Tuesday, December 03, 2013

10 Tips for Grading Writing w/ Less Stress and Frustration

I belong to the Professional and Organizational Development Discussion List (http://podnetwork.org/pod-listserv/), a smart group that cares about college level teaching and  professional development. On Monday, December 2, a member of the list posted a request for ideas to help faculty get past their frustrations when grading student writing at the end of the year. I wrote a reply that turned into a list of ten. After posting the list here, I made some edits from the original one-draft email for clarity and typos. I expanded item 6 a bit to say more about drafting.

It is hard to know what tips will help best the professor you write about without knowing the context more -- how the writing was assigned, whether the professor saw drafts, whether there's a writing center students could have been recommended to visit, and so on.

But with those caveats in mind, here's what helps me with grading stress and frustration:

1. Before I start, I remember that they're students and may not write standard edited English often, perhaps one or two papers a semester once they leave their first year writing course. That's not nearly enough to get to the point where they will write fluently on all aspects of writing. So I expect that I will see a variety of surface level errors -- typos, awkward sentences, homonym errors, maybe a little subject-verb agreement error and so on. Accepting that I'll see it, while it doesn't mean I won't call attention to it nor want account for it if I'm using a grading system that includes a consideration final draft editing and proofing, I won't let it bother me.

2. It's too easy to see what's wrong with student essays. Things start leaping out. So I try to read once through the essay with no pen in hand, no fingers on the key board. I read as if I'm in a dentist office, skimming even, but just trying to get a good first sense of things. It doesn't take long, and it makes me more efficient later. I read differently without a marking or responding technology at hand. I listen more and suspend judgment a bit. Sometimes I am surprised by what I hear and seen when I'm not reading aggressively, with an eye looking out for student error. What I'm really trying to do here is to suspend reading the writers as students and instead to listen to them as authors, the same way I would with an article I might pick up to read at the doctor's as I wait for an appointment. And as I say, it helps to get a lay of the land.

3. 1 and 2 combine to help me ask this question as I read more closely, ready to respond and grade: what's working in the piece? what do I like? where has the writer pushed him or herself, maybe even failing to reach where they wanted to go, but where they're pushing? I look for good stuff because I know I'll find the stuff I don't like very easily.

4. If it's a really rough batch, I take breaks, mix in other work for the course or another course. In part to not let my reading get less or more critical as I proceed. I need to see each piece freshly, and that can be impossible without some kind of break. The quick read in 2. helps me to sense how much I might want to break things up. I also can use the quick read to sort papers, saving ones that look especially promising as ones to read after a few that look average or below average.

5. I move. If I get frustrated or tired, I stop, stand, pace. And often my mind is racing because I wonder too what the assignment might do better. That is, surface errors are one thing, I can see past those pretty well (though I still note them in final drafts), but if the content or thinking I wanted the writing to evidence isn't coming through, if the central reason for the assignment isn't proving out, then I start to -- when I stand and pace and stretch* -- think over the assignment.  And sometimes I do find that I wasn't clear, or I can see where students might have gotten a wrong impression, and I begin to understand why I'm seeing some of what I'm seeing. And when that happens, I adjust my response.

6.  If I have seen earlier writing assignments, or prior drafts of the assignment, I look to see if there's overall progress, and often there is. Not that all things are better, but very often a student will have worked on one or two things in their writing over the series of papers/drafts and there's some improvement. I take joy in that. Note**: the longer the writing assignment and/or the more high stakes (percentage of grade in the course), the more drafting I'll ask to see. Seeing and giving feedback on drafts does three things: one, helps writers stay on task for longer papers so they aren't done last minute or, worse, intentionally stolen or plagiarized; two, helps writers revise and work through some of the hard learning issues touched on below; and three, for me, lets the final read for a grade happen more efficiently and quickly.

7. Some miscues fascinate me. Especially in papers where students are working with new ideas, new ways of thinking, new vocabularies and terms. So cognitively when they write, if their working memory is carrying all that new information and if they haven't written enough in their lives to have fluidity with standard edited English, they'll make surface errors mistake they don't normally make. And that fascinates me because the errors on the surface link often to a struggle with getting their thinking organized. So sometimes I see errors and then see that the real issue isn't a subject-verb agreement matter or that a sentence runs on or goes awry. It's that the writer is losing control because they are struggling to think and express that thought, and so it's a real snap shot into learning. That tells me a lot and it's really interesting stuff.

8. Cheer failure. Celebrate it with the student. Paula Krebs has a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called "Next Time, Fail Better" (http://chronicle.com/article/Next-Time-Fail-Better/131790/). I have students read that and we make it a kind of motto, especially around something like writing, which is hard for most of them. So with 7. I do actually find ways to call out things that don't work in ways that are cheerful, not disdainful, hopeful and forward pointing, formative even if the grading act is summative and the assignment will have no more drafts. There will be more writing in their life, maybe my course, and so being of good cheer helps them to pick themselves up.

9. I don't take bad writing personally. My students haven't failed _me_ if they're not writing well. I may conclude (see 5.) that I've failed them.  And clearly, some students don't do the work they should and out and out fail themselves. But if they're not doing well and I've done everything as well as I could, then I don't blame them nor me. This stuff can be hard. And while it's sometimes disappointing to get work that isn't where I'd like it to be, it's also the case that work I see simply shows me where students are. My wife is fourth grade teacher. On her wall her are posters about grammar. For example, one about sentence structure explains and illustrates simple sentences, compound sentences, and complex sentences. I remember seeing my children go through their K-12 experience getting coverage of this stuff every year in way or another. My kids did o.k. on their college papers, As and Bs mostly; we live in a house where both parents write a lot every day, we read a lot, and the girls grew up writing and reading. But I know that a lot of kids they went to school with don't write as well. No surprise here but worth remembering:  the same schools, same teachers, same assignments, graduate students with different abilities. We do the same in our courses, pass students with different abilities. And those kids my children grew up with -- I've talked to their parents and seen some of their papers -- had writing of the kind that as a teacher could be frustrating (as did my own daughters on occasion). There are too many variables in all this. And so I've learned not to take it personally when bad writing happens and to not lay blame on prior teachers, schools, society, culture, the Internet and so on. It is what it is. Students will only get better at writing by writing a lot and reading a lot and being conscious -- through good teacher feedback, good peer and friend feedback, and learning to see their own writing and habits as writers in a way that allows for good self-feedback -- over time. We cannot fix it one course.

10. As you can see, I've learned to like bad writing. Not to accept it as always satisfactory or done, but to like it because it is often necessary and  reveals useful stuff. Bad writing is students (and myself because I produce my share of it) at least getting things down and starting to work with ideas in words. The writing can get better and there's often something in the bad that's worth making better. A pony in all the manure, or rose ready to bloom.  And I seize on that, gather my rosebuds where I may, and make the most of those darling buds.

* I do enjoy splitting infinitives.
**  This note and the items in italics were not part of the original post to POD-L.