Thoughts on Grading

It’s that time of year where I do even more paper grading than normal.  Not surprisingly, that’s led me to do more thinking about grading over the past few weeks.  I’ve also had a couple of conversations along these lines, both of which raised good questions.

It’s easy, especially during the busy times, to focus on just getting the grading finished.  We tell ourselves that students don’t really read the comments we put on their papers or they don’t take them into consideration the next time they write, so we try to power through them.  In fact, we often think of our comments as little more than a defense of why we’ve given them the grade we did.  We know that at least one student, if not more, will come and talk to us about their grade, so we preempt that as much as we can by giving them numerous comments.

We all also know that’s not the best approach to grading, even if are in the midst of grading just that way.  Instead, what we should be doing is giving students comments that will make them better writers.  We had an alumni breakfast Saturday before last, and I had lots of opportunities to talk to former students (I’ll say more about that next week).  When I was talking to two of them, one of them just asked me point blank, “How do you grade?”  She chuckled and added, “I should know this, of course,” as she had taken several of my classes.  She’s in graduate school now, though, so she’s beginning to think about how she will grade, as well.

I began by telling her that it varies depending on the level of the student, but the more I talked, the more I realized that the core of what I said really didn’t change.  Of course, the expectations of ability changes depending on the level, but there are three core ideas I repeatedly come back to when I’m talking to students.  I always talk about thesis, structure, and evidence.  These three components make up the bulk of any essay (grammar is important, certainly, but I only talk about it when it distracts from the ability to comprehend the students’ ideas).  I once read an essay or book (I’ve forgotten which) that defined academic writing as thesis-driven and evidence-based.  That’s always rung true for me, and it’s driven the way I talk about writing.

First, students have to have some argument to make.  For first-year writing students those arguments are much more rudimentary than what my senior-level students write, but I always come back to the same types of questions for both levels.  I want the students to have a “so what?” that they answer.  They can tell me that Hawthorne uses symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown,” but they also need to convey to me why I should care.  Another way of asking this, which I’ve just begun using this semester, is, “Now that I know what it is you’re telling me, how does it change the way I read the work of literature?”

On top of that, they need a way to hold it all together.  The longer I teach, the more I find myself talking about structure.  Students have a good deal of information or ideas, but they just don’t know how to hold it all together, especially when the paper start moving into the double digits.  Thus, I spend time in class and in conferences talking about how to contain all of those ideas.  Of course, they also need evidence to support their thesis.  I find that students err one of two ways here.  They either use little to no evidence, as if they think quoting the text and critics will weaken their argument, or their paper is almost all evidence, and I have no idea what the student actually has to say (I was the latter kind of student, for the record).

All of this sounds rather mechanical, easy to talk about, in fact, but it is exceedingly difficult to do well, as anyone who has ever tried to write on a regular basis knows.  There is something else behind it all, though, that makes it even more difficult.  I can help a student understand ways to include more evidence or structure an essay, but talking about the thesis is much more problematic (the same is true for talking about how to analyze the evidence the paper does have, but that’s going to relate to thesis if we think of it as a student’s argument).  Problems with the thesis are often not problems with mechanics, but problems with thought.

I had a conversation with a colleague from another department this week, and we were talking about how to convey this issue to students.  We talked about how we see thesis sentences come through that just don’t have any real argument to them (like the one about Hawthorne I mentioned above).  We talk to the student and try to get him or her to understand that there is no argument, but there are times where the student simply cannot think on the level we’re asking him or her to think on.  The other professor and I talked about the frustration we feel at this point, as we simply don’t know how to help the student at this point.

We could give them an argument, but they won’t have learned anything, and they won’t be able to convincingly argue that angle throughout the entire paper, as they don’t really understand it.  Giving them examples helps to a certain point, but, again, they usually end up imitating, not truly understanding.  I find myself using vague language, such as “say more here” or “push your argument further.”  I don’t know if such comments help, but I don’t know what else to say.  I have students read some of their peers’ papers, and we read a number of critical articles, especially in the upper-level courses, as I hope by exposing them to more writers trying to do the same thing, they will ultimately learn how to do it themselves.  Otherwise, I just don’t know how to teach the way of thinking besides modeling it.

In the end, that’s what I want them to learn, more than anything else.  That’s what talking about thesis, structure, and evidence is supposed to help them with.  I want them to learn not just a way of writing, but a way of thinking.  I structure my classes and assignments around that basic premise.  In the end, though, I’m never sure how much one class or one paper helps with that.  I can just keep trying to find ways to make it happen.

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