Do I have to grade everything?

Why a bit of auto-grading is helpful rather than harmful

Certainly it was overwhelming to bring home an intimidating stack of exam books or papers. But it isn’t any better online. In fact, a notification that there are 173 things to grade can make you want to close your laptop and walk away.

Learning Management Systems offer to grade things for us. Set up a quiz and students can get instant results. Count participation in a forum for three points automatically. Create one rubric for all the papers.

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As professors we hesitate. This seems like cheating. And it’s letting a machine do our job, the job of assessing student work. No computer, we know, can grade an essay or walk through a science or math problem. It requires expert knowledge. Our expert knowledge.

Those lucky enough to have Teaching Assistants can, with only a few pangs of conscience, leave the grading to them. But the rest of us, at community colleges and small universities, can’t dump the responsibility on someone else. And if we’re new to the online environment, between setting up classes online and answering endless queries, our grading can get sloppy. Or it gets done very late. Or both.

Automatic grading, we know, is antithetical to good teaching. Every student’s work deserves our time and attention. Studies show that individual feedback provides instructor presence and encourages a direct relationship with the student. They will care, we are told, if they know you care. And you care because you read each and every word.

At the same time, we strive for interesting and media-rich lectures, free or low-cost reading materials, meaningful online discussions, and speedy, friendly answers to student questions. It is simply not possible to do it all.

We’ve heard about ungrading, of course. Don’t grade anything; give feedback instead. Have them set up blogs and just do work. Or, if that’s too scary, implement contract grading. Here’s what the student has to do to get this grade. They agree to do it, and you agree to give the grade. This makes it possible to focus on the feedback and the relationship.

And that’s the point. For those of us who believe that grading is necessary at some level, that we must rank work in order for education to be meaningful, we need the time for the feedback and the relationship. Grading robs us of this focus, especially online. We grade all the time, and when we finish we’re too exhausted to do anything else.

The instructor’s pedagogy should determine where individual feedback is most useful to the student. If they are engaged in factual retention, grading can be automatic — the answer is right or wrong. They memorized it, or looked it up, or they didn’t. If most of the focus is on constructivism, creating and sharing, we can give set points for doing it, without the need to assess at a granular level. If the students are writing extensively or solving complex multi-step problems or creating legal briefs, individual feedback is needed and we want to have time for that, with or without a set grade.

So no, we don’t have to grade everything ourselves. Taking advantage of the Learning Management System’s ability to give points automatically does not mean we are shirking. Rather it means that we are willing to have the machine do that which is best done by machine, leaving time for us to engage the teaching aspect of our job.

Also posted in Medium