This question came up on the POD Listserv, so I’m posting my response here. Here’s my tips on how to make grading papers easier.
1. Set the theme for the semester paper but give the students lots of choice on how to answer it. Pick a theme that other instructors don’t use, so there are not a lot of opportunities for plagiarism. Let the students choose the lens to examine the theme, the evidence to use, and the opinion to take. This way you’ll have a lot of different papers to read at the end of the semester, not a stack of blue books all trying to remember what you told them. With any luck, you’ll actually learn things from your students. Think of them as your apprentice researchers.
2. Train them how to write. I give undergrads a 1,000 word journal to turn in every week on the readings, due Sunday night before class. This is not only a check on their reading, but also allows me to us JiTT to customize the class period using my knowledge of their understanding. It takes 2-3 weeks to train them so they believe you actually want at least 1,000 words. Give individual feedback only when truly needed. The rest of the time, give group feedback in class on spelling, grammar, and content mastery. Be sure to praise insightful or meaningful observations in the student papers.
3. Teach them what academic dishonesty is, and uphold your standards. Really, most know what it is but they’ve been doing it since the 5th grade and getting away with it, so they’re going to be shocked that you actually checked and held them to it. Hopefully they will learn, because they are out of my course on the second time. In 25 years of teaching, only one of my students has been suspended (but that was for two years, because he had done it in other classes as well).
4. Structure the assignment with appropriate scaffolding (Baby Bear style — not too much, not little, just right). For me, that is a topic sentence assignment first, then after approval of that, a first draft (1/3 size) with comments from me. Then a second draft (2/3 or more done) with peer revision. Students come to class, swap papers and mark them according to a rubric I hand out. That trains them on the rubric as well. I grade the second draft as “done” or “not done” but I also copy the marked rubrics before returning them, so I can predict next year what section of the rubric they will understand least. The final draft is turned in at the end of the semester, one week before student evaluations are handed out. Final exams are replaced by a week of reading each other’s papers, synthesizing and generalizing the results, and summarizing our work over the semester.
5. Only mark the papers that students want returned. For those papers, ask for a self-addressed stamped envelope (9×12″) so you can ship the paper to the student after grading.
I hope these work for you. A lot of this comes from my old professor, Robert Ferrell. The rest is largely in there because of all the Writing Centers I’ve worked with over the years. Thanks folks!
P.S. Nick Carbone just posted 10 Tips for Grading Writing with Less Stress and Frustration. If you are looking for advice on dealing with the emotional frustration of grading, take a look. He has some great suggestions in there!
I just finished reading (and grading) my students’ second drafts of their semester papers. In my response to them, I sorted the types of papers I had received into four types. Here are those four types, and my advice to my students, with appropriate musical accompaniment.
1. Cut & Paste: The person cut and pasted large sections of text verbatim from one source to the paper. This is plagiarism, which received a zero on the assignment and a report to the Vice-President of Academic Affairs. Ouch. To avoid this happening to you, read through Laura Plummer’s Plagiarism: What It is and How to Recognize and Avoid It.
Sloppy by Devo
2. Modern Machine: The person wrote their paper as they read from Wikipedia, copying the sentence structure but changing a few words in the sentence. Surprise! This close paraphrasing is plagiarism too, because it uses someone else’s ideas and appropriates them as one’s own. A lot of students do this these days, because the web makes it so easy. Some students will only do a bit of this, because of sloppy writing habits (i.e. writing their papers while reading from the source). It is a short cut, and means that someone did not take the time to work on their own composition. Please be aware that I could give a zero for the assignment as with paper type #1, but this time I only dropped the assignment a letter grade because the folks who were doing it had not done it throughout the whole paper. They had at least done some of their own composition.
Modern Machine by the Crowd
I know my concern with close paraphrasing is often a mystery for students, so let me explain. Close paraphrasing allows one to write a “paper” very quickly and with very little thought. Cut and paste, change a few words, and voilá, a composition is born. Unfortunately, this cuts out what we call “education.” If I all I wanted was the data, I could just go to the original site. If I wanted to learn about a topic, I would go out and do the research myself, which would usually include reading anywhere from twenty to seventy-five articles for one of our class discussions. I do that every week. The reason that we (your teachers) assign papers is so that you have an opportunity to learn how to analyze sources and decide how much to trust them, how to communicate with others so that others understand you as best you can, and how to frame your arguments either through logic or emotion so other people will listen to you and perhaps even agree with you. These are valuable skills. You cannot learn them by cutting and pasting from Wikipedia. You have to practice them, hopefully with a coach to help you improve. That coach is sometimes called a teacher.
There is also an ethical lesson here also. You are in school and that is a safe time to practice those skills. Even if you did paper #1 above, it was a mistake you made at a safe time, when the only repercussion was a reduced grade (as long as you didn’t do it again). Once you are out of college, you can be sued for putting forth someone else’s work as your own, particularly if you are successful and have money or position. Of course, it’s a lot like our discussion in class this week, which was “when should one break the law?” Answer: If you are most concerned with society’s needs, you don’t. If you are most concerned with your needs, then whenever you can get away with it. The more successful you are, the more people will be gunning for your job or be resentful of your position. With more people watching, your odds for getting away with it drop. More importantly, your influence drops when you are perceived as taking advantage. A leader or boss actually has to be perceived as helping others in order to inspire and motivate them to do what he/she wants them to do. Often a person will mess up just when they think they’ve got it made. They do something stupid and get caught. Bill Clinton is an example of that. To avoid this in your own life, make it a point of personal honor to be a hero and not a zero. Stop yourself from making that stupid mistake by making a habit out of helping others and doing the work. You’ll be a lot more successful when all of your work and planning finally get you to the position you’ve always wanted.
Ok, lecture over. You can tell this stuff is important to me, so please don’t do it, at least in my class. As I’ve said, it takes time to document and I’d rather spend that time with my family. On to the next type of paper…
3. Short and Sweet: The person has done their research, then closed their notes and the web and written their own composition. So far, so good. It reads well, and more importantly, I can tell it is their own work. It sounds like them. But the person has only done half the work that the rest of the class has done, and the essay is half the length it should be. Can anyone guess which essays will be receiving the most praise? Not this one, even though it was good solid work. This is easy to fix. Next time, write a long enough essay. And if this is the sort of work that you enjoy, you might consider a field where technical writing is the preferred mode. You’ll be good at it.
4. Solid Potato Salad: The person has done their research, used sources that are reliable and as authoritative as possible, and has then closed their notes and the web and waited a few hours before writing their own composition, synthesizing their thoughts and creating a personal interpretation of the facts, presented in their own words. This took them longer, but along the way their neural networks had time to build new nodes, connect the new data to old, and increase the number of connections in their brain to form a new understanding and provide more nodes for future assignments and tasks to build on. Yay! The paper they write may vary in quality and may not be an “A” yet, but if the person keeps this up, it will be there someday. Certainly their teacher is a lot happier when grading their paper, and that’s got to help! More importantly, this person learned a lot, and even got better at learning this sort of thing. There may even be some positive transfer to other skills.
Solid Potato Salad by Ella Mae Morse
For those of who haven’t seen this 1991 lecture, watch it. It’s worth it. I’ve included it below to make that easy. The gist is the difference between open (creative, playful) and closed (productive, anxious) mode. Here’s his main points:
1. One needs space to become playful.
2. That space needs to be yours for a specific period of time. He cites Huizinga who thinks that play has a definite start and stop. I don’t agree with this point. I used to assign George Eisen’s Children and Play in the Holocaust (1988), who followed Huizinga’s thoughts as well, and therefore argued that when a child in a Nazi death camp bounced their ball into the gas chamber, it couldn’t be play. The problem with this is that children can play and that it is not limited by time. So I think one can be playful much of the time. As Cleese points out, however, doing so will reduce one’s productivity.
3. Take as much time as you need, and tolerate the discomfort of taking time to ponder all the options (and probably driving your boss mad with anxiety as you await, Buddha-like, the approach of your deadline).
4. One needs confidence, full confidence, and no fear of making a mistake.
5. Humor makes us playful, and will get us from the closed mode to the open mode as fast as possible. Humor can be serious, it can’t be solemn.
He talks about all of this more at:
Here he explains that his idea of an oasis of creativity is related to his writing on Fawlty Towers, where a disruption of his writing time would take a good deal of recovery time. For my money, what he is getting at is cognitive load. He is saying that one needs to focus one’s time to create a meditative moment.
Walter Tschinkel is an expert on ants, and has done some fascinating alumnimum casts of ant colonies. After encountering photos like this one, I searched for his articles on the topic, which I found equally enjoyable. Along the way, I also encountered an editorial he had written for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Entitled Just Scoring Points, it offers an imperfect analogy at best. It compares the behavior of American college students to athletes, in that they peak performance just before a game (or exam) and throughout their college career they acquire points (grades), rather than the knowledge they should have gained. It is an imperfect analogy because athletes train all the time, while the students Tschinkel decries study just before the exam and rely on short-term memory to get them through. Of course they are not learning — the knowledge never gets into long-term memory. The students’ grades are points in a game, not in a career of sporting achievement.
Though I disagree with the analogy, I do agree with Tschinkel’s sentiment. College students currently “win” (at least in one sense) if they get enough points to graduate cum laude. One of the best students I knew flunked out in his second year, because he was trying to understand calculus and was not willing to accept the proofs at face value but instead wanted to puzzle through them himself. His learning was lifelong and deep, but he never got his college degree. That’s the sort of person that Tschinkel wants to develop.
To develop such learners, Tschinkel says colleges should replace the large introductory lectures like the 250 student ones he taught. Tschinkel says that one must replace multiple choice exams with essay exams, again a function of scale in the classroom. Rather like Michaelsen’s TBL, Tschinkel aims to make the large lecture seem smaller. “Of course,” writes Tschinkel, “I cover less material than I would in a traditional lecture.” For the most part, though that is a more effective means of education, it is not the direction that higher education is going. Small schools continue to disappear and larger schools continue to get even larger. The current interest in Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) demonstrates this, because the courses are not effective in teaching, but they are probably effective as recruiting tools for colleges with strong brand value.
Finally, Tschinkel says that the curriculum should be progressive and build upon preceding courses so that students learn through repeated practice. And in this effort, we can look the current emphasis on general education competencies is helpful, because they allow curricular mapping of the kind Tschinkel wants. Each course becomes a sort of Lego building blocks, where the connectors are those competencies reinforced in each class. Of course, competencies are rooted in the disciplines, as “critical thinking” demonstrates. Everyone claims to teach critical thinking but really what they teach is much more often cognitive skills tied to their discipline, not the specific skill of analytic reading of texts that defined critical thinking in the 1940s when it made its appearance. Specialization in education allows cognitive competencies (and affective and psychomotor ones) to be more similarly defined between classes and thus for the learning in those classes to have greater transfer. Tschinkel wants both horizontal integration between disciplines (which he names as integration) and vertical integration in the progressive accumulation of skills, values, and knowledge, but he does not talk about the research on expertise as much as he should.
In the end then, Tschinkel’s essay is not terribly useful. He has his heart in the right place, but only acts on it at the end of his career. This is much too familiar a story. Like many faculty in higher education, he is a researcher, and a brilliant one. But his performance as an educator was limited by the system, and he perpetuated that system for most of his career. When I worked in large research institutions, I met far too many instructors like that, who decided to learn about teaching after doing it for twenty years and then realizing their time in the classroom could have been spent much more effectively.
I hate to leave this post on such a depressing note, so let me point you to the Kickstarter project on Slime Molds: An Illustrated Guide by Angela Mele. Prof. Tschinkel is at least to be congratulated at inspiring students like Angela.
There’s a number of team-based learning (TBL) methods out there, but the one that I use most was developed by Larry Michaelsen at the University of Oklahoma starting back in the 1970s. The basic ideas is that students are first assessed on their individual mastery of the topic, and then are put into groups and then assessed as a group, giving them time to discuss the topic and improve their understanding by social interaction with their peers.
You can see this method in its first form in this 1980 article by Dee Fink & Larry Michaelsen. Today you can find a great deal of information on it. Larry’s primary site is teambasedlearning.org but there’s articles about the method at the University of Central Missouri and elsewhere. There’s quite a few videos out there on the topic. The longest and most thorough is Michael Sweet’s 2012 workshop at Florida International University, available in Part 1 and Part 2. A number of universities describe their use of the system, including University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Duke University and Bradford School of Pharmacy. The Bradford School’s video is subtitled for ADA compliance, so if that is important to you, start there. Another video with Michael Sweet is much shorter, and produced by the Science Faculty Collaborative in Texas. Production value is not as high, but the link between TBL and social constructivism is emphasized, which may be useful to some instructors. Also valuable is an explanation of team-building in class by Larry Michaelsen himself. In fact, I like that clip so much that I’m going to embed it below:
That one is from Larry’s group, and there are several more videos at their YouTube channel, teambasedlearning.
When I was a kid, the oldest and most tattered of my comic books was Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. Here’s a photo of Tom and his fellow cadets at Space Academy, with an inspirational message to study together and help each other learn. It is from the Aug.-Oct. issue, 1952.
Purdue University’s IT group offers a software called Course Signals. It is essentially an early warning system for students regarding their status in the course. It uses the grades a student has gotten so far, how busy they have been in the Course Management Software (Purdue uses Blackboard) and past performance. Past performance is defined by the instructor, who sets low, medium and high risk criteria. The instructor runs Course Signals when he/she thinks it is a good time to do so — the student can’t run it when they want. The system seems to work. If the instructor uses the method, first year retention is about 15% higher, and the graduation rate is almost 20% higher. The stats are posted at http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/files/2013/09/Purdue-Graduation-Rates-Signals.pdf What this means essentially is that either some students can properly monitor how well they are doing, or they need a heads-up, which might also mean that someone actually shows they care about their performance. I don’t have the software, but what I’ll be doing as a result is checking students 3 weeks into the 15 week semester, and at 6 weeks into the semester, and pulling them into the office to talk about their performance and give them a pep talk if there’s a issue. If you want to learn more about the software, there’s an article in the Chronicle about it. There’s also an explanation on Youtube: