News from the trenches



Grading is hard. Among the steep learning curves I’ve had to hike in my stint as a First Year Seminar professor is accounting. Setting up a gradebook is the least of it. Next comes the day to day accounting of grading the assignments, making the judgments, and confronting your own rubric shortcomings. For instance, what do you do when you have required that powerpoint and outline are turned in, in addition to actually giving the presentation, but the rubric only covers the presentation itself? I’m asking for a friend.

It’s hard to reconcile black-and-white policies with the gray of everyday life. What do you do when a student who does good work while attending class and no work when not attending class runs into a rough patch and doesn’t show up for two weeks, jeopardizing his ability to pass based on attendance deductions alone. This student needs this class to graduate, and the work is there. But he isn’t. How do you give this student a fair chance to make amends and do the work you know they can do? Do you even give them a chance? Have they earned it? Who earns it? What is “earning?” What is fair to the other students in comparison? What is fair to you? How much more time should I spend worrying about this one student?

I am very sensitive to solving these kind of accounting problems in a way that is fair not only to the particular case but to the other students. I’ve been the student who showed up to every single awful class because missing class meant missing points only to find out that the prof couldn’t be bothered to take attendance and every person got full attendance points, even the ones who never showed. I know how terrible that feels. (Obviously the ones who never showed didn’t pass for other reasons, but that’s not the point.) I don’t want to be that prof. I also don’t want to be the prof who stands between a good but flawed student and graduation when a little bit of gray and some serious work on the part of the student could mean the two points that make a difference.

Black and white is about the big picture, the generalizations. Individuals are gray. Even though you are supposed to be teaching a classroom, you are also teaching 21 unique students. Sometimes the answer to “how does this class measure up to standards” isn’t as important as the answer to “how can I best teach this student.”

I turned in my final grades. All in all, I am pleased with how class went. I have a long list of things I would do differently next time, including being more precise on rubrics when I choose to use them. I’ve learned a ton from this experience in little and big ways. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it in the future. For right now, I’m deep in reflective mode, as it relates to FYS, my job, and my life. One of the confounding pieces I will continue to turn over in my head is the way that classroom experience, observation, student reflection in different contexts, and rubrics can tell very different stories about student learning and experience. Together they might give a big picture and that picture might be nuanced, but they rarely agree in a way that is easy to assimilate. What is the truth of this experience, for them and for me? What might we all say about it in a year’s time?

Wishing you a fruitful reflective season. See you in the new year!

2 thoughts on “News from the trenches

  1. Being a student for 21 years gives you a sort of ridiculous concept that anything about doling out grades is objective. I think you want to believe it in: that there is an inherent fairness to it. But really, it’s a just another system, and systems are biased from both sides. I took my grades very seriously as a student, and had an emotional need that derived from them. As an instructor (and for the most part this process started during my last year of grad school) I began to realize that everything is choice. It does get “better” in that you get more and more comfortable with the power you have over your students.
    You are not your student’s pet, pal or parent. You are their professor. And that can sort of suck sometimes.

    • Meggan says:

      Yeah, it can totally suck. I started to acknowledge the suck on the student’s end by saying, “I know it’s not the answer you wanted to hear, but…. [policy I’m going to stick by].”

      Grading and evaluating in general is wrapped up in ideas of “fairness.” Of course, so much of being an adult is learning that the world is not fair and that both doing something and doing nothing are choices. Choices have positive and negative consequences. Rarely is a choice all of one or the other. It is hard to explain to an 18-year-old that they can absolutely choose not to come to class or to skip a mandatory presentation in favor of a different presentation, but that choice has consequences. I find it helps for me to think of students as future employees. Is my decision consistent with what an employer would do or expect?

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