Why We Grade

At a recent WAC meeting, we watched this video of students relating their feelings about receiving graded papers back from instructors. The general theme among the students was that getting comments (often somewhat inscrutable negative ones like “Bad” or “No”) scribbled in red ink all over their papers feels demoralizing.

This prompted a vigorous debate within our WAC team: Do students just want to be coddled? Or should we heed these pleas for kinder and more constructive feedback?

As instructors, we want our students to improve the quality of the work they turn in to us. How can they learn to improve if we don’t show them where they are failing? This drives the spilling of much red ink. But as our discussion unfolded, we realized that the underlying debate about how much marking and “correcting” is appropriate had to do with differences in the kind of work that students are turning in. Before we even begin to grade, we need to ask ourselves why we are grading. Yes, to help students improve. But to improve at what?

If you teach math, some of what you’re grading might be proofs; getting the details of a proof right might be the very thing you want students to learn, so marking up all the details that are incorrect might be the appropriate way to grade that sort of assignment. The same goes for subjects like introductory foreign language instruction, in which the learning objectives are about grammar and proper word usage.

If the overarching goal of the assignment isn’t about the details, however, a different kind of grading might be more appropriate. I teach political science. I would like for my students to be able to write using polished prose. I used to take that goal to mean that I should mark up all of their grammatical and stylistic errors in order to help them identify and avoid them in the future. But I’m not actually teaching them grammar or style in my class; of greater concern to me – and what I spend most of my course trying to work on with them – is that they learn to engage deeply and thoughtfully with readings and concepts, and to formulate informed arguments about them. So now that’s what I mostly grade for – deep, thoughtful engagement and informed arguments. And my feedback tends to come not in the form of marks all over the page, but an acknowledgment at the end of what they did well and two to three concrete suggestions for improvement.

That doesn’t mean I ignore mechanical errors altogether. But filling a paper with red marks does have a tendency to overwhelm rather than to inspire, so I try to pick out just one or two recurring issues the student seems to have (semi-colon usage, for example) and demonstrate and/or explain how to fix them.

Of course, this “minimal marking” approach is not just a way to help students get more out of my grading – it’s a way to help me be a more efficient (and less frustrated) grader. For more discussion about grading strategies, come to the next WAC workshop for faculty and staff on Tuesday, November 15 at 1pm in Midway 205 – or if you can’t make it, check back in afterwards to our Open Lab page for the Powerpoint slides and handouts, which will be posted under “Workshops.”