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A Paper about how I Hate Grading Papers

jrlewis's picture

This paper unfolds as a ribbon rolling off a reel...

ribbon role

I love being a teaching assistant, but I hate grading! The monotony of comparing minute differences in framing answers to the same questions is almost unbearable.  Trying to remember the best response is an exercise in tediousness, overwhelming repetition.  It is a task I dread every week. 

The first twist of the ribbon was…

twisted ribbon 2

So naturally, I was intrigued by the concept of students blogging their thoughts for an assignment.  In the student blogs I was anticipating more interesting writing, actual thoughts, maybe a little creativity.  In a majority of cases the resulting student blogs didn’t correspond to my expectations of the assignment.  The prompt supplied to the students act as a cattle shoot directing their thoughts in a narrow exploration of a single topic.  It appeared that most students interpreted the prompt as a question to be answered and not a source of inspiration for their writing. The purpose of student writing assignments is not a regurgitation of the material the teacher feed to the class.  It is to continue a conversation started in class and reading assignments.  While the teacher may initiate the conversation, it is the student’s responsibility to extend it. The issues raised by grading blogs are applicable to the more general problem of grading open-ended student writing assignments. 

Curling the fabric…

ribbon twist 5

However, a week later, I was faced with a fundamental problem.  How would I grade the 24 student blogs in my section?  How would the teaching assistants of other sections grade their studentsWhat sort of writing went into a good blog?  Were errors of grammar, spelling, and mastery of technical terminology worth docking points for?  What about beautifully crafted postings that appeared only tangentially related to the topic of discussion?  What were the criteria for assigning an “A”?

A turn of the ribbon…

ribbon rose

In the case of blackboard and introductory biology only members of the course can read comments and only the students can read evaluations.  There are layers of privacy.  Serendip operates significantly differently; the content of the blogs and comments are available to anyone on the web free of charge.  Anyone with Internet access can comment on the blogs.  So the course blogs on Serendip are more similar to other blogs on the Internet such as Myspace and LiveJournal.  In some courses, the students do not receive a numerical grade for their blog entries.  In other courses, the students are sent emails with grades and relevant criticism.

Another twist…

ribbon twist 3

While grading blogs is an unfamiliar territory, writing blogs for course assignments is fairly familiar to me.  My introduction to blogs in higher education came two years ago, in a course with the option to post our thoughts about the discussion on Serendip.  The following summer, I was required to maintain a blog on Serendip as a part of my experience as an intern at Bryn Mawr College’s Summer Science Institute for K-12 Teachers.  The result was numerous posting over the summer about my thoughts on science, education, philosophy, and teaching.  It wasn’t until last year that my blog postings were graded by a professor as part of my work for a course.  The course webpage provided open-ended guidelines for grading.  Since then, I have taken four more courses with a blogging component.  I am currently enrolled in two courses with a blogging component that contributes to my final grades.  Over the years, I have become comfortable creating entries about relevant topics and expressing my conclusions as webpapers. 

Lovely loops…

more ribbons

An important theme of our course discussions is the relationship between identity and authorship.  As the author of this blog entry, I am taking responsibility for outing myself.  I am exploring the use of blogs in academia by means of a paper, submitted as a blog entry for a college course.  I am writing a blog about my questions about blogging?  Is this too circular to be useful? 

Weaving a braid…


In this entry/paper, I will be dealing with the difference between reading, responding, and grading blogs.  The twist is that two fellow student bloggers are also enrolled in a course where I am a teaching assistant.  Possibly there is a conflict of interests on my part and a special interest/inside understanding on their part.  What shall we do with that?  (Seriously, you know who you are, so please comment!)

Creating coils…

twisted circular

Ultimately, I think that the best blog postings are those that surprise me; when the author forces me to see something in a new way.   They might do this by introducing new information about a topic familiar to me.  They could connect to superficially unlike ideas to uncover significant similarities creating a metaphor.  For example describing the evolutionary biology concept of fitness in terms of purchasing clothing.  A student explained that species variation was like different colors of the same shirt.  Under various fashion trends, read selection pressures, different colors would be more popular.  The fashion trends represent the environment and the choice of purchase is natural selection.  Alternatively, they may offer a different admissible interpretation of a phenomenon.  Any of these strategies will evoke new thoughts in my mind.  They will teach me something.  There is a bidirectional exchange of observations and summaries of observations between students and teachers.  Both parties in the educational relationship are learning and teaching. 

Untying a bow…

satin bow

As much as I would like to assign grades to the student blogs based on my own taste, I cannot.  Making my preferences the primary concern of my students would only teach them how to please me.  They would learn to interpret, to read me, my thoughts instead of creating their own impressions of the course material.  Their intellectual work would become a mirror of my own, instead something new.  The students would learn about me instead of the material.  These problems raise the question of what grading criteria might help students generate their own thoughts about the material.

Simple biological ribbons…

protein ribbon

Reflecting upon my favorite assignment blogs, I realized that the best blogs were the one containing original thoughts by the students.  By original thoughts, I mean concepts not discussed in class lecture.  A student post that completely ignored the prompt and considered instead the relationship between weather patterns and rapid evolutionary changes in a species.  It was a great attempt at applying the course readings about evolution to a specific ecosystem.  The student had pursued an investigation of the topic of evolution in the direction that was most appealing to her.  The student’s own interests guided her inquiry.  What is most significant is that the students teach themselves, surprise themselves!

Complex biological ribbons…

protein ribbon 2

The genre of blogging is exceptional because it deemphasizes the relationship between the student and teacher.  There is a diversity of thought and response available to the student author because their work is published.  Blogs allow other students at least and other members of the human species at best to comment on a student’s post.  The quantity and quality of the comments provides the student author with a way to evaluate their work that is independent of their teacher. 

When the twisted tangled ribbon is shaken out…


The fabric of education is found to be a moebius strip; it only has one surface.  There is only one trajectory: student learning.  The appearance of a bidirectional exchange between a student and a teacher is an optical illusion.  There are no teachers; everyone in a class is a student because everyone is learning from one another.  What is significant is how the student’s stories change and grow throughout the course.  This is something of which the teacher has a partial and therefore imperfect understanding.  The only person truly capable of evaluating the student’s complete experience in a course is the student.  Or, to return to the metaphor, there is only one surface of the ribbon. 

Image Sources (in order of appearance)


Jessica Watkins's picture

Part of the Ribbon

As one of your "gradees" I really appreciated the honesty of this piece.  You were completely open about your thoughts, and you broadcast these opinions and ideas on a public platform where there is nowhere to hide.  At the same time you brought up many a great point about the frustrations of not being able to grade assignments "to your taste."  Does it feel particularly uncomfortable to be a student in a liberal arts college who is supposed to be exploring the world and forming her own unique opinions, while at the same time being forced to fit into the mold of your position as a grader under rigid guidelines?  Instead of enriching what is supposed to be an open college experience, is grading "cramping your style" and placing you into a box in which you simply don't fit? 

However, you do say that your job helps to enrich the learning of your students by encouraging them to write for an audience broader than yourself, something that is noble in its own right.  For example, this paper is already helping me because I now know that I am not under the pressure of trying to please my TA in my assignment blog.  Your candor has made me feel more comfortable and put us both on the same level as "students" in a classroom where there are no teachers.  I must learn to let myself go (to a certain extent) when posting online, and you must learn how to respond to work that is not written to your taste, but is interesting and gradeworthy all the same.

I really liked your ribbon metaphor, as well. Great pictures, great paper, and great thinking.

Anne Dalke's picture

Designing a Cattle Chute

First, of course: such a lovely ribbon of unspooling images, to evoke your untangling thought process; thanks for that (though I also acknowledge how hard this platform is to work w/ --that you couldn't control the placement of the images as much as you'd like).

Your paper begins (after the first set of spools) in media res--"I was intrigued by the concept of students blogging." It would be helpful for any reader dropping into this conversation to have it located, early on; i.e. as an introductory bio class @ Bryn Mawr, where Blackboard (what's that?) is the platform for student blogs. The logic motivating that choice of platform rather than (say) Serendip, and how they differ. Then, w/in that context, describe your sequence of experiences....

I guess what I'm saying is that I (and I expect the rest of your readers) need a little bit more of that "cattle chute" you so lament in the student work you are evaluating. I was actually particularly struck by that image because it evokes Temple Grandin's work in designing cattle chutes, design work which is enabled by her autism, her ability to "think in pictures," to "think like animals," and so envision spaces which will be calming for them as they go to slaughter. Having some guidance, some framing, can be similarly helpful for students and readers too, as we try to move towards difficult things (not only dying!).

So, I'm going to try and make a "cattle chute" our of your tangled ribbons.

What I'm hearing here is your moving through a series of claims,
each one replacing the one before:

* it's frustrating to grade student blogs;
* you are trying to figure out how to do this;
* you recognize that the best blog postings are those that surprise you;
* but making your preferences the basis of grading would only teach your students how to please you;
* instead, students must learn to evaluate their own work.

* One new aid in that process is publishing student work on-line, where
* comments provide the author with evaluations by others, independent of the teacher's;
* which will de-emphasize the relationship between the student and teacher,
* expose the bidirectional exchange between student and teacher as an optical illusion;
* and teach students to teach themselves, to surprise themselves!

I think laying it out this way may expose a  problem in this sequence, though? Mightn't the presence of multiple readers (and a range of commenters) result rather in a student who tries to write to a larger audience, to please them all? Mightn't a student thereby become increasingly self-conscious about the reaction her work may provoke? I'm thinking now of our to-me-very-sobering conversation w/ Tim Burke last week: his story of all his own self-editing, in response to his readers. Or the multiple testimonies, by your senior classmates, to their own self-editing, in anticipation of review by future employers. Aren't those compelling counter-accounts of what may happen when our public work evokes a (potential) range of responses?

I'm also curious to hear a little more about your own experience of blogging as a student: you say you've become increasingly "comfortable" with the process, but you don't speak directly to the topic of this paper, which is how an awareness of audience may have affected your own on-line work.

I would also say that in "exploring the use of blogs in academia by means of a paper, submitted as a blog entry for a college course.... writing a blog about my questions about blogging" is not circular, but layered, very "meta." And my question back, to that series of questions, would be of what particular use value might it be to you (or your readers) to have you blog about your experience of grading the blogs of other students: What difference might it make to talk about these questions in public? (You do directly invite some of the student bloggers in the bio course to comment; I hope, along w/ you, that they will; certainly one useful outcome of offering this public forum would be to garner a range of perspectives on this process....)

N.B.: I disagree strongly w/ your saying that "there are no teachers; everyone in a class is a student"; I'd say we are all student-teachers, teaching and learning from one another.