My Online Summer: Grading

Filing cabinets

[My Online Summer is a weekly series chronicling my first effort at teaching a class entirely online in our campus's LMS. Read previous installments here.]

Most of the early adjustments to teaching online ranged from disconcerting to irritating to anxious. But this week, I wanted to mention one thing that has been infinitely better in an all-online course: grading. It has been much easier for me to grade the work of online students than those from a conventional class.

This is a purely psychological thing, rather than a technical or pedagogical one. The students are generally doing the same kinds of assignments, since my face-to-face classes do most of their work online, and the work is of comparable quality. And yet, I spend significantly less time pounding my head into the desk with the online class.

When I’m grading in a face-to-face class, all manner of thoughts disrupt my grading flow. For example, I’ll be frustrated that several people missed a basic point that we went over in detail during class. Rather than focusing on the papers, I’ll start re-hashing the class activity when we covered the point. (There is a small chance that I’m not right.) Or I’ll remember that, during said activity, the student wasn’t paying attention, or was absent, or whatever. Or I’ll start revisiting things I should’ve said more clearly that might’ve made a difference. (Because it’s all about me, right? Knowing that’s not true, and yet still being consumed by self-recrimination, is my usual mental state during grading binges.) Lots of times I’ll find myself torn between my sense of how the student’s doing in class (from participation and other cues) and the quality of the work submitted. All of those things make grading far more stressful and time-consuming than it need be. Plus, after papers go back, there’s often a slight change in the classroom environment.

In the online environment–none of that is true. Because I don’t have *any* connection with these students beyond the work they’ve submitted, it’s harder to get distracted by connected, but ultimately irrelevant, memories or thoughts. Likewise, rather than replaying whole events in my head, I can just link to information or instructions the student missed, add a short gloss clarifying the point, and move on. It’s much more tolerable. And while at first I thought that this was a sign of lack of engagement on my part, or some such, I now believe that it is the reverse: greater engagement with the work itself, and less focus on extraneous mental static.

I used to teach in a program that featured end-of-semester portfolio review, where everyone teaching in the program had to review the portfolios of students from a certain number of sections taught by others. Portfolio review thus also features impersonal grading, since the students are from other classes. To me, that setup encouraged a certain lack of engagement: Not only did I not know the students, but it was at the end of the semester, there was no context for the papers–it was, on the whole, not fun. This summer’s experience has not been the same. (Knowing the assignments probably contributes the most to this.)

Now, I do feel that there’s more pressure to signal through my rubrics and comments and so forth the reasons underpinning a particular grade, because students who don’t know me will have no particular reason to think that I am being fair or careful, or that I’ve understood their point fully.

And if grading in the LMS isn’t always a teacher’s paradise–I frequently forget to have even things that are automatically graded populate the students’ gradebook–it is, on balance a relatively convenient process. (The virtue of a straitjacket: Everything is in one place!)

In your experience, how does the work of grading virtual students compare to face to face classes? Let us know in comments!

Photo by Flickr user BinaryApe / Creative Commons licensed

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