More grade cynicism and picking nits

It’s the third day of class, and I’ve already had three emails from students questioning the “correct” answer on a quiz.

A practice quiz, in the first week, not one that counts for points.

One of the emails didn’t even address me or greet me, but just asked why their answer was wrong and made a whole argument without so much as a hello. As if I were a computer.

Perhaps multiple choice quizzes look like they are written by computer, but these are my quizzes, written by me based on my lecture.

It’s not that the students’ arguments were necessarily wrong. Usually complaints about quiz marking are 50% correct – if I’d written the question slightly differently, they would have gotten it right. 50% are just wrong, which is fine.

I change their grade if they make a good argument. I change the quiz question for next term if it was unclear. But it seems I’m now continually editing quiz questions to try to make them perfect, and of course when it gets to the point where students are arguing about ungraded quizzes, I really have to wonder.

Is this how I want to spend my time? Is this how I want them spending their time? I just want them to think about the lecture or readings, and show me somehow that they have. And since I can’t engage in a one-on-one tutorial discussion about it to make sure, and because I want them to have some immediate personal feedback, I wrote all these quizzes.

Understand, I don’t mind them questioning my quiz questions – it’s cool that they’re engaged and I’m not that insecure. But if they do that instead of questioning my perspective or developing their own, what are we doing?

One thing we’re doing is encouraging the idea that I am a computer rather than a person. I felt obligated to remind the first student who wrote that I was a person, so I’d appreciate being greeted. He wrote back that in future his emails would contain a greeting. That email didn’t have a greeting either.

We’re nit-picking, both quiz questions and manners, and missing the larger issues entirely.

7 comments to More grade cynicism and picking nits

  • Lisa, I can totally relate to this! I use quizzes for reading comprehension in my class. They are just true-false/MC quizzes not meant to test for anything deep. So, if someone did the reading while awake, they should have no problem with the quizzes at all; if they take notes while reading they will certainly have no problem (consulting notes during the quiz is highly encouraged).

    The quiz is not a big component of the grade; it is really just for the student to be sure that they were not asleep when they did the reading. They can retake the quizzes multiple times if needed – re-read, consult notes, take again. Their average score is recorded in the Gradebook but it is not a big part of the grade at all in terms of overall points. Because they can retake the quizzes (randomized questions), I do not release correct answers or tell them which questions were right/wrong – they just see the overall score.

    I urge them both to aspire to 80% AND to be satisfied with 80%, since many students have this Pavlovian response to quizzes, wanting to get 100%. So, I have to really work on explaining the purpose of the quizzes (their only importance is to make sure students are ready to go on to the writing assignment, which IS important – quiz is NOT important; writing IS important) and also to reassure them that the points difference between 80% and 100% on a quiz worth 2 points (i.e. 0.4 points on a scale where 410 points gets you an A) is not going to derail their GPA.

    Anyway, by taking the focus OFF individual questions to focus on the total score instead, and by having the total score GOAL be 80%, I usually get the students to set aside the kinds of behaviors you write about in your blog post. I’ve definitely had to work on all my communication about the quizzes over the years in order to get the students to relax about them. But really, it might help if I used a word other than QUIZ. Perhaps I should call them Glifoos. If I called them Glifoos, explained their meaning and purpose, then maybe I would not have to work so hard on getting students to shed their normal quiz habits and just go with the flow here! 🙂

    • Laura, I admire your approach, and I’m glad it’s working. If we’re going to go this far, with feedback only instead of grades (we used to call this the Santa Cruz Solution, after UCSC which didn’t give grades at all), why have it worth any % at all? Should we go to what I’m doing in my last post (I’ve implemented it in my on-site class this semester) and have all work just be the work?

      Frankly, I don’t want to spend time explaining and re-explaining the 80% either, though I would be happy to develop some way to have them discuss my pedagogy. Your post reminded me I intended to do that…. thanks!

      • The problem of course is that I do have to give grades, ha ha. So this is for me the path of least grade resistance, where the grades interfere as little as possible with actual learning! And since students are so used to focusing on grades and not on learning, it sure does take a lot of tugging to redirect their attention. But it’s worth it, I think. Although I keep trying to think of a better solution… since I don’t think my school is getting rid of grades anytime soon! 🙂

        • I have to give one grade – the one at the end of the class. I don’t mind using the letters for comprehension along the way (as in, you seem to be getting a B so far) in response to a self-evaluation. But the point thing seems to encourage a focus on…well, points.

  • I would posit that yes, this IS how you should be spending your time. Continual improvement of our teaching materials is par for the course (pardon the pun). You have perfectly described a feedback loop. Students who question your quiz grade are doing something excellent. They are thinking critically. Yes, students can be argumentative, but that isn’t something we want to suppress it is something we want to encourage. It is hard to foster communication with students, it is easy to stifle. Engaging them in these moments makes for excellence in teaching. You honor them by listening and responding and reward them for finding flaws in your course by changing them if appropriate. Your future students benefit. You benefit. Your current students benefit. Discouraging students from engaging with an instructor because it is a nuisance to be bothered is sort of like a cashier being annoyed because a customer asked them to double check the price of something. Does it hold things up a bit? Yes. Do we want to find a way to get them to stop doing it? NO Unless that way is to make your class perfect. Good luck with that. 🙂

    • Hi, Michelle. I definitely do NOT want to suppress their objections, concerns, critical thinking, or questions! But spending their time and mine on small questions of factual retention I don’t think is the best use of learning time.

  • Jean Proppe

    Thank you very much for your candid post Lisa. I have a similar issue with students who cannot bother to even greet their instructors with a simple salutation. I have resorted to stating that if I am sent blank subject matter emails or emails with no identification or salutation I will not open them or respond. This is ridiculous, but unfortunately necessary. If a student, let’s say her name is Lisa, does not even bother to identify herself (and I may have 6 or more Lisa’s in my courses) am I supposed to be a detective and scan all my rosters for every Lisa and hope I match up her email which is usually something like I am all for modelling behavior, but this type of maintenance does not feel much like teaching. I am hoping I don’t get the minutia arguments with my quizzes and exams, especially since they are taken from a huge bank of study questions that the students already have in the course.