TITLE: All Is Done But the Grading AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 21, 2009 7:37 AM DESC: ----- BODY: The semester is over. All that remains for us professors is to grade final exams and turn in course grades. All that remains for some students is waiting anxiously for those grades to hit the record -- or ask for e-mail notice as soon as the grade is computed. Writing the software engineering final exam reminded me how much my ideas about exam-giving have changed over my many years as a teacher. Consider this passage from Lewis Carroll's Alice:
'Give your evidence,' said the King; 'and don't be nervous, or I'll have you executed on the spot.'
Students often feel like the person hearing the king's command. I think back in the old days I secretly felt like the king, and thought that was good. I don't feel that way any more. I still demand a lot, especially in my technical courses, but my mindset is less the king's and more Charles Colton's:
Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.
I am much more careful about the questions I ask on exams now. If I have any doubts about a question -- what it means, what students might take it to mean, how it relates to what we have done class -- I try to re-write it in some way. Students taking the exam are working under the constraints of time and nerves, so it's important that questions be as clear and as straightforward as possible. Surely I fail in this at times, but at least now I am aware of the problem and try to solve it. In my early years as a professor, I was probably a bit too cavalier. I figured that the grades would all work themselves out in the end. They always did, but I was forgetting about something else: the way students experienced the exams. Those feeling color how students feel about the course, and even the course's topic, along the way. I've also changed a bit in how I think about grades. I have never thought of myself as "giving" grades to students; I merely assigned the grades that students earned. But I was pretty well fixed in how I approached the earning of grades. Do the homework, do the assignments, take the tests -- earn the grade. I've always been willing to make course-level adjustments in a due date or in how I would grade an assignment, in response to what is happening with me and the students. I feel more flexible these days in making individual adjustments, too, though I can't point think of many specific examples to serve as evidence that my feeling is warranted. I do still have some quirks that set my grading apart from many of my colleague's. Assignments are due when they are due. (I've written about that before.) I do not prepare study guides for the class. (That seems like the students' job.) And I don't create gratuitous extra-credit work at the end of the term for students who simply didn't do the regularly-assigned work earlier in the semester. (That hardly seems fair to the students who did the work.) But my mentality is different. I have always tried to encourage and reassure students. Now I try to pay as much attention to the signals I send implicitly as to my explicit behavior. Again, I know I don't always succeed in this, but my students are probably better off when I'm trying than when I'm oblivious. -----