talking about your grade as something that the instructor assigned arbitrarily or something that was done to you. After you have done all of these things, you may then broach the subject of do-overs and extra credit. Respectfully ask if you can make up the quiz you failed or do an extra credit project or revision. Then accept the verdict respectfully. If you want to be a real star, you can revise the paper anyway and then hand it in again and just see what happens.

Get on top of emergencies. Did your computer catch fire over the weekend? Have you been struck down with bubonic plague? Did you wind up in a magical scheduling vortex and have 14 exams and projects due the same week? Believe it or not, this is not the time to throw in the towel, nor is it the time to hope the entire world will stop until you get sorted out or to assume that people know that something horrible must have happened to you. This is the time to Deal With It.

Folks, I have had students with emergencies that make your 24 hour flu look like a day at the spa. I have had students lose their parents, find out mid way through the semester that they need to go home while their mother undergoes chemo, require an emergency appendectomy, discover that they are pregnant and need to divert their emotional and mental resources to figuring out what to do about it. I have had students whose roommates poured Dr. Pepper over their laptops. I have had students with painful chronic illnesses that sometimes kept them in bed. All of these students made it through the semester, some of them with excellent grades, even after missing two consecutive weeks of class. All of these students got on top of their emergencies. In a timely fashion (i.e. while it was happening, not a week after they re-materialized), they let me know what was going on and–even more importantly–how they planned to deal with it. Some have deputized their parents or friends to find out what they were missing and to get homework. Some have met with me to discuss the possibility of taking an incomplete and getting work done over the summer or to map out a schedule for completing all their work by the last day, including regularly scheduled check-in appointments with me. All of these students required special accommodations and leniency, and I was happy to give it to them. Under no circumstances would I require someone to email me from the recovery room after surgery or write papers when they ought to be sleeping or doing physical therapy. But at the bare minimum, even if your emergency is just a particularly bad cold, have some kind of a plan and share it with your instructor.

Be a presence. Speak up in class.  You don’t have to be the most talkative person in the room.  Just chime in two or three times a session whenever you have something to share in order to show that you are engaged and interested in making a contribution.  Also, be a presence in your instructor’s office hours and in their email inbox.  Don’t harass them or anything, but feel free to ask questions about things that aren’t immediately obvious from looking at the syllabus or assignment sheet, and show up in office hours when you legitimately need help.  It shows that you are interested in improving.

Be humble. Be accepting. Even if you do everything I recommend here, in order to cultivate a relationship with your instructors that is based on respect, you need to recognize that even if you show up every day, even if you try your hardest, no one actually owes you an A. Ultimately, your final grade is always based on your performance on the tasks you were given.

Does all of this sound more or less like,  you know, work?  Because it is.  If you were hoping for a solution to your grade problems that didn’t include doing everything a good student is supposed to do, then I’m not sure I can help you.  I certainly would raise your grade.  Sorry if that’s not what you want to hear.  But the simple truth is that investing time and effort in what an instructor is teaching is more likely to make them want to invest substantially in you, more likely to make them go out of their way to help you, make them more sympathetic when you need them to be.  The simple truth is that instructors are human, and you will get really, really far by showing that you respect what they’re doing.

To be continued.

Future posts:  How to petition a grade if you absolutely must.  What to do if your instructor really is a total human fail.

On Being a Red Pen Instructor

In the wake of the post on grading and minimal marking, the cockles of my heart have been warmed by the people who were willing to confess to being “red pen instructors,” correctors of every single comma and verb tense fail, either in the present or at some point in their teaching career.  God bless you people!  I think most college instructors have been there, especially if we are teaching/have taught as know-nothing graduate student TA’s.  Like I said on that post, the minimal marking thing isn’t my original idea.  Other people had to show me the way.

Approaching grading in that way has saved me a ton of time and energy, and sometimes I still feel like I’m getting away with something.  I feel like I’m supposed to work much harder at grading, and honestly, I wonder if that isn’t where the impulse to be a red pen instructor comes from.  It’s the Good Student impulse, not really the good teacher impulse.  It’s the impulse to show our work, to prove we tried hard enough, to justify our conclusions right there on the page.  I haven’t actually been teaching that long, but I think I’ve seen enough to know that the abilities and instincts that make us good students only take us so far when the time comes to stand up in front of the classroom.

When one is trusting entirely to one’s “good student” instincts–which feels entirely natural, because they’re what got you in front of that classroom in the first place–it’s fairly easy for teaching to devolve into performance, a demonstration of what the instructor knows rather than an effective transmission of that knowledge.  It’s obvious how this happens in the dominant instructional model in giant public universities–the lecture–but teaching can also quickly become about performance in seminars.  I’ve been in graduate classes of twelve people or less in which the professor has repeatedly hijacked the “discussion” to talk about his interests, and in my own classes I have felt the almost irresistible urge to answer my own questions, because I’m afraid my students will never arrive at the answer I had envisioned when I was preparing for that day.  I have felt the urge to settle student confusion without allowing them to work out a problem themselves, because I want to look like I know what I’m talking about.  And I have felt the urge to mark every mistake in a paper, to essentially do the student’s work for her in order to show that I know the errors are there, in order to look like I did enough work.

But while teaching does require knowledge and preparation and lots and lots of work (we teachers have to study for our own classes to be sure), at some point I suspect that the subtle difference between the good student and the good teacher in every one of us is in knowing when to stop, when to trust students to be responsible for their own learning.  And that means allowing them to spout a lot of cringingly wrong answers, permitting confusion to remain when it’s pedagogically sound to do so, and letting students copyedit–with some guidance–their own goddamn papers.

Why I Don’t Do Late Penalties

A recent commenter asked me to address my late paper policy (mentioned briefly in another post), so I’m going to do that here. I just want to be clear, however, that this is MY late paper policy. It works for me and my class, but I am not going to sit here and insist that it will work for everyone. If what I describe here sounds like a nightmare to you, then simply ignore it.

The short version is that I don’t penalize students for turning in papers “late.” I provide a schedule with recommended deadlines for the submission of first and second drafts, and I refuse to take papers after a set date during exam week, but I do not take points off for lateness. I used to. For the first three semesters in which I taught my own classes, I took a letter grade off for each class day that a paper was past due and then tried to grant “grace” extensions where I felt they were warranted. The reason I changed is because this policy caused more problems for me than it prevented. Having to listen to every student’s emergency and determine which ones were real and which ones merited an extension made enforcing this policy more trouble than I felt it was worth. It felt arbitrary, and I was not comfortable with it. But that’s just me. I know plenty of instructors who have no problem enforcing a late paper policy like this, who believe that it does, in fact, make their lives easier. I’m just not one of those instructors.

The way I see it, paper deadlines and the late policies that accompany them are designed to do two things:

1) Provide the student with a reasonable timeline for completing assignments.

2) Divide up the instructor’s grading load into manageable, predictable chunks.

Most people who defend the “one letter grade off” late policies cite managing their own workload and teaching the student valuable lessons as reasons for why they enforce it. I often hear things like “in the real world, their boss isn’t going to listen to their excuses.” I think that’s perfectly valid, but here’s something to think about: in the “real world,” unless the future graduate is juggling between 4 and 6 separate jobs, in which their supervisors do not communicate with one another, they are unlikely to encounter the sorts of deadline “perfect storms” that students often encounter in college. In most “real world” situations, there will be opportunities to delegate, collaborate, and negotiate deadlines in order to deal with unusually high workloads. Furthermore, time management isn’t always about meeting deadlines at any cost. It’s also about managing commitments and figuring out how you can produce work of high quality within the constraints that you are given. Since my assignments are designed to foster reflection and revision, I want to emphasize those other aspects of time management.

The key to the wording of the late policy on my syllabus is making the twin goals of late policies transparent and working the logic of incentives to help students understand why the schedule is there and what the advantages of following it are:

Papers are to be submitted online by midnight on date indicated on the syllabus. There are no grade penalties for submitting a late paper. Providing deadlines, however, ensures that I can grade and return papers to the class in a timely fashion and that you get the full benefit of a “process-oriented” approach to writing instruction. I regard the due dates listed on the syllabus as a contract with you, the student. If you meet your end of the bargain, then I can promise that all papers submitted on the scheduled Thursday will be returned on the following Thursday with extensive feedback to assist you if you choose to revise. However, if you submit a paper late, then I am not obligated to return your paper to you until the next time I grade, and I always grade in batches, so you may have to wait until the next major deadline. Papers submitted after May 6 (the last day of class) will receive little (if any) feedback due to time constraints unless you specifically seek me out during office hours.

This late policy works best in the context of unlimited revisions. Students are usually quick to recognize the importance of timely feedback in allowing them to improve lackluster paper grades. In the three semesters that I have implemented this new policy, the majority of students have hewed pretty close to the schedule, though even my very strongest students have gushed with appreciation over the opportunity to spend a few more days working on a paper that isn’t yet as good as it should be or to focus on the four exams they have that week and address the paper the next. In truth, I would much rather read papers that the student had taken an extra day on than something that was hammered together in a caffeine-induced fugue state at 3:00 in the morning.

I still get to schedule my grading exactly as I would like. I grade on the weekends that papers are due and usually check to see if there’s a chunk of late papers or revisions on off weekends. The advantage is that I no longer feel compelled–as I did under the previous model–to grade random late papers in the middle of the week in the name of getting it back to the student in a timely fashion. It’s possible that I’m the only person on earth whose brain works like that, but there it is.

Now, there will always be a couple of students that take advantage of this policy in the worst possible way by waiting until the absolute last day to turn everything in. These students come in two varieties:

1) The graduating senior who has sort of checked out or is preoccupied with something bigger (like an honors thesis) but is nevertheless so advanced that she can turn in outstanding, A-level work even at the last minute. My standards for an A are so exacting that these students are like unicorns. I have never actually seen one, though a couple came close (they got B’s). I would just let it go. This student doesn’t really need to be taking the class anyway, so if they did not breach my attendance policy, turned in daily work, and did well on reading quizzes, I’m not going to begrudge them the grade their work merits.

2) The slacker with zero time management skills. I have this student every semester. In the Spring, there’s usually two of them. Here’s the thing, I had these students even when I was enforcing a late penalty. These students rarely even pass. Both of mine failed this semester, due to turning everything in but the final paper. What having no late penalties saves me is the agonizing late semester negotiations.

And here’s the thing: grades rarely motivate these students. They sort of know that they are supposed to care about grades, but for whatever reason, they really don’t. One way I try to motivate them is through the threat of public embarrassment. All students sign up to have a paper workshopped in class at one point during the semester. If they do not show up with a completed paper on that day and have not made arrangements to reschedule, I announce it to the class. Furthermore, at mid-semester, after the first major essay has been turned in, I require each student to have a 15 minute one-on-one meeting with me about that paper. It is stunning how quickly papers start appearing in the online submission system once these conferences approach. In some ways, the an awkward conversation is more intimidating than a reduced grade.

My husband, who uses a similar policy with his advanced high school students (he teaches biology) has his students sign a slip of paper that says that they know they missed a paper deadline and understand what the possible consequences of doing so will be. In practice, it’s actually pretty evil. There are also ways to use positive reinforcement to encourage students to follow the schedule, such as giving a prize to the first student to turn in a first draft of every writing assignment.

All in all, I’m happy with this policy. The lazy students who put things off until the last minute still do poorly. The good students aren’t arbitrarily punished for having a single bad week. I still get to grade according to my own schedule, and I earn capital with my students for appearing benevolent and reasonable.

Grading Philosophy

Student-friendly classroom policies and assignments need not be the antithesis of academic rigor. Despite the fact that I don’t give participation grades and allow my students to revise individual assignment multiple times, my classroom is not some stereotype of a hippy-dippy New Age, feel-good utopia in which everyone gets a trophy and no one ever has to feel the pain of failure.  In fact, I think of myself as something of a hardass.  By giving students so many opportunities to redeem themselves, I feel free to set the bar high.  Just fulfilling the terms of the assignment gets you a C.

Below is the handout that I distribute at the beginning of each semester describing what each grade means and what each grade usually signals about revision.  This is a holistic system, and there are no perfect 100’s.

F—The best way to fail a paper is to ignore in whole or in part the requirements set forth on the assignment prompt.  A failing paper might contain an extremely weak, irrelevant, or inappropriate thesis (if it contains one at all).  It may fall egregiously short of the length requirement (500 or more words), have an incoherent organizational scheme, or contain enough mechanical errors to make it unreadable.  Papers that show no effort to properly cite sources will also receive failing grades (see policy statement).

D papers usually show a modest effort to meet the terms of the assignment but may fall short in a number of ways.  They may be up to 300 words below the length requirement or show poor attention to outside sources.  They usually have a relevant thesis, though that thesis may be weakly stated, insufficiently supported, and logically problematic.

D+ papers contain the same deficiencies as a D paper but may be relatively easy to salvage for a C.  For example, the idea may be somewhat interesting but the argument is stated weakly or ambiguously, or there may be so many mechanical errors that the sense of the paper suffers.  Major overhaul at the thesis and paragraph level can boost this to a B-.

C- papers are dangerously close to missing the point of the assignment but manage to get all the components necessary for a passing grade.  The argument is usually weak or ambiguous or merely rehashing ideas discussed in class.  A C- paper may also contain a “dead-end” idea (due to an unoriginal or unprovable thesis) that is unlikely to see improvement with mere surface revision.  Massive overhaul will probably be needed to move up a letter grade.

C papers meet the minimum requirements of the assignment but go no further.  They contain a relevant and plausible thesis, though that thesis is usually weakly supported and unoriginal.  They demonstrate a cursory effort to use outside sources but do not necessarily deal with them insightfully.  The prose is readable but may feel labored, choppy, or pedantic.  C papers have a coherent organizational scheme for the overall paper but may be somewhat awkward in the way that individual paragraphs are constructed.  Revisions at the thesis level are usually needed to see much of a change in grade.

C+ papers only meet the minimum requirements but show promise.  Usually, the idea behind the paper is interesting but the execution at the organizational or stylistic level is mediocre.  Revisions at the paragraph level along with attention to mechanics will often boost this to a B-.

B- papers go just beyond the minimum and come to a stop.  The argument may be clear, and the evidence may be solid, but the essay lacks nuance, voice, and originality.  B- papers are competently written but make the reader think “this has been said before and said better.”  Revisions to these papers usually need to include attention to the level of analysis and insight as well as a sensitivity to language that will make those insights stand out.

B papers move beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment.  They contain an insightful, plausible, and substantially supported argument.  They place their arguments in conversation with arguments from outside sources (where called for in the assignment) and deal with those sources ethically.  The writing is error-free and well organized on the paragraph level, making appropriate use of transitions and topic sentences to guide the reader from one idea to the next.  The tone of the essay demonstrates a competent effort at tailoring the argument for a specific audience.  As such, the writing demonstrates a developing sophistication, though it may not quite achieve the effortless quality of the A paper.   As with B- papers, B papers often seem a little bit obvious and may leave the reader with the sense that they’ve heard this argument made in this particular way before.

B+ papers are the most frustrating to receive back from an instructor.  They go beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment but stop just short of true greatness.  Often, a B+ grade reflects some deficiency in execution, not in big ideas or micro-level analysis.   A slightly confusing structure, a missing logical step, or some mechanical problems may need to be corrected before this can become an A.

A- papers go far beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment.  They contain a truly original, sophisticated, probative argument, approaching a problem or question in a way that sheds new light on it.  The organization is tight and consistent, such that the reader can follow the argument without sensing gaps in its logic.  Outside sources are dealt with in meaningful ways and do not seem “tacked on.”  Commentary goes well beyond the obvious and reflects truly original thinking.  The prose accurately reflects the student’s own voice and clearly engages the paper’s audience, whether the tone is formal, satirical, conversational, etc.  The “-“ in the A- doesn’t usually reflect any major deficiency, just that this essay isn’t quite in that “top 1%” category that distinguishes “A’s”.

A papers are impeccable and rare.  First drafts hardly ever receive them, and hard work is usually required to achieve this grade upon revision.  A papers contain spectacular ideas and no mechanical errors, absolutely none.

Final Grades:

Each letter grade assignment will be given a numeric value and according to the rubric on the left.  Those grades will be weighted and averaged according to the rubric on the right.

Assignments                                                                      Final Grade

A             95                                                                           94 – 100               A

A-           92                                                                           90-93.999           A-

B+           88                                                                           87-89.999            B+

B             85                                                                           84-86.999            B

B-            82                                                                           80-83.999            B-

C+          78                                                                           77-79.999            C+

C             75                                                                           74-76.999            C

C-           72                                                                           70-73.999            C-

D+          68                                                                           67-69.999            D+

D            65                                                                           60-66.999            D

F             55                                                                           0-59.999              F

Marking a First Draft

If you allow unlimited revisions, the first draft is the entry point into a dialogue between you and your student.  It is the beginning, not the entirety, of a conversation that may progress over several drafts across a period of weeks or months. If you are concerned that allowing multiple revisions of a single assignment will just make your grading load even worse than it already is, than hopefully thinking about it in this way will bring some relief.  If the first draft is merely the first exchange in a dialogue, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong/right with the first draft. So much of the time we spend marking a paper is spent justifying the grade itself, showing what you “counted off” for, so that the student won’t complain.  If you allow for revisions, then the first grade the student sees (I actually don’t even show them the grade they would have gotten on the first draft of the first paper) is merely a starting point.  It is a measure of the distance they have to go in order to reach their goal.  Your job is to show them how to take the first step toward that goal–not the entire route, mind you–just the first step or two.

The following is adapted from a set of talking points I used for a panel discussion on grading during orientation for TA’s.  A lot of what I’m about to say will not be news to some experienced instructors, but if you are considering implementing something like this in your curriculum, here are the mark-up techniques that make it workable.

Use technology to your advantage. Paperless grading has changed my life.  I am slow when it comes to hand-writing, so typing up comments automatically saves me a great deal of time and allows me to say more without needing to ice my hand.  Using Microsoft Word’s review features like Track Changes and Comments can make draft mark-up easier, but the real benefit is being able to save your final comments to your computer for retrieval when you receive the next draft and the next.  That way, you don’t have to bother with asking students to resubmit old drafts, and you won’t have to lug gigantic folders home for grading.  Keep in mind that if you still prefer to mark up the draft itself by hand, you can always do that too.

Triage. Like I said, if you are allowing multiple revisions, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong with the first draft.  I actually limit myself to 3 issues that need to be addressed in revision.  Sometimes, I’ll just mention one, especially is the problem is at the Conceptualization level (see below).  Students can get easily overwhelmed if they get back a paper covered in red ink and a two page narrative response, listing half a dozen issues that need to be addressed.  Give your student an achievable task, knowing that you can always address lower order issues at a later stage.  A colleague of mine talks about tackling draft problems according to a hierarchy of concerns.  Here is my adaptation of that hierarchy:

Conceptualization

Is this a workable topic?

Does the paper have an arguable thesis?

Has the student done enough research to support that thesis?/Does the student have enough textual evidence (if no research was required)?

Organization

Does the macro-level structure make sense?  Are any paragraphs out of place or irrelevant?  Does the argument progress in a logical manner?

Does the student effectively transition between topics both within and between paragraphs?

Are individual paragraphs organized appropriately?  Do any need to be broken up or combined?

Does the paper have an effective introduction and conclusion?

Style

Is the tone appropriate for this sort of assignment?

Does the writer convey a strong ethos?

Is there a preponderance of overly long/short sentences and/or awkward but grammatically correct constructions?

Is the paper wordy? (unnecessary modifiers, overly complex phrases)

Editing

Is the student prone to any particular grammatical error (comma placement, doesn’t know how to use a colon, etc.)?

Any words used inappropriately? (thesaurus fetishism)

Is the paper relatively free of typos?

Originality/Wow Factor

Is the paper presenting an argument that is truly original or is it likely that you have two or more papers in your stack that sound more or less like this one?

Does the paper convey an individual, mature voice?

I have actually used this checklist as a rubric.  Remember that your goal is note no more than three issues that the student can address for the next draft, but the higher up on the hierarchy that you have to start, the less you really need to talk about in comments.  If the student has selected a wildly inappropriate topic, then you are essentially going to be telling them to start over, anyway.  The only reason to say anything about research or even organization would be to simply note that those are problems they may wish to avoid when they re-write the paper.  Any problems at the conceptualization level usually indicate that major overhaul is necessary, so beating grammatical issues to death is only going to waste your time and overwhelm the student.

The reason why Originality/Wow Factor is listed last is because these are arguably the most subjective aspects of assessment.  The originality, individuality, and voice of a paper are what make the difference between a B+ and an A in my class, and not all papers are going to ultimately reach that point.  Typically, I wait to talk about those issues until the paper has reached the B level, when the writing task is being addressed effectively but there is just something missing in the way certain parts of the argument are worded or the level of insight in the conclusions the student is drawing.  Surprisingly, originality issues don’t always require major overhaul.  It is usually a matter of fine nuance, and how individual instructors assess that is always, unfortunately, going to be subjective.  That question about whether or not the student really is “saying something new” (and by new, I mean making connections that undergraduates do not typically make, not that the student is making a major scholarly breakthrough) is what I use to assess this category, but you may take a different approach.

Minimal Markup. This is sort of redundant, but it bears repeating.  Unless your student already has a solidly conceptualized paper with a more or less appropriate organizational scheme, do not waste time marking every single grammatical error or awkward construction.  There is no point in copy editing sentences that are going to be scrapped. Use marginal comments to note places where the argument goes off the rails, when the reader is losing the thread, etc.

However, if your student is ready to begin focusing on micro-level issues, still mark copy editing problems sparingly.  Particularly if you want your student to learn something about correct usage or fluent phrasing from the experience, resist the urge to mark every error.  If you mark everything, the student has no incentive to do more than copy the corrections you’ve already made.  You just did their work for them.  Instead, note the first couple of occurrences of a particular problem and then talk about it in your final comments while directing the student to a page in your style handbook or an online resource that will help them learn semi-colon usage.  For fluency and awkwardness problems, I often recommend that the student read their paper out loud to themselves or have a friend read it out loud to them.  Places where the reader falters often signal an issue.

The advantage of this approach is that you can essentially spread out all of the commenting you would do on a single draft across multiple drafts, except with multiple revisions, the student actually has the chance to apply and learn from your suggestions. If you spend more than 15 minutes commenting on each draft, you may be doing too much.

Furthermore, once you receive a revised draft, you can simply lay it alongside the old one (electronic submissions are quite advantageous here) and see what has changed.  If the student hasn’t done what I suggested the first time, I simply refer them to the last set of comments and call it a day.

Comic via PHD Comics.

Multiple Assignments and Unlimited Revisions in a Writing Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the Fall course offerings and came across an upper division undergraduate History class called “Religion and Popular Culture.” The content of the course looked fantastic, as the pop culture focus was on the Ben-Hur tradition (something I am currently researching), but in the part of the course description that lists assessment criteria, I found cause for concern:

Fifty percent of the course grade will be determined by class attendance and sustained and useful participation in class discussion. There will be no examinations as long as students do the assigned reading and sustain effective discussion. The other half of the course grade will be determined by the semester’s writing project. Students will write a paper of at least sixteen pages on a topic that traces a theme or development through all of the cultural manifestations of Ben-Hur over the past 125 pages. In preparing that paper they will write a brief prospectus, a longer prospectus, a first draft of the essay and then a revised draft. At all stages of the writing project leading to the final version, students’ work will be evaluated by the instructor and then re-written to reflect that evaluation.

I have said my piece about participation grades already. Basing half the entire course grade on participation seems to me to be a recipe for migraine headaches at the end of term, but this professor has been doing his thing for a long time, so I guess he has a method.

What I really want to talk about here is the logic of basing almost the entirety (given that most participation components are kind of bullshit) of a final course grade on a single written assignment and then marking it–as this course was–with a “Writing Flag.” Ok, from what I understand, “Writing Flag” courses are meant to teach undergraduates something about writing in that particular discipline. A good half of the student body tests out of the required freshman comp class here, so most writing instruction is inevitably happening in these Writing Flag courses that can be hosted by just about any department.

Now, a sixteen page research project in an upper division course is probably pretty reflective of the kind of writing one might do in the history field. At least, that’s been par for the course in all of the graduate seminars I’ve taken in the humanities and social sciences. My concern is that writing is something that one can only learn by practicing, by trial and error. Even though this particular class requires a good deal of preparatory work for the final paper (two prospectuses and a first draft), I would worry that students aren’t really getting a whole lot of practice at this particular kind of writing before it comes time to start working on this massive omnibus project.  They ought to have some lower stakes opportunities for figuring out what kinds of topics work, what counts as a thesis, how to structure and organize a smaller argument before doing a larger one, etc.

And this is a course being taught by a professor who I know to be excellent. I can see him doing quite a bit of writing instruction in the classroom, presenting samples, holding students hands through the process, giving ample feedback on proposals, etc. But there are a number of “Writing Flag” courses out there (enough that the chair of the Sophomore Literature committee warned all new instructors against following this example) that really do just demand a final draft of a huge paper on the final day of class and call that a writing course. I imagine these are the same professors who whine about the under-preparedness of college freshman (without a clue as to what the conditions are in public high school English departments) and refuse to teach “writing fundamentals” in any form whatsoever. I imagine that these are also the same professors who take off a point for every grammatical error.

Knew the material before you walked in the door and doesn't really need to be in this class.

My issue with this type of grading policy is that it does not encourage actual improvement. It’s designed to disproportionately reward students who came into the class with a lot of experience and strong skills while disproportionately punishing those with less experience and rougher skills. There’s a column at The Chronicle of Higher Education that I mostly find insufferable (for reasons I may talk about in another post) but that makes this point pretty well. Describing his first experience as a graduate student composition instructor, when he was asked to curb the trend toward grade inflation, the pseudonymous author says:

What Dr. Cathcart didn’t say, but that I realized afterward, was that Elite National U. did not want me to teach first-year students as much as sort them according to the abilities they brought with them to my classroom. Having been asked to halt the progress of Marty, a student with special needs, I had no desire to find out what happened to a TA who didn’t sort papers according to a bell-curve standard. After that day, my grading report sheets displayed lovely bell shapes.

Because first-year students’ success depended upon skills they had mastered before showing up on our campus, I suspected the same principle applied to teaching assistants.

Trying to teach writing without a strong emphasis on shorter, lower stakes assignments, regular instructor feedback, and opportunity for revision, without–in a word–PRACTICE built into the curriculum makes about as much sense as trying to teach a musical instrument via a lecture course. Imagine you are a student sitting in this hypothetical lecture course on, say, the piano, in which the professor waxes poetically about the piano itself, about the technique of great pianists past, even demonstrates his own remarkable skills and then asks everyone to learn a Sonata by the end of term without any opportunity for one-on-one instruction. The bald reality of the situation is that teaching writing–like learning an instrument–requires a great deal of back and forth between student and instructor and requires ample room for the student to take risks and mess up and then start over and try again. Teaching writing requires room for shitty first drafts.

So, while a long assignment may be desirable in your class–especially if you want your students to engage in focused research–it’s worthwhile to consider adding shorter assignments–ones that are unrelated to the larger project–to the syllabus. My students do a long paper on a text assigned in class at the end of the semester, but they also do three short analysis papers, all of which receive feedback from me.

And here’s the kicker: I allow all of my students to revise any assignment as many times as they want up to a certain date. I’m not exactly an innovator in this respect, but it’s worth mentioning here because I think this policy scares a lot of instructors, mostly because it seems like it would translate to a lot more work. It really doesn’t have to. I’m going to do a follow up post to this tomorrow (because this one is already really long) that will explain how the concept of unlimited revisions can actually drastically decrease the amount of time you spend commenting on individual drafts while actually increasing the amount of aggregate useful feedback your students get from you throughout the term. Other benefits for you include:

Fewer grade disputes: Students who know that they can revise their essays feel that they control their own destiny in your class. They are less likely to be shell shocked by a bad grade if they know they have the opportunity to change it, and that leads to less demoralization, less defensiveness, and the decreased likelihood that they will blame you for their poor performance. All of my nightmare, stalker grade grubbing incidents happened before I started allowing unlimited revisions.

Intrinsic motivation for submitting papers on time. I actually don’t even have a late policy in my class. I don’t need one. I tell students what my grading schedule is for each week, so if they want timely feedback (and I get papers back within 3 days, usually) that will allow them to revise the paper, they have to get it in by a certain time on a certain day. I love this policy for so many reasons. For one, it causes students (and therefore me) less stress, but mostly I love it because it flips the logic of due date incentives on its head by offering a reward for timely submission rather than a punishment for lateness. Also, it works.

More meaningful engagement with the writing process when revision is for a full grade replacement. Two years ago, I taught in the freshman writing program, which emphasized the revision process by requiring a revision of each of the three major essays. These revisions were recorded as a separate grade from the first draft. The problem with this approach is that most students would essentially just turn in the same paper, resigned to the fact that they were going to get more or less the same grade no matter what they did. I started seeing remarkable, thorough revisions when I offered students the opportunity to actually improve their grade by revising the paper. Furthermore, I no longer felt sketchy about encouraging revision by assigning grades strategically. Under the “separate grades” model, I felt like I needed to reward excellent first drafts (they do happen) with “A’s,” even though I knew that meant that they wouldn’t engage with the revision process. Now, I can give a strategic B+ here an there to encourage the strong students to make their papers even stronger, because they almost always do (and phooey to them if they let the opportunity slide).

The student’s final grade is ultimately a true reflection of where they are at the end of the semester rather than where they were at the beginning. And that, for me, is the true beauty of allowing unlimited revisions for a whole grade replacement, yet this seems to be a real psychological barrier for a certain type of pedagogue. The type of professor that the Chronicle essayist describes, seems to me to remain highly invested in pigeon-holing students into the “good writer/bad writer” categories. I’ve written before about why I think doing so is damaging. For one thing, it privileges students who came from the best high school programs, i.e. students who are inherently privileged already. For another thing, that’s not teaching. That’s sorting, and I find the investment of certain instructors (who often engage in this practice in the name of stamping out grade inflation) in engaging in this practice to be both cynical and discriminatory.

Not all students advance light-years in a single semester, but if you allow unlimited revisions and give some shorter, lower stakes assignments, you will often see a B- student start turning in A- work by the end of term. Not all students will revise every assignment, but almost all students will revise at least one. Not all students will learn to love writing, but some will actually start to think of themselves as people who are capable of writing, and for me, that’s good enough.

Beware the Charming Student

Your eyes met across the room on the first day of class.  He was conventionally attractive, tallish, probably an athlete.  His smile had that “I’m looking forward to your vote this November” sparkle, but in spite of his polished appearance, he had enough coltish awkwardness to make him seem approachable.  He came up to you to say how happy he was to be in your class and that’s he’s considering majoring in your field.   He looked alert and engaged the whole time you were talking, and even though his one comment wasn’t really apropos, he sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about.  When you went home that day, you carried with you the mixed sensations of excitement and trepidation.  This kid is either God’s Gift to teachers, or he is going to break your heart.  Probably the latter.

Fast Forward fifteen weeks, and this same kid has come right up to the edge of your attendance policy.  He has turned in work late (his team had an away game), and that work is C level.  He has made appointments with you and then “forgot,” full of apologies afterward.  He assures you that he is just having a really hard time transitioning to college, that he really likes your class but is struggling.  Won’t you please, please help him out?  Remember when you assured him that he still had a chance to get an A?  Did you mean it?

There is a particular kind of student.  I find he is usually, but not always, male, usually, but not always, white.  This is the student you meet once every few semesters (God help you if you have two in one class) who has always gotten good grades, not because they are excellent, hard working students, but because they are really, really good at playing the game.  This is the kid who knows how to get what he wants out of authority figures–grades he hasn’t earned–because he’s been doing it his entire life.

Here is what I think happens:  teenagers are, in the aggregate, sort of a motley bunch.  They sleep in your class, sometimes while drooling.  They refuse to make eye contact.  They mumble.  They try to text their friends when you think they are not looking.  In short, in a room full of average teens, the student who has mastered the nuances of adult etiquette really stands out and often looks like a much better student than he actually is.  We seem to be sort of programmed to equate social competence with competence in other areas of life.  I think this is why salesmen and politicians are so effective at hoodwinking us.  In short, this type of student is sort of a budding con-artist, even if he doesn’t realize it.

These students don’t usually understand the difference between working hard on the course work and working hard on you in order to get you to give him the grade he wants.  They are essentially the same thing to him.  This is the student who is most likely to use the language of personal betrayal if he doesn’t get an A and to say things like “I need an A to keep my scholarship/to get into medical school,” because they think their grade is reflective of the quality of your relationship, not the quality of his work.

How to deal with this type of student:

  • Do not, under any circumstances, no matter how much he looks at you with those puppy dog eyes and acts like the B- he just received is sending him spiraling into a major depression, reassure him that he can get in an A in your class.  I made this mistake my second year as a TA.  The student interpreted “it is still possible for you to get an A” as “I am going to give you an A.”  I’m not sure how his little mind made that leap, but it did, and it led to all sorts of late semester unpleasantness.  Say things like, “in order to get an A, you will have to do X, Y, and Z.  Make a list for him.  Preferably in writing.  And keep a copy for yourself.
  • ALWAYS speak in terms of what the student has to do, but NEVER make promises about what you will do (grade-wise) in return.
  • Be available but set boundaries.  Like I said, this is usually a student who wants to talk to you, because that’s the way he rolls.  You may be tempted to just ignore emails or refuse to meet outside your office hours.  I’ve known instructors who do that, and I think it’s their prerogative.  But sometimes going a little out of your way to be available prevents the student from taking on further ammo if they decide to go to your department chair.
  • Have a paper trail.  While actual litigation or formal grade challenges don’t always happen, it’s helpful to have a paper trail, especially if you are a teaching assistant.  That way you can go to your supervisor and show her the content of email exchanges, point to missed appointments, attendance records, your feedback on tests and papers, etc.  It also provides an effective way to argue with the student, if you have to.

The female incarnation of this student is, of  course, Alicia Silverstone’s character from Clueless.  There are no YouTube clips that I can embed here, so you may have to dig that movie out from under your Lisa Loeb CDs and re-watch it.  There is this montage in which Cher (Silverstone) goes to all of her high school teachers, charming the pants off of them and bargaining up her grades.  Then she goes to Wallace Shawn, her debate teacher, and he is the brick wall against which her perfect grade-grubbing record is dashed.  Your goal, when dealing with a student like this, is to channel Wallace Shawn (before he finds love and starts giving out better grades because he’s happy or some crap).  Be The Shawn.

I like to think that refusing to cede ground in these cases, that being fair but kind of a hardass teaches these kids A Valuable Lesson.  Of course, I don’t really know if that’s true, but giving in in these situations certainly doesn’t make your life any easier, and it definitely doesn’t make the lives of the future instructors this student will deal with easier.

Five Reasons to Stop Giving “Participation Grades”

1. How the hell are you calculating this anyway? I know some instructors who try to record the frequency and quality of student comments, but that in and of itself seems like it might hamper discussion in addition to being a serious pain in the ass. In almost any other circumstances, participation grades become subjective to the point of uselessness.

2. It punishes the wrong students. This should come as no surprise, but some students are really uncomfortable speaking in class. Some of these are also your best students, the ones that sit silently during discussion but do the reading and write brilliant papers. The reasons why they don’t speak up may be complex and way beyond your pay grade. They may have histories of abuse or of being publicly humiliated and silenced by authority figures. They may have had horrific experiences in high school that make them terrified of speaking up in front of their peers. There are also just basic privilege and discrimination issues at work, such as the fact that boys are still much more likely than girls to speak up in class, and non-white students are less likely to speak up than white students. You may also have second language speakers in your class, who do not feel confident enough in their speaking abilities, especially given the annoyance often directed at them by fellow students and instructors. You may also have students with disabilities or students who represent a minority political or religious viewpoint or students whose personal issues are too close to the class material or whatever. We in the West (especially the U.S.) live in a society where extroversion is privileged, a society that gives people multiple reasons to feel the need to keep their mouths shut and often then turns around and punishes them for being “passive.” We shouldn’t be exacerbating that problem in the classroom.

You may think that you are encouraging these kids to grow and mature and better advocate for themselves by grading participation, but let’s be clear:  that process is not going to be completed in three months time.  If you are a very, very good instructor and also a little bit lucky, you may get a “breakthrough moment,” where a previously terrified student suddenly lights up.  But those moments do not signify the reversal of ingrained behavioral patterns.  It will take many, many positive experiences with speaking up to overcome a history of trauma.

3. You are opening yourself up to grade challenges. I came a across a pretty good article on grade grubbing on The Washington Post website. It’s written by a journalism professor who encountered numerous grade challenges her first semester teaching at American University. Here is one of her examples:

I wasn’t so firm with my other challenger. She tracked me down by phone while I was still in my office. She wanted to know why she’d received a B-plus. Basically, it was because she’d barely said a word in class, so the B-plus was subjective. She harangued me until, I’m ashamed to admit, I agreed to change her grade to an A-minus. At the time, I thought, “Geez, if it means that much to you, I’ll change it.” She thanked me profusely, encouraging me to have a happy holiday.

She admits to committing the rookie mistake of giving in to a grade grubber. These things get around. If students know that an instructor has changed a grade in the past, it’s all over. But the other glaring issue here–which she doesn’t really address–is the damned participation grade. Here’s the thing, students know that the participation grade is kind of bullshit, so it’s the first thing they’ll challenge if they don’t like their final grade. Then you’re left arguing about the vague impressions you had of their overall participation across the semester without much to back you up. It’s a recipe for ruining your vacation.

4. It’s too vague to be much of an incentive. Let me repeat: students know this grade is kind of bullshit. The savviest of them know that if the worst happens, they’ll be able to argue the grade up at the end of the semester. But that will usually happen only at the end of term, because they will have forgotten this component even exists as soon as the syllabus disappears into the black hole of their dorm room.

5.  Whatever a participation grade is designed to measure, there are better ways to do it.  Are you trying to:

See if students have read the assignment? Give a quiz.  Scheduled quiz, pop quiz, whatever.  Make it easy, just something to keep everyone on their toes.  I usually give a daily quiz until about midterm, then I only do it if I suspect people aren’t reading. Another technique I like is assigning an informal reading journal or a daily blog, something you can briefly check–either weekly or at set points during the term–to see if people have actually engaged with the reading.

Encourage discussion? Again, participation grades don’t actually work (see #4).  There are about 4,000 more effective ways to encourage participation.  There are entire books written on it, actually.  But here are my suggestions.

  • Create a safe space: Like I said, trauma (and do not discount the trauma that students are capable of inflicting on one another, even at very young ages) and discrimination are often factors in preventing students from piping up.  You can counter this (but again, do not expect life-altering, paradigm shattering transformations in a few short months) by providing a safe space in your classroom.  But this goes beyond simply saying “this is a safe space” or “we like diversity” or “we are tolerant of diverse perspectives.”  It means that you may have to champion minority opinions–even if they are not your own–and prevent group think from developing.  It means that you will have to recognize the subtle signs of someone who has something to say but isn’t loud or assertive enough to wedge their comment in.  It means shutting down any discriminatory bullshit and occasionally asking (politely, of course) some loudmouths to just listen for a while.
  • Resist the temptation to break awkward silences: I fall victim to this one a lot.  Every once in a while, it’s as if the entire class colludes in halting discussion by just staying quiet.  Resist the temptation to lecture at that point.  Don’t answer your own questions.  Just let things hang.  This is torture for everybody, and eventually some one will crack.
  • Use journals or blogs as a jumping off point: This is not only a great way to get some people to talk, it can be an effective way of making quieter students more comfortable speaking up.  Saying something like, “Audria’s post today was so insightful, and I just wanted her to summarize her point for us” not only gives that student something to say, it lets her know that she is likely to be well received, that her input already has approval from the instructor.  Since I give a writing assignment in which students are asked to analyze cultural artifacts outside of class, I will sometimes also say, “Brett is writing a paper on X and is kind of an expert on this, so maybe he can explain.”  Sometimes appealing to other areas of interest or expertise can also help:  “Jillian is a film major” or “Brett is the editor of the campus newspaper.”

So, could we just not do these any more?