Satisficing & grading

I’m slow with the grading.  Some of it is garden-variety procrastination; some of it is bad planning (assignments for different classes coming in at the same time); some of it is overcommitments elsewhere; some of it is figuring out the assignment design before figuring out how the grading will work.  But a big part of it is overcommenting.  On most papers, I give three different kinds of feedback: a rubric score, interlineal comments (now delivered, in most cases, via track changes), and a terminal comment.

On the one hand, intellectually I know perfectly well that this isn’t necessarily helpful.  On the other hand, when I was a student I felt very strongly that comments = professorial love and engagement, so it’s hard for me to let that go.  Beyond that, the biggest problem with a lot of student writing is that it seems to have been produced with no thought of a reader.  It’s as if churning out material of a certain length is good enough, and so the plethora of comments is supposed to say, “Oi! Live reader here!)”

The track changes feature in Word actually makes matters worse in one way: If you change a formatting aspect of the paper (say, the margins), then it produces a comment about that for every single paragraph in a paper, so it looks like you’ve commented a lot.  But then it looks like all you’ve done is look at formatting, so I always make extra comments to convey that I read the paper carefully.

I also don’t think of comments as negative; often, I’ll use comments simply to suggest alternate lines of thought or stylistic possibilities.  (How else are the students going to get them?)

This really isn’t sustainable, however.

The other day, I re-discovered this word: satisfice, or to be happy with a good-enough solution, rather than one that is maximally optimal.  It reminded me that my current grading practice is a mostly failing attempt at maximizing the amount of possible feedback on any given assignment, which leads to two different counterproductive effects: it takes too long for me to grade, and students may well feel overwhelmed.  (Although very good students usually point to this overcommenting as the thing they like best about my teaching.)

What I need to do, then, is to develop a satisficing strategy: knowing where I’ve said enough to suggest opportunities for revision (and, to be candid, to justify the grade), but in such a way that it’s acceptably fast, light, and flexible.  Students who want more comments can always come in and talk to me anyway, right?

How do you know when enough’s enough?

(There’s always Ross’s solution . . . .)

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4 Responses to Satisficing & grading

  1. Brian says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head for how I work. Especially in my writing classes, I feel that it’s important to give very specific feedback as a way of helping the students learn how to improve their writing. But taking a half hour to grade a 6-page paper isn’t really working out that well.

    What’s even harder is when I notice that I’ve graded a certain swath of papers lower than another. I start to think: was I in a bad mood that day? Was it because I was in the beginning/middle/end of the grading for this assignment? Do I need to go back and re-examine the scores that I’ve given to make sure I’m fair? It’s a zero-sum game, most of the time.

  2. jww says:

    In one bout of standard exhaustion during a marathon grading last term, I pulled down George Gopen’s _Expectations_. It was one of those books I’d received for free and never really paid any attention to. I discovered that he had some good ideas about grading papers in a comp class, some that were highly practical and would, if applied as he describes, make the task of grading much faster, easier, and more beneficial than I had previously practiced. The down side, of course because there must be a down side, was that the technique he described was specific to the curriculum he was describing in his book.

    The real key to Gopen’s grading is to set the students up to expect (and to learn from) papers with minimal mark-up. I’m still trying to figure out how I’ll implement that in my own teaching, but there’s something in that.

  3. Mike Duvall says:

    Nice post. For years now I’ve had the same set of problems with my grading practices (stack of grad midterms staring at me right now and I’m staring back wondering if I’ll fall down an over-commenting hole).

    Here’s how I tried to cut down on comments from me: last semester I put students in groups (in honors comp, but i’ll try it in standard comp, too)and in 30 minute or so workshops we talked about each paper and the shared issues (which were many). I thought this worked. The honors students, just as full disclosure, appeared to think this was a scam, like I wasn’t really working in doing that… (they are *so* about authority, I think, that they don’t see how they might be getting something from each other and from their own experiences of reading student writing).

    Thanks, too, to JWW for the Gopen suggestion: just ordered it through state-wide inter-library loan system (which is threatened by state budget cuts, but that’s a different story).

  4. dance says:

    I binge grade, which makes me feel a lot more (probably falsely) confident about consistency across the essays, although it’s also a fairly nightmarish experience that involves missing sleep.

    It is possible to use Track Changes but tell it not to track formatting….(again, this is where scribbling wins—much easier to scribble about formatting). I don’t think you need to, myself—formatting *is* where I have several AutoTexts set up to explain the rules in the overall comments.

    I do a lot of underlining the important arguments and topic sentences, largely an easy way of saying “hey, look, I read and understand”.

    I also do a handout with shared issues and specific student examples (good and bad). So then I might extensively rewrite a paragraph or a few sentences from various paragraphs, but I don’t feel I have to do it for every paper. In fact, students probably see the lesson better on someone else’s work—I know I do.

    Mike, I also have honors students—I wonder, if you first have them do individual peer review seconded by your review, you can establish that their peers are right (because when I do that, my comments often consist of “I agree with everything your peer said. I’m adding this small thing”.) Doing that on the first assignment might set up your groups more strongly?

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