I spent last Friday grading for my five-week summer class. It took about nine hours*, which wasn’t that bad, considering that the main graded work consisted of papers.
I like making students write. It lets me see their thought processes, and helps me differentiate between the students who can repeat what they’ve heard and the students who think for themselves – something that I especially want to see from an upper-level gen ed class like this one. So I assign papers. But I usually end up regretting that later, and wish I could convince myself that multiple-choice exams were adequate for a class like this.
When I started out teaching, it took me a loooooong time to grade papers. I would read each paper once, and then put them aside for a bit, and then read them again, this time with a red pen in hand. And then I would start sorting them into stacks based on how good they were. And THEN I would finally decide what grades to assign. It wasn’t very efficient, and although I think it was fair within each class, the students may have had a difficult time figuring out exactly what I wanted.
About nine years ago, I was introduced to the concept of grading rubrics. The basic idea behind a rubric is to set up some kind of consistent grading scheme ahead of time, with grades or point values or something assigned to various aspects of the assignment. When I first started using them, the goal was to allow several faculty members to be consistent in grading their lab sections. But the rubrics we used were pretty complicated – there were long lists of things that we would give a few points to, and then we would add up all the points at the end. I found it hard to assign points to so many different things, and it was hard to make the assigned points agree with the grade I wanted to assign to the work.
My approach to rubrics has changed through time, mostly influenced by some of the examples I’ve gotten from people at SERC. For this set of papers, I only had two parts to my grading criteria: content, and style. (I separated them because I had learned that some students do critical thinking but haven’t mastered the use of spellcheck, and others write beautifully but don’t go very deep into the subject. I wanted to be able to acknowledge both combinations.) For each criterion, I described the typical characteristics of papers that would receive various grades. As an example, here is the rubric for grading the content of the final papers:
Content (both presentation and paper)
4……..Meets all content requirements**. Great explanations, and logical and well-defended arguments. Great analysis of past actions (or inactions) to mitigate hazards. (Equivalent grade: A)
3……..Meets most of content requirements. Good explanations and arguments. Good discussion of past attempts to mitigate hazards, but analysis could be better. (Equivalent grade: B)
2……..Some problems with content. Location not clear, hazard needs better explanation, discussion of past actions are incomplete, or logic is difficult to follow. (Equivalent grade: C)
1……..Major problems with content. Major factual errors or flaws in logic, or missing required content. (Equivalent grade: D
0……..Assignment not completed.
I based the rubric on past experiences with this assignment – I had a long list of expectations for the paper, and I knew which expectations were typically difficult to meet. In this case, I used numbers rather than letters to make it easier to combine the two grading criteria in unequal proportions (75% content and 25% style). For my writing class, which has only one set of criteria, I only use letter grades.
Probably the most useful thing about these rubrics for students was that they were in the syllabus (which was available online, if students lost their original). The rubric went beyond the description of the assignment to tell students how I valued the different things that I told them to do. And I found that, for the most part, students did what they were asked – more so than in previous years.
And for me? Well, as long as the rubric reflects my real expectations for the paper, it helps me assign grades quickly. I know the criteria, and as soon as I’ve read the paper once, I can tell where it lies on the scale. I don’t need to read all the papers, and then think about the grading criteria, and then read them again. I can forget what was in the first three papers I read when I’m on number 23, and I don’t need to worry that my grading is getting easier or harsher depending on how much caffeine I’ve ingested.
There are downsides to rubrics. The biggest one, for me, is when a paper does something unexpected. In many cases, the unexpected things are fantastic, and I can grade them accordingly. But sometimes papers are great in some ways but lacking something important. Rubrics can commit me to criteria that don’t fit every paper perfectly. So they’re difficult for new assignments. (I got around that problem for my first two papers, which were new assignments this year, by making the criteria fairly generic. That meant that I took longer to grade the papers – I read each one and made notes to myself about it, and then went back to the papers and decided how the papers fit my grading scale. But I didn’t read them all multiple times, at least.)
But for assignments that I have used many times before? Well, this year, at least, they kept me sane.
*That’s grading time for final papers. There were other papers earlier in the term.
**There was a separate page explaining the requirements for the assignment.