5 Ways to Make End-of-Semester Grading More Enjoyable

I know I know. Enjoyment isn’t usually something we think we should be seeking about grading… Right? I had originally titled this post “how to make grading fun” but thought no one would take me seriously.

Let’s backtrack a minute. Don’t most of us do research about our field and sub-specialty because we value and enjoy it? Hopefully yes. Don’t most of us teach a particular subject because we care about it? Hopefully yes. The next logical step for me is that we should be able to enjoy assessing student work on the subject we so care about and enjoy studying and teaching. How do you make amateurs in your field produce work that you would enjoy reading/watching and evaluating?

Over time, I have found the following ways help make grading more enjoyable for me personally and thought others might find them useful

A. Allow students freedom to choose topics they are passionate about (within reasonable bounds for your course). This allows for variety (so you don’t get bored) and gives space for students to do better because they are already interested in what they are doing. I have seen many professors do this – it can be as simple as asking students to answer 3 out of 5 exams questions, or as open-ended as letting them write their research paper about any topic under the sun. In my case, I ask students to develop educational games on any topic related to Egypt (the restrictions are “educational” and “about Egypt” but that’s still pretty broad; well I also tell them it should not test memorization, but that’s just a characteristic of a good educational game).

B. Allow students freedom in modes of expression (within reason – I recognize that a writing course final project probably can’t be a video and that a mechanical engineering final project can’t be a poem). Last semester I had a particularly musical group of students and I ended up listening to some really lovely music at midnight while grading their final projects (several of them had music in the background of those final project videos). I had to make a particular effort to ensure that those using my favorite songs did not bias me. It was a nice dilemma to have! I recognize it becomes more difficult to assess work that is of such different modes, but in reality, it’s also unfair to ask ALL students to constantly use the SAME mode, because it privileges some over others. By allowing freedom in modes of expression, I personally focus my grading on the message they eventually express rather than the mode, because what I’m really looking for is what they’ve learned, not how they’re expressing it.

(these first two, by the way, are similar to some of the principles for Universal Design for Learning)

C. Allow students to surprise and teach you. Where possible, sometimes giving less structure in general can be really gratifying. For a couple of semesters I have done an assignment where I ask students to find their own references for the big questions of the course, instead of asking them to reflect on references I provide for them. They are Egyptian freshmen who rarely have any background doing research and often are just learning about integrating sources, so they actually almost never come up with the best references. But every semester they impress me by what they learn and how they reflect on it. And every semester I learn something new from them and from what they find and how they reflect on it. I always have a backup plan of readings I would give them if they don’t find good enough resources. I’ve never needed to use it.

D. Have an end of semester assignment that encourages students to reflect on what they have learned, how the course could be better, and how they will transfer their learning going forward. This kind of reflection is both pedagogically valuable for students, and also informative for teachers. I often take lots of ideas for my next semester from the suggestions students give in their Liquefy the Syllabus assignment, for example.

E. Simplify your grading criteria. Sometimes spending a long time calculating how much a student can get based on a 5-point scale with 7 differently-weighted criteria is going to be too complicated to be helpful to anyone, even if the calculation is automatic. Looking deeply often shows that the numbering and choosing of these criteria can be arbitrary. I focus on letting students know what the most important things are for each assignment/project and what is exceptional, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory. More on this approach by Peter Elbow.

How do you make grading more enjoyable for yourself? Tell us in the comments

flickr photo by katerha shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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