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Grading Student Essays or How to Give Constructive Feedback
December 9, 2010 - 8:45pm

The topic of this blog post comes naturally to me, as I sit surrounded by over 40 essays waiting for me to grade. 40 essays, each 8 pages long – you count how much text I must get through, and fast (as my deadline for delivering the final marks is approaching very soon). The immensity of the task makes me wonder what the purpose of this exercise is and which ways there are to best achieve this goal. And so, I find myself writing about grading.

The recent discussions on this topic on Twitter have been very intensive (just check #grading and you will see what I mean) and have covered very interesting aspects involved in the process of assessing a student’s work: everything from using numbers vs. using letters (as in Prof. Hacker’s entry), to how to deal with cheating, and to calls for a general reform of the grading system in the US (as seen at this conference).

My interest lies closer to Lee Skallerup’s, which she details here, namely how to give appropriate feedback to student essays. Of course, the ultimate evaluation is reflected in the grade the student obtains, but the debates around the measurement of academic performance are too complex to be included here. At this point I am mostly torn between the desire to use a standardized approach (a type of evaluation sheet in which I could just check appropriate boxes related to the student performance) and a pull for using a more personalized style, based mostly on writing specific comments as I get through the text.

The advantages of using a standard evaluation sheet are numerous: it enables uniform and unambiguous feedback, with the assessment criteria clearly outlined. In turn, this minimizes the risk of students queuing for further explanations about their received mark and sows the seeds for improvement in the future, as students can easily see the areas they need to work on. This is especially so if the same evaluation sheet is to be used repeatedly. It also depicts the progress over time, an image of the learning process. Moreover, from the point of view of the teacher, it may speed up the actual grading and may guard against personal bias.

While these advantages are obvious, they come with some negative sides (as all good things do). First of all, one needs to have a very well written evaluation sheet, with well -delineated criteria and an easy-to-follow design. It should be comprehensive but not too dense, nuanced but not too specific. Fortunately, some already exist out there, and it is just a matter of finding the right one for each topic and teacher. Second, the great quality of this method is also its biggest downfall: the standardization does not allow for really personal comments, adapted to every essay sent in.good examples

This brings me to the second alternative, the use of in-text comments. The general advantages of this old style of grading are the fact that they are customized to each text and give a more detailed and precise account of where things went well and where they went wrong in the research and writing process. Comments are not limited by the good/bad distinction and allow for making suggestions or comments that reflect the flow of thinking of the teacher as well as linking with related subjects that the student may consider useful in the future. The disadvantages are mostly for the teacher: giving personalized and detailed comments simply takes so much longer than a more standardized approach.

So where does this leave me? As I have started late to think about an evaluation sheet, I think it would be less time effective to begin now and compose one. Therefore, I will use the in-text comments (especially useful as I asked for electronic submissions so I don’t need to carry half a forest in my bag but can make notes directly in Word). But a note to self: when having so many essays to grade in the future, do make a good evaluation sheet that would suit the topic, so that the process would go faster and students won’t be kept waiting and anxious. However, when less is to be graded, I will still use comments as they are more personalized and may engage in a dialogue with the student rather than following a strict excellent/very good/poor scale.

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.




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