Snow students under with lots and lots of instruction.

When you have handed out:

  • a full page overall rubric
  • an additional two pages or so of general tips with every essay
  • a full page of typed comments

Students worry whether they missed something in there. Or, they think you are really persnickety and tough and are happy to have escaped with the grade they did.

I’m joking, really. I have no idea whether that’s why I get very few requests for higher grades. But I like to believe it. Best idea from others: make them write up a written justification that shows either where the handouts misled them or failed to mention a criticism received.

I just wrote on a student essay draft:

It’s not clear whether the structure of the argument goes:

THESIS because A, because B, because C [pyramid—thesis as capstone connecting events]


A led to B which led to C which led to THESIS [linear—thesis as end of a chain of events]

I was talking about the problem of essay exams in large classes recently….

I once was a TA for a history professor who offered a Matching section on the exam—match this quotation to this person, about 6-8 pairs. Students really needed to be able to identify the philosophy expressed and associate it with the right person, and it was a class on Russia, so there were some fine details they needed to recognize (e.g., both Lenin and Trotsky might have said A, but only Trotsky would have said B, and neither A nor B were quotations that had been focused on in class, so they really had to think about what the words meant)—-and in short, it achieved that holy grail of grading, a scantron-able question that demanded real knowledge and analysis from students.

A call for help—anything else you’ve done or seen people do that could act the same way?

FLG wants to know, and kinda sorta asked me. Now I want to know what other people think. Join the discussion over there.

I am really slow about changing incompletes to real grades. Because, you know, to grade an essay that is substantially late, I have to go back, reread some of the course materials, check the essay against other student essays to ensure that I am assessing it by the same standards, etc, etc. And once it’s been a month or so, this doesn’t really get harder, so I just keep putting it off. Who wants to do all that? Especially when maybe I am waiting for a second incomplete from the same class, and I sure don’t want to do it twice!

Anyhow, the easy way:

Since I grade by numbers, I can look at how many points the student has accumulated. Then sort out how many they need to earn an A, how many to earn an A-, how many to earn a B+, and so forth. This took me about 5 minutes in Excel.

Okay, so now the question is not, “what grade does this essay deserve?”, but “if the essay is at least a 70, change the incomplete to a B. If the essay is at least an 89, change the incomplete to a B+.” Well, that I can do off the top of my head—no rereading or comparing necessary.

I once made a student wait for ages, not realizing all he needed me to do was change the Incomplete to Pass. Which I barely had to read his essay to do. And yet, I still didn’t realize I was making it much harder than it needed to be.

Clio Bluestocking is challenging the Outcomes Assessment Borg, Historiann’s got her back, and Academic Cog is asking whether applying quantitative data to qualitative issues is in itself a failure of the humanities. I wrote this a while back, so it is not exactly a direct response.

It’s crossed my mind a couple of times that we could land at a compromise between grades and Hampshire College’s “write a letter for every student”. I mean, my department could create, say 5 characteristics that we value—1) mastered the content 2) generated original and creative ideas 3) showed real talent in writing 4) made discussion better 5) worked very hard—and professors could give students a rating in each of these, probably on a 1-4 scale plus Not Applicable—or, even simpler, just “strong/adequate/weak.”

That sort of additional information could enhance a transcript, yet feasibly be aggregated.

I was first thinking that it would be standardized within each of the three big Humanities/Social Science/Science divisions of a college, but actually that’s silly. Let the college as a whole write 7-12 checkboxes that define what they think their school is doing. When professors go to enter their grades, they pick which 1-5 checkboxes best speak to the aims of their course as taught and will appear as fields for each student. The transcript shows how many courses fed into the average for each checkbox. This should minimize the battles at the mid-level over which checkboxes are used, by distributing all the power upwards to the head honchos and downwards to individuals.

If the system were accurate, potential employers would be able to see at a glance who was coasting through on a facile intelligence and who did well because they worked very hard. But eventually, online catalogs might track which checkboxes apply to which classes, and allow students to match their strengths when registering for courses.

I wouldn’t like to talk to the registrar forced to redesign the computer system to track this information and print it on a transcript, though.

Of course, this is basically what a lot of recommendation forms do—ask you to rate students in various categories. But the categories often seem stupid or non-applicable, and there tend to be 10 or 12 of them. That’s too many, and professors are usually doing them retroactively based on memory or the grade. Collecting the same information immediately and aggregating it might even eliminate the need for some recommendation forms, say, for study abroad programs or internal scholarships.

Incidentally, this is how I came up with this idea: if I were faced with Hampshire’s requirement to write a letter for each and every student, that’s pretty much how I would do it, or at least get started—set up some AutoText sentences that reflect performance in the categories I think I can speak to and go down a toolbar checking off the list. (Clearly, that’s my fascist streak again.)

My view on taking attendance has always been that I don’t like forcing people to attend class, but I think those students who do attend class and demonstrate that they did the reading, ought to receive some benefit in the grade for their effort.

This isn’t applicable to this semester, but I went back and forth on trying out something new. I’m debating creating a two-option policy. Students can choose which of the two weightings they want to apply to them:

Option One:
participation: 20%
essay 1: 20%
essay 2: 20%
essay 3: 20%
final exam: 20%

Option Two:
essay 1: 25%
essay 2: 25%
essay 3: 25%
final exam: 25%

Another alternative would be to not grade participation at all, but use class time such that people who attend are more likely to have better grades. E.g., discuss writing tips, practice outlining essays, etc, so that there is extra value in classtime. Except I try to do this regardless.

Alternatively, I could not grade participation, but make students responsible for being there by adding a explicit expectation that lecture material is incorporated into essays (which I don’t enforce at the moment). That seems to privilege form over function though—if you can ace my essays only with class reading, why should I care?

Any innovative attendance policies out there I should check out?


even worse pedantry

(after I re-wrote something) see the difference between pedantry and focusing on what PEOPLE are DOING?

argh, pedantry! Kill it!

Just for kicks, and to finish the story, my research rubric:

Everyone starts from zero.

Up to 50 points for evidence—number and appropriateness of sources, and lack of plagiarism demonstrated by appropriate quoting and citing. Also length.

Up to 30 points for thesis/organization—ideas and how they are presented; presence of a worthwhile thesis, a conclusion, and a coherent development of the topic.

Up to 15 points for style—grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, rhetoric, flow, drama, character.

Up to 5 points for technical details—page numbers, cover sheet, citation style correct, long quotations indented, etc.

Separate deductions for not following the basic rules—e.g., forgot to do the works cited or the abstract.

No problem with assigning points here. Occasionally I have to finagle a point or two, not to match an overall grade but to line up the numbers with my sense that “this paper is better than that one.”

Part of the difference is that I am not that tough on ideas. With a one-semester research paper that demands primary sources, you kinda have to let the evidence go where it will. Sometimes it doesn’t produce an especially ground-breaking or original conclusion, but merely a well-told and well-researched story of why things happened the way they did. You can still get an A/A- that way (this is more acceptable in history, I think, than literature).

I don’t formally teach composition, but my lower-division history courses are officially supposed to focus on writing, and I like focusing on writing (will they remember the battle of Lepanto in five years? Probably not. But they might conceivably remember that pedantic crap like “it is important to consider the biases in the documents during analysis” is motherfreaking BORING and should just be done, not said. I hope) so I take writing seriously and talk about it a lot in class and bombard my students with all sorts of handouts and give way too many comments.

Anyhow, I’m trying to work out a rubric. Years ago, I started out with essay criteria like “An A essay does X, A B essay does Y…” etc. Then I switched to explaining to students that I was largely grading them on four different things—ideas, evidence, structure, writing—and started writing my overall comments like that, e.g., “good ideas, good use of evidence, messy structure, writing awkward.”

Now I’m trying to see if I can figure out some way to make individual assessments for those four elements add up to the overall grade, in a way that is transparent to the students and consistent for me.

But it’s not working out. The problem is, I’m not entirely sure consistency is really a worthy aim in grading things as diverse as essays—that is, for some essays that deal with an really ambitious idea, maybe I should weight the ideas more heavily than I would otherwise. I don’t want to penalize every student for only achieving functional, grammatical writing, so when a student comes along that achieves true elegance, I have to weight writing higher to reward that. Similarly, a truly messy structure or extremely weak ideas can mean that an essay only deserves a C even if the other elements are acceptable.

Before the Four Elements method, I tried working out a flow chart, which at least matched the way I grade. Unfortunately, it got hopelessly complicated once I got past the A papers.

Triggers: a while back, there was a teaching composition theme going around (Bardiac, Bardiac II, Not of General Interest).

Next time I teach a lecture course I need to point out than any essay that basically rehashes my lectures is probably going to get a pretty bad grade.

But, you know, you need to CITE my lectures if you are going to use information from them. Randomly throwing out facts without documentation is not a good technique, even when they happen to be true.

But sometimes they cite things I don’t remember saying. Twice. Uh-oh.

If I assigned two articles that debate each other for the same class, rehashing their arguments and siding with one over the other is similarly not a path to a strong essay. (Admittedly, I did not do a good job of writing the prompt that encouraged students to apply the arguments to different contexts. I wish someone had asked me what I meant in class. New in-class exercise–break down the structure of an argument (the framework—oh wait, that is how we discussed the articles) and apply it to a different situation (guess I skipped that part). Although enough people got it I don’t think it’s all my fault. The four who missed it got a low B-, which I think is higher than they really deserve.)

Last 10 essays!

In an upper-division thematic class, if all your evidence comes from a single day of class, that is also a sign of a potentially weak essay. Not insurmountably so, but an easy trap to fall into.
Finishing off the conclusion with, paraphrased, “this is a really important part of history that everyone should study” does not rescue a weak essay. It just reads like you are sucking up.

More phrases that make me save your essay for later: “needs to be addressed”. WTF is an “imperative option”?
“The Burbon’s reformed many aspects of Spain.” “Great Brittan” “national boarders”

Clearly I need to add more vagueness to the language on the syllabus that says I retain the right to use student words anonymously as writing examples.

Last 5 essays!

I hate to be the kind of professor who cares about something like this, but actually, it is more annoying to read essays printed double-sided. I have to move my pen away from my note sheet and use both hands to flip every page.

Things I spend way too much time on: instructing students how to footnote primary sources reprinted in a reader. Why is this so hard to get right, even when I give a precise example?

Seriously, if I told you last essay that converting your paper to MS Word wiped out all your footnotes, wouldn’t you be sure to bring me a paper copy for the next essay?

But hey, I’m getting some good essay titles.

Damn, these last 2 essays are taking forever.

When you ask students to write a cumulative final essay in a world history to 1500 course, you are going to get a lot of “since the dawn of time….” beginnings. And I can’t even really complain.

How is it that I can read the first six papers in one hour, and then take another hour to read the next two?

I just have a hard time continuing to read an essay with the phrase “immeasurably extensive” in the first sentence.

Seriously, if I’m looking at a two-line title and thinking “what does that even mean?”, it’s not a good sign.
A current grading technique (and I don’t know why it took me years to come up with this) is to underline everything important. The thesis, a key piece of analysis, a topic sentence that clearly states the heart of the paragraph. The advantage here is that it creates a strong impression that I’ve read and commented upon the paper, without actually requiring much effort from me. Though I don’t know why I scribble on final essays anyhow.

Circling typos is also useful for this.

Unfortunately, I get bored with both those things about halfway through.

How many times do I have to tell students not to use contractions in their essays? And jeez, how hard is it to recognize that apostrophes are not plural?

Can I go eat yet?

What do you think would happen if I handed back comments that just said:

Good title, good thesis, good intro, good paragraphs that each address a single claim, supported with detail from a range of sources, good conclusion.

Good job.

Late night already, gonna get later. Might be all night.

So sad.

Lila showed up every single day but never said anything, in a 20-person class.

Susan missed a whole bunch of classes (say 10 of 30) but was engaged and active in discussion (in a good way, not a BS-ing way) whenever present.

Who deserves a better overall participation grade?

Imaginary scenario. I’ve never taught either anyone named either “Lila” or “Susan”.

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