Monday, December 18, 2006

On Grading

When I was a law student, I had a very cynical attitude about law school grades. So many law school grades depend entirely on a final exam that is all essay. My feeling was that you either wrote the prof's style or you didn't. While you wouldn't flunk if you knew the subject matter and repeated back what the professor emphasized in class, I believed the subjectivity of essay-grading could make the difference between an A and a B.

Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I have a very different feeling about the grading process. For one thing, I see more classes these days using multiple choice for some or even all of the exam. This is partly due to the finding that a surprising number of law students are failing the bar exam, not on the essay portion, but on the multiple-choice multi-state part. I discover that the fine art of writing multiple-choice exams well is difficult to master, but allows a very rigorous exam.

But I also listen as my colleagues talk about grading philosophy and methods. There are some fairly objective measures that they use for grading essays. And I have a course I teach that is entirely graded on paper projects. When I grade the papers, each one is very different from the others. I cannot create a grading rubric based on issues spotted or terms used. But I have created a grading method that allows me to measure these very different papers against a common standard.

I put my criteria for grading into my syllabus each semester. I go over it many times in class. I have a short paper early in the semester that is only 15% of the grade, but works as a rehearsal for the big paper that counts for 50%. When I give these papers back, they are covered in comments noting what I liked and what I didn't like. I mention in class that this is so that they know what I am looking for in the big paper. I put good examples of past papers on reserve, and electronic reserver. And I require drafts on the big project so that I can give feedback in time for the student to modify the paper.

I take grading very seriously. So do my faculty colleagues. It's a big part of what we do and we try very hard to be fair and objective. We also often take it personally when our students show that we failed to get across in class the knowledge we meant to impart. It's a very depressing thing to hand out bad grades, for most of us professors. The up-side is how thrilling it is to have a bunch of terrific grades!

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