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    Analysis and advice on questions and issues of individual ethics and institutional integrity, from Jane Robbins.

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Grading Integrity II: Whose Responsibility?
November 29, 2012 - 3:00am

It’s that time of year.  I returned from Thanksgiving ready to launch into grading the final projects for my large undergraduate class, all waiting for me in Turnitin, and promptly got what my father used to call “sick as a dog.” The semester ends next week and project grades must be done on a tight schedule so final grade calculations can be finished and submitted on time.  I have graduate assistants, trained by me, whose job description includes grading. I have rubrics and excruciatingly detailed project descriptions and criteria for evaluation. So why did I -- weak with fever, chills, aches, and debilitating nausea -- drag myself out of bed, sit myself in front of the computer, and will my way through a section of papers? 

Because it’s my responsibility: graduate assistants don’t have the experience to make final judgments. And it's from experience that I know this -- from training them and reviewing their work.  It is relatively easy to guide someone capable to create a good syllabus, to build a good lecture, to manage a course or classroom. These are, I think, rather technical skills; while they can be done with a great deal of creativity by the talented, basic competence is a matter of mechanics. But I estimate that it takes a good three semesters for someone to get basic competence at grading, longer for those who have little or no work experience or who interpret everything in relation to themselves. So it is common to see assistants in training give high grades to projects that are very well-written or somehow flashy (especially with PowerPoint or video submissions) but may be content- or argument-free; to papers that tap into their own interests or preferences; or to the “good” students who have, say, performed well on a test or who they have gotten to know.

Or -- and this is my biggest concern -- to see low grades on projects that fulfill or exceed requirements in nuanced and untraditional or even imperfect but creative and insightful ways, or to students they have decided are lazy or otherwise undeserving. It is tough -- for us all -- to resist temptation to abuse our power and give credit where credit is due to the annoying or even nasty student; to give appropriate weight to the variety of elements in a complex, multifaceted project. Grading requires tremendous detachment and maturity as well as the experience to “see” what is and is not there.

So I have my graduate assistants do first-cut grading, which I use as a kind of benchmark -- should the grade be higher, lower, or is it just right? Are the comments on target? -- and as a preliminary step in calibrating grades over the course’s many sections, crucial to fairness in a large course. My assistants save me time by providing me with a starting point, and in the process they learn how to do evaluation in a way that I hope will serve them in any position they may enter where they will have to judge the work of others. But grading is one of those obligations that can’t be wholly delegated away to someone in training.  In the professions, evaluation of work product is a manager’s job; you only get to do that when you have demonstrated that you have developed expert judgment from long experience and apprenticeship.  The same is true for grading in an unstructured domain. If there is no one answer, no algorithm for solution, no rote spit-back, no yes-no checklist, how can anyone but someone who has seen the problems or questions at issue from many angles in many contexts over many years gauge the extent to which a set of criteria is met or not? 

The trend toward using lower and lower level students (masters and undergraduates) for grading, and toward peer grading, worries me as it creeps toward open-ended subjects. It is fertile ground for rationalization, as the savings in time and money are considerable, and the consequences deferred. I greatly sympathize with those without adequate help at an appropriate level; it is yet another pressure on grades.  It’s an insidious thing, this slow slide to handing off the most expert-based and, yes, ethics-laden task we do: providing feedback.

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