Instant Mentor

Sympathy, Not Surrender

November 11, 2011

"There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth...." Professors often feel like heralds of Biblical plagues when they hand back student papers. I recently distributed a batch of 32 research papers and the response was pretty much what it’s been since I started teaching more than a quarter-century ago: one student dropped the course, several were upset, one was indignant, a half-dozen danced for joy, and the rest sauntered off without comment. At long last, I’m O.K. with that. 

For years I was one of those humanists who envied professors on the quantitative side of things who had more precise grading measures of "right" and "wrong." Several times I tried to develop point scales for essays in order to make my qualitative grades appear more "objective." If you’re contemplating such an idea, my advice is, don’t go there! You’re bound to come up with one of four systems: point allocations that take as long to calculate as it takes to read the essay; a reckoning so complex it confuses students; one that confuses you; or, some fatal combination of the first three. Make your peace with the salient reality that grading essays is a professional and qualitative judgment call on your part.

If you assign essays you should devise strategies to deal with the weepers and the gnashers – the ones who will show up at your office door. Rest assured that their very existence means you’ve probably done a pretty good job of grading. Universal happiness means that the assignment was too easy, or you’ve been way too lenient. (Universal outrage probably indicates the opposite!) I don’t believe that grading has to look like the classic Bell Curve, but there should be a healthy distribution of grades. The university isn’t a Lake Wobegone where every kid is "above average," even if your admissions office insists they are.

I'll deal with gnashers in a future piece, but for now let's consider the more common troubled student: the weeper. I highly recommend you adopt my policy of refusing to discuss individual student papers for at least 24 hours after handing them back. Weepers will want an immediate explanation for their grades, as well as detailed information on what they can do to recover from them. You should be kind and sympathetic, but schedule an appointment and be firm in your insistence that you will not discuss the paper until the student has looked over your comments and corrections. I go a step further and require students to come to my office with some notes and musings over where their papers strayed and how they can be improved. If a student shows up and clearly has done neither of these things, I (gently) send them that person away and schedule another appointment after reiterating that we need to identify specific problems before we talk about fixing them.

Some students will be emotional days latter, no mater how much or how little they’ve thought about their papers. Professors wax rhapsodic about the life of the mind, the importance of being a lifelong learner, and of valuing the very "process" of education. These are important things, but we should also remember how driven some of our students are, as well as how young they are. We’re right when we tell them that a C isn’t the end of the world, but it will probably feel that way to them, especially when they’re stuck inside their own emotions.

A well-stocked office should include a box of tissues, as at some point you will see waterworks displays. Offer words of comfort, but do not give in to tears. Sometimes this means telling students to take a short walk to compose themselves. Meaningful planning simply can’t happen when the logic centers of the brain are disabled. Once the student is focused, engage in a dialogue – not a mini-lecture – on the paper’s strengths and weaknesses. Lead with the positive before delving into bad news; it helps keep emotions in check. Try to get the student to identify the problems. I can attest from years of experience that the issues you tell them to fix get addressed in a more perfunctory way than those that are self-revelations.

Never fall prey to the rookie mistake of raising a grade out of sympathy or a student’s promise to do better. If your evaluation was fair in the first place, a student must earn a higher grade, not be granted one. This is where you have a big decision to make. Your choices boil down to allowing the grade to stand, recalculating your determination of the final grade, allowing the student to rework the assignment, offering extra credit, or working with the student on the next assignment.

The first is the easiest approach, though not necessarily the best. If we are true to our stated beliefs that one should learn from mistakes, then misfires should offer hope of redemption. But you must be careful. Does your syllabus – a contract between you and your students – state how the final course grade will be calculated? Unless you have stated wiggle room, you should not tell some students that their papers are worth 20 percent even though the syllabus says 30 percent. One way around this is to insert into your syllabus a phrase such as: "I reserve the right to modify (slightly) the above percentages to reward improvement over the course of the semester."

If you don’t already have such a qualifier, you might wish to opt for the third or fourth option, if you can. This depends upon how many students and how much time you have. If you allow any one student to redo an assignment or complete an extra credit project, you must make this option available to all who ask. Don’t be so naïve as to think you are making a special contract with just one or two students; word will soon get out and other students will approach you -– especially at the end of the semester when some of your weaker students calculate their own class standing.

Have a plan in hand so you’re not hoisted upon the petard of your own impulses.  If you don’t have the time to correct rewrites or extra-credit projects and are locked into your grading criteria for the semester, the only other "out" is to tell students you will work with them before the next assignment by brainstorming strategies for doing better on that one. It doesn’t hurt to remind students that a "B" is an honors-level grade and mathematically it is possible to obtain a "C" or "D" on an assignment but still average a "B" for the course. (Show them the math, or they won’t believe you!)

Above all, though, hold onto your standards, even when it entails separating your personal and professional sides. Tears are hard to resist and no one wants to announce a plague, but as any physician will tell you, a careful diagnosis is needed before there’s any hope of recovery.


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