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Grading and Commenting on Student Work

Evaluating student work is one of the most intellectually demanding responsibilities in teaching.From an instructor’s perspective, goals for grading and commenting on student work include efficiency, accuracy, fairness, and effective communication, each one of which can be challenging to achieve.

The value of scoring guides

Written scoring guides, or rubrics, are highly effective tools for evaluating student work,especially papers, lab reports, exams, problem sets, speeches, and designs. Scoring guides keep you fair and on track, they help you to make efficient use of your time, and they are an excellent means of communication with students. Up front time spent developing detailed and fair scoring guides will save significant time later when you are under stress to meet deadlines for returning student work. Scoring guides also help to prevent grade disputes and to focus discussion on the quality of work. If you are a member of a group of GAs who are teaching labor discussion sections for a large lecture course, scoring guides are invaluable tools for ensuring fairness and uniformity across sections. A simple scoring guide consists of describing “A” or high quality work for a test or assignment. A more detailed guide will describe differing qualities: “A” versus “C,” for example or “Excellent”,“Fair”, and “Poor.” An analytical scoring guide establishes number of points or grades for a variety of categories, such as content,organization, and writing style with an accompanying description of how to achieve the full number of points for each category. For grading problem sets, a scoring guide helps you to be consistent with how you grant or delete points.If you can create a scoring guide well in advance of the syllabus deadline for an assignment,distribute it to students and discuss it for a few minutes. If you are unable to create a scoring guide until the assignment is submitted, start the process of writing a scoring guide by scanning a few of the student submissions. A quick scan will give you insight into the range of qualities and will help you to describe in writing the levels of quality. When you return assignments with your scores or grades, give each student a copy of the scoring guide.

Providing feedback

Students deserve feedback on their work, and they will especially appreciate comments that help them to improve on drafts or on the next assignment. Feedback is most often given through writing, but many instructors are discovering the power of oral comments provided in an office visit or through electronic means, such as podcasting. One of the greatest challenges in providing feedback is time management. Devoting one hour to writing comments on a single student’s paper will not translate to an equivalent amount of learning for that student.
The following principles will help to maximize the benefits of providing comments for both instructor and students:
  • Before writing comments on any work (including quantitative problem sets), scan the entire piece and decide on two or three major points you will make in your comments.These points should relate to the intellectual and disciplinary purpose and content of the assignment. Scanning several submissions before you start is also a good idea.
  • Provide comments about what is strong in the piece of work and what could be changed for improvement. Avoid abbreviations and global comments that do not relate specifically to the student work. For example, avoid phrases like “awk,” “unclear,” “poor organization,” or even “good.”
  • Comment most often on ideas, use of evidence, logic, organization, and critical thinking.Resist the desire to aggressively edit grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. Editing is not an effective teaching technique, and it deflects communication from the intellectual content. You can maintain high standards for writing style without excessive editing.
  • If you have developed a scoring guide, use the vocabulary of the scoring guide in the comments you provide.

Learning from student work

After providing feedback on a set of student work, take the time (even 5 minutes) to summarize your perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the class performance in response to the assignment. Provide this summary to students orally or in writing. You will have discovered a significant amount about what students have learned because of the time you took to review and respond to their work. Take the opportunity to make small changes in the next assignment, create handouts, and/or sponsor some brief question and answer sessions in class about the next assignment or exam.

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