Adventures in Ethics and Science

The Free-Ride offspring are pretty sure what I do for a living is grade papers. But seeing as how they’re both students, I thought I’d ask what the view of things is like on the other side of the red pen.

Dr. Free-Ride: When you come in and find me working on the weekend, what am I usually working on?

Younger offspring: Grading?

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah. I know that you do a lot of homework and assignments.

Younger offspring: Mmm-hmm.

Dr. Free-Ride: And your teacher grades them.

Younger offspring: No! We correct them together.

Dr. Free-Ride: You correct it all together?

Younger offspring: Yeah. She doesn’t really look at them.

Dr. Free-Ride: What?

Younger offspring: She just corrects them on the board, ’cause she knows what the questions are. We have to answer them, and we do “agree” or “disagree”.

Dr. Free-Ride: You guys correct homework together, but what about tests?

Younger offspring: Tests?

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you grade tests together or not?

Younger offspring: No. She grades tests.

Dr. Free-Ride: Does she ever write anything besides whether your answer was correct or incorrect on the tests she grades? Does she ever write comments?

Younger offspring: Sometimes she does.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you ever read those comments that come back?

Younger offspring: Yeah, I do, if I get comments. Sometimes I’m not sure if I do.

Dr. Free-Ride: Are those comments ever surprising to you?

Younger offspring: Not really. Some comments are like, “Great! Very scientific!” Or something like that.

Dr. Free-Ride: Are there any particular comments that help you?

Younger offspring: Mmmm … I forgot.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you think that it’s necessary that your teacher write comments, or would it be enough if she marked the right and wrong and wrote the percentage and the grade?

Younger offspring: I think it would be better to give comments if you got it wrong. If it’s like on a test that you have to answer and you got a question wrong, then she might say “Think about blah blah blah, and then you do blah blah blah to do blah blah blah. And that equals blah blah blah. Try to do something like that to answer this one. I know it’s not the same question, but just try to do something like that to answer it.”

Dr. Free-Ride: I see. So, you think comments can be useful in helping you learn stuff better?

Younger offspring: And also, it could be helpful if you feel like a loser, and you didn’t like your paragraph, and my teacher corrects it and puts a comment that makes you feel good about it.

Dr. Free-Ride: To remind you that, as students, you’re not expected to know everything yet? That you’re in the process of learning?

Younger offspring: Yes.

Dr. Free-Ride: So you don’t think comments are wasted time on the teacher’s part?

Younger offspring: No, but it could be on your part.

Dr. Free-Ride: On my part?

Younger offspring: Mmm-hmm.

Dr. Free-Ride: Why would my writing comments be wasted time?

Younger offspring: Because you have to do so much. My teacher only has 20 students, and you have way more than that.

Dr. Free-Ride: That may well be, however, my students still need feedback and hints for how to think about problems and encouragement. Even if there are a lot of them.

Younger offspring: I know, but you can’t give as long a comment as what I exampled.

Dr. Free-Ride: That’s true. But I bet your teacher doesn’t write comments that long all the time.

* * * * *

Dr. Free-Ride: What’s your experience of grading?

Elder offspring: What do you mean? I’ve never had to grade.

Dr. Free-Ride: No, not of giving grades, of receiving grades. You get papers back that are marked by your teacher. Do you ever look at them after they’ve been marked?

Elder offspring: Um, yeah, of course.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, what do you look at?

Elder offspring: Stuff.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you just look at what percentage correct and what percentage wrong, or what?

Elder offspring: I look at how well I did and my letter grade.

Dr. Free-Ride: Are there ever comments besides right and wrong?

Elder offspring: Not really.

Dr. Free-Ride: Not ever? Not even on essays?

Elder offspring: No.

Dr. Free-Ride: No? There used to be! Did you ever look at those comments? Because you know that we looked at them, right?

Elder offspring: Maybe, sometimes.

Dr. Free-Ride: If you’re not really looking at the comments, isn’t it kind of a waste of time for your teacher to be writing them?

Elder offspring: I guess. But I do look through the whole assignments now, so I would see if there were comments.

Dr. Free-Ride: If there were comments, do you suppose they would be at all helpful to you?

Elder offspring: Maybe.

Dr. Free-Ride: What kind of help could you get from comments on your papers as they were returned to you? What kind of information would be useful to you besides which ones you got right and which ones you got wrong?

Elder offspring: What I should study.

Dr. Free-Ride: What else?

Elder offspring: What I should work on.

Dr. Free-Ride: What about affirmations from your teacher?

Elder offspring: Eh.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you think grading is a fun activity for teachers?

Elder offspring: Nope.

Dr. Free-Ride: How have you come to that belief?

Elder offspring: Because you don’t like it.

Dr. Free-Ride: That’s true. But I maybe have more of it than your teachers. That might have something to do with it.

Elder offspring: Maybe.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you get feedback from your teacher in other ways than what’s written on the papers that are returned?

Elder offspring: I don’t remember.

Dr. Free-Ride: Does your teacher actually tell you stuff — give you advice on how to do better?

Elder offspring: Yes, she does, sometimes.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you ever ask about how to do better?

Elder offspring: Nope.

Dr. Free-Ride: Why not?

Elder offspring: Because I already do very well.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, but you don’t always do perfectly.

Elder offspring: I learned negative exponents today in the car with [Dr. Free-Ride's better half]! In twenty minutes!

Dr. Free-Ride: Sure, fine, knowing negative exponents is kind of useful —

Elder offspring: What do you mean “kind of”?

Dr. Free-Ride: — but do you know how to complete a square?

Elder offspring: Yeah, you start with one line, and just add three more to it.

Dr. Free-Ride: Uh, no.

Elder offspring: What does completing a square mean?

Dr. Free-Ride: We’ll talk about that, but first I have to get through some grading.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Munger
    May 14, 2010

    Janet,

    Have you had similar conversations with your own students? What do they say?

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    May 14, 2010

    The students who I’ve talked to about it seem to appreciate comments that are aimed at helping them understand the material better (not just justifying the grade). And I’ve actually mentioned to my classes that conceptual issues in papers where I have to write essentially the same comment on lots of students’ papers are things I will turn around and put on midterms on finals — to close the loop and make sure that after the reading, and the paper writing, and my lectures, and the comments on the papers, they really have gotten it.

    I have heard (but have not collected data to substantiate it) that I give more comments (and more useful comments) than most of the professors my students have encountered.

    On the other hand, I have good reason to believe that some of my students do not read the comments I’ve written. Especially the students who never bother to pick up the marked papers (and aren’t in class when I hand them back).

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    May 14, 2010

    I’ve seen some research suggesting that very few students read/change their behavior in response to teacher comments. But the setting of the research may of course may be a very different situation from yours, where you’re also offering incentives for students to pay attention to your comments.

    I’ve actually had students comment in teacher evaluations (as some sort of revelation, or as if it was a knock on my teaching ability) that if you revise your work in accordance with my suggestions, then your grade will improve.

  4. #4 Despard
    May 14, 2010

    Lol at completing the square. :D

    It’s been a while since I had any assessed work. I kind of miss it. I don’t recall reading any comments and going “ah, that’s what was wrong with that, ok” though. I do remember writing comments like that when grading undergrad lab reports that I expected people to follow, however. C’est la vie.

  5. #5 maxh
    May 17, 2010

    To add my tuppence. When I was in High School and at the start of my degree course, I groaned when I saw comments. I just saw them as criticisms and more work for me. However, towards the middle of university I had a mental shift, and from then on, and through grad school I relied on comments from my papers like I rely on oxygen. I came to see them as useful and constructive, and I think my grades improved because of it. When I got a paper back with few comments I was always disappointed (even if it meant I had done well). My mother was a high school teacher and yes, she hating marking, but always gave constructive feedback. I didn’t appreciate at the time but I think it’s one of the most important things a teacher can do.

  6. #6 Jim Thomerson
    May 19, 2010

    Had a student in class who understood the material and made good comments during class. First test, I couldn’t read his answers to short (one sentence) essay questions. I commented, “You have a problem, Come see me.” He did, we talked a bit and I sent him to the office which helps out students. He went. Turns out he is reading at a 4th grade level. They set up a program for him, and his work steadily improved to an honest C by the end of the course. I saw him from time to time, and he would tell me of his progress. He made it up to college freshman reading level, and graduated. Before he graduated, he looked me up and told me he had been two years in a junior college and two years at the university before he took my course. I was the first person to tell him he had a problem. He thanked me.

    He was a minority student, and that may have had something to do with why no one had told him he had a problem.

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