The Math Talk—Make Time for It, Often

With each passing day, the end of the academic term looms closer. And that means final grades will soon be due. That means that it is time for…the math talk.

Picture of white male, staring at laptop, head in handI’ve found that many students do not understand how their final grade will be calculated, no matter how I designed the grading scale. I tried it out of 100 points, or a percentage scale; one time I even tried having total 10,000 points. But I still would have many students who could not calculate their current standing in class nor what their likely final grade would be.

So if your students are like mine, it’s time to discuss final grades. Take some class time to show how the final grades will be calculated and how to calculate students’ current standing in the class. One tip though: don’t just choose as an example an “A” student’s point total. Show the math for a “C” student and what he or she might need to keep a final grade of “C” or to raise the grade to a “B.” Sometimes if you only use a strong student’s grade as your example, the students you most want to understand the math and do the calculations, might “tune out.”

I would write up a Word or PowerPoint version of this “grade calculation talk” and I’d send it to every student through the learning management system’s email. I also posted it as an LMS announcement and on our class’ Facebook page. I wanted to blanket all likely communication channels with this information.

I also offered to help any student who was struggling to understand the math involved in their current or possible final grade or who wanted me to “check” out their math. I held longer office hours for three weeks and made sure that I had food and drink for all students who visited. I also made sure that the graduate assistants and undergraduate peer tutor (while not having access to the online grades) knew how to calculate these statistics if students brought in their calculation attempts.

I tried to do this when there was still time for most students to make an impact on their final grade. For how I constructed the course timeline, that usually meant the week or two before the second test and the two weeks after it. That left about one third of the points still to come—plenty of time to change significantly most students’ grades.

weight-average-sum-formulaBut I want to share for a moment, my concerns about how many students could not calculate the basic mathematics needed to find where they stood in the class. Calculating percentages frustrated, even confounded students. There’s no point discussing why this kind of mathematics was beyond their skill level, or at least their comfort level—what matters is that many of my students struggled with this skill. What I came to understand is for many of my students, their grade in class was almost a magical pronouncement from on high (i.e., me!), and they didn’t really see how the number came into being. If I wanted them to more actively engage with earning a solid grade, I had to create opportunities for students to engage with this math, but in low-stakes, non-threatening ways.

After the second week of class (with about ten percent of the total points completed), I would sometimes hand out to groups of students a list of grades and ask each group to calculate where that student would stand in class right then. We went over the steps several times so that students had a sense of what points should be the numerator and which should be the denominator. I’d repeat this exercise a few times during the semester, until more students reported that they “got it.”

Unfortunately, in a class of over 300 students, too many students still did not understand well how to calculate their own grade. I tried to use the online “grade tracker” in our campus’ learning management system, but it confused students even more, because it would report percentages on each major type of assessment (tests, online quizzes, etc.) but would score any which had not been taken with a zero which counted, so their scores were artificially low. Many felt that there was “no way I can improve my grade” when they would look at it in the LMS.

I ended up creating an Excel spreadsheet that listed every assessment (e.g., tests, written assignments, every online quiz, every day’s “clicker” points, etc.). It listed the total points possible per assessment and then had a column where they could enter what they earned. It would calculate their current average for them. I also had a second tab where they could go and “play” with how improving on future assignments could change the grade, etc.

This did require the student to make the effort to enter her or his grades. I suggested doing it once a week (we’d usually have 4-6 grades per week), so that they had an accurate understanding of where they stood at the start of each week. Unfortunately, less than 50% of the class ever opened the file, and at the end of the term, unsurprisingly, use of the file correlated positively with the student’s final grade in the course.

I would still use the spreadsheet several times in class, in part because I wanted to keep reminding students that it existed in the LMS; I’d fill it with fictive grades and we’d calculate where a student was now and how the grade could change if scores improved or if the student could be more consistent about taking online quizzes, etc.

Given that my class was a part of a three-class learning community, faculty were required to use the early alert system, which would trigger an alert to housing staff (if the student lived on campus), the professional advisor for the student, the other faculty members in the learning community, and our campus’ academic success center (the tutoring center). While we had to use it, there was no requirement about how many times we had to use it. I found that updating it every Friday afternoon worked best for me; team members knew that was my pattern and we’d often talk on Monday morning about students. They became partners in helping to reach out to students who were in a difficult place—helping them to work through the math of the student’s situation but also to talk through what were good options, such as finding a study group, going to the student success center/tutoring center, coming to see me or the graduate assistants during office hours, or even deciding that the best solution might be to withdraw from one class for that semester. They even provided a sounding board for students who wanted to complain about me (I encouraged that—as a sociologist, I recognize that learning is a complex dynamic). These partnerships with professional staff and other faculty, meant that we could reach students early and often. The interventions were by and large successful—first year students in learning communities were retained at a higher rate than those not in learning communities.

Graphic; lots of stylistic books, people climbing up them; on top is a graduation cap and a person standing on top of itHaving the math talk is a necessary first step to help students understand how they are doing in class. But if your students are like mine, don’t think that having “the talk” once will be enough. You’ll need to offer opportunities for them to practice the mathematical skills involved and to think about their academic options based on what their mathematical standing is. Having these talks isn’t always easy—particularly if it shows that, for a particular student, there is no way to earn a passing grade. But good pedagogy requires students to have all the resources they need to succeed—and understanding their standing in the course is one of those resources. So readers, what do you do to help your students to understand their standing in the course?

And readers, how is AcWriMo going? Are you writing? Remember, you are not alone!

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.


Setting the Tone: Communicating with Your Soon-to be Students Before the First Day of Class

Partial image of stop watch, with text tha says "The Time Is " It’s nearly that time—fall classes will begin soon. So let’s think about ways to communicate with your soon-to-be students. I liked to reach out early, setting the tone for our class and how we’ll interact and challenge each other. So if you’re like me, what do you want to accomplish with this early communication? Here were some of my goals (what follows is primarily how I communicated with my first-year new-to-college Intro Soc students:

Black and white image of outline of human body; text says "Let me introduce myself"-Briefly introduced myself. I shared my full name, the 2 names I wanted them to use when talking or writing me, a bit of my background, and how I fell in love with Sociology.

-Location, day, and time our class met. I embedded a section of the campus map which highlighted the easiest route from the residence halls to the classroom, so that students understood the distance and time it would take them to get there. I did the same from the main parking lot for students who might live off campus.

-Class requirements. I listed the full name and edition of the text and which text modalities they could use (i.e., e-book only, hardback only, e-book and hardback, or buying it in a spiral notebook). I shared the pro’s and con’s of each modality (e.g., price, ease of highlighting/taking notes, etc.). I also shared that each student would need a “clicker”/audience response system (I talked briefly about what clickers were, including a link to my school’s webpage about clickers and the pedagogy that supports their use, especially in large classes such as mine, which had up to 350 students enrolled), that in most cases, a used one would be fine [though were more likely to need a new battery during the academic term with a used one]. I talked about my institution’s learning management system, and how one could log into the LMS once classes started. I talked about how I can struggle with new technology—and I promised that I, my graduate assistants, and our embedded undergraduate peer tutor would be here to help them master all the technology. In fact, I scheduled a “tech day” (the 2nd Tuesday of the term) for us to go over together all the technology used in the class—the LMS, the e-book (which most purchased), and the online quizzes from the text which students had to take before every class).

-Information about Sociology. I shared that I believe humans are “amateur sociologists” just by living out our daily lives and interacting with others. A large part of the Introduction to Sociology course would be learning the formal vocabulary of the discipline. Our class would take that “lived ability” and test it against sociological concepts and theories. We’d see that what we think we know about people and how they “tick” is not accurate.

-First assignment. I would end my communication by giving each student something to do before our first class meets. Since this class would be all first-time college students, I tried to tailor the assignment to what they might be going through the last few weeks before the term started and the move-in experience. I made sure that we talked about half of these as icebreakers the first day of class and the rest on the second day, because I needed students to know that I could be trusted—that if I asked them to do something, we would discuss it soon after. Here are just a few of the ideas I used:

-Notice if you say “goodbye” differently to friends versus family. If you did, why might that be?

-Were there “elevator courtesy rules” during the move-in process? If so, what were they? Did they change once most students had moved in and classes began? [I knew that many of my students would be living in two residence halls that were 4 and 6 stories tall, so that elevators are crucial to life in the residence hall.]

-Were there dining hall courtesy rules which they noticed? For example, if one went alone versus with a group of people?

-How did you decide on what to wear for the first day of our class? Why did you decide on those clothes?

-What kinds of conversations have you had with your roommates/suitemates? Are there any topics you are trying to avoid in these early days of living together? Why?

-Why did they select the seat they did for each class?

Faculty who teach other disciplines could easily adapt this idea of assigning students a brief task to do before class begins. Each of our disciplines have concepts which fascinates or confounds students—use one of them. Your goal is to get them thinking in the ways needed for your course.

How did I communicate with my class? Some learning management systems allow faculty to set up a “preview page”—this could go there. But that involves one large assumption—that students know how to navigate the learning management system well enough to find your course. I am not sure that is a safe assumption. But my institution did not turn on that tool.

Traditional mailbox, red flag in "up" position; and envelope inside that says "You've Got Mail"I could have sent an email within the learning management system, but there again, it would require students to know how to log into the system and find our class. So I didn’t use that means of communication either.

But there were other available ways to contact students—I could have emailed the class via Banner (registration/registrar software). This was my chosen way of communicating with my soon-to-be student, but again, there was one problem: when to send the email. As we all know, registration ebbs and flows, sometimes considerably, in the few weeks before a term begins. I would keep a copy of the sent email and compare it to the class roster once a week before classes began. I would then send out another email, just to “new adds” from the week before. Even in a class as large as mine was, this took no more than half an hour, once a week. I was lucky though; changing enrollment was less problematic in my fall courses, because normally at least seventy-five percent of the students in my course were in learning communities with three required courses, one of which was Sociology. So these students were less likely to de-enroll in the course, because it would have meant changing 3 classes (or more), not just their Sociology course.

Some faculty share the course syllabus before the class begins. I often do that for upper division courses, but I feel that sharing it with first-year students can simply overwhelm them. I wanted to meet them, let them begin to see me as their cheerleader and a leader they can trust, before they see the complete syllabus. But that’s my choice; follow what you think is best for your incoming students.

What matters most is your tone. You want to communicate that your class will have a culture of inquiry, where questions are welcomed, and where intellectual curiosity is everyone’s responsibility, not just yours. Try not to focus on classroom rules–instead focus on what students will take from the class and why those are important concepts to be carried into their careers. So be open, friendly, and curious–about them and about your academic discipline.

So readers, do you communicate with your students before you actually meet them? If so, what are your goals? Let’s share pedagogical thoughts in the comments.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.




Using Senior Capstone Courses to Increase the Professionalization of Students

Male student in cap and gown, searching for jobsIn last week’s post,  I discussed how I met individually with each advisee and asked them approximately 250 questions. These questions focused on three broad career topics: types of jobs that sociology majors often accepted after graduating; types of people they would be interacting with while on the job; and types of working conditions (e.g., 24/7 on call; working from one’s car; an office job; etc.). The student had to respond “yes” or “no” or “maybe” to each question.

In this post, I want to describe how I constructed our major’s required senior capstone course. The first day we spent doing that same exercise I did with advisees because it was a springboard for the rest of the course. I altered it slightly so that I was not recording each student’s answers, but the student was. Then we had a class discussion about trends they saw in their own data and any surprises they saw. There were always surprises; there were some jobs that students did not know about and so I offered a description. Many were surprised to discover new jobs which interested them.

I constructed the capstone course around three broad themes: 1) each student would create a job search plan; 2) each student would create a plan for how to select a graduate school and graduate program and how best to apply; and 3) each student would spend time doing a self reflection about their life goals, how sociological skills supported those life goals, and how their financial and personal contexts would shape their future. These were broad themes and there were many smaller assignments which bolstered them.

Creation of a Job Search Plan

Laptop screen visible, showing the words "Job Search" and a search bar. Two hands ready to type also visible.Based on the jobs that students said “Yes” to on the first day of class, each student had to find a current ad for a job vacancy, in the city the student chose to live in post-graduation, for which the student was eligible and qualified. That job opening had to be approved by me (primarily for screening that it was a job a new graduate likely could land).

The first small assignment required students to create two resumes, using different styles we covered in class. They first submitted these as drafts and received my feedback and then finalized the two resumes as “resume templates.” Then the student had to apply for the job—that is to say, the student wrote a cover letter to the possible employer, tweaked one of the two template resumes to fit with this particular job—and submitted these for feedback and a grade. Then students used an Excel spreadsheet which I had created to analyze the city where they wanted to live. They had to find at least ten organizations which they could possibly join in order to professionally network and develop their skills. They had to find the goals of these organizations, a URL, and how often they met.

Diverse group of young professionals talkingSome examples were: Young Professionals organizations, specific career groups such as the local Social Workers association, or groups like Toastmasters, which could help them improve on a skill needed on the job. They also listed business and personal contacts they already might have in the city and had to analyze the strength of each of these social ties (i.e., “my current boss’ former boss of 12 year” is not a strong tie in helping to land a job). Another week students had to draft a letter to these social ties, explaining who they are, what kind of jobs they are seeking and why, etc. We talked at length about courtesy norms, how not to overly burden such individuals, etc., and I looked for those nuances in their letters

Creation of a Plan for Graduate School

The planning spanned the entire semester, again with several assignments due along the way. While obviously, not all students will choose graduate school (either immediately or eventually), but many did. In our sociology program, most students who did go on to graduate school chose social work or marriage and family therapy degree programs; fewer chose sociology degree programs. All students were required to do these assignments, in case later on in their career, they might choose graduate school. In the first week of class, they had to select a degree program and a school to use for the rest of the assignments and I had to approve (I nearly always did unless the whole class was applying to the same school/program, then we found similar programs elsewhere). Students had to download or screen capture the application and complete it. Since many but not all graduate programs required a goal statement and a writing sample, I required these from all students, in order to make the workload fair. The writing sample was to be a paper they had written in a college course that they felt showed their best analytical skills—but they could improve the paper from when they turned it in for a grade. We talked at length about how to self-edit the paper, using the professor’s comments. Some semesters we took a day and traded papers for peer review.

Another part of the requirement was that students had to create a list of potential academic references and to draft a short email they might send to those references. We spent time in class going over some “less than positive” ways to write such an email. The class came up with a template of best practices to use to ask former professors for this favor, such as reminding them of courses taken with them, grades received, and if they also were an advisee, etc. All of this was submitted as one application to me.

Plan for Self-Reflection: The Personal Is Professional

Students completed a self-assessment (graded done/not done) during the first week of class. They wrote about their strengths and weaknesses (personal and sociological). I would compare their sociological strengths from this assignment and what was listed on their draft resumes. Many would forget completely to highlight them! The self-assessments also asked about their work personality and some questions about their finances (student debt, if they were contributing support to other family members, did they have a monthly budget and if so, what was it, etc.). I kept this self-assessment completely confidential but I used it to guide discussion topics.

Sign on graduation cap: "Game of Loans"By the second time that I taught the course, one social fact surprised me—about 10% of my students had already declared bankruptcy. That worried me, and so in later terms, I made time for a one week module where we talked about “financial health.” I asked a speaker from the Financial Aid office to come talk about student loans and the legal ways to reduce their debt load, etc. The class and I spent a lot of time on the University of Georgia’s Peer Financial Counseling Program’s website (unfortunately this is no longer being updated). I have found that their downloadable resources were useful to students. During this week, students anonymously turned in financial questions they had. We spent the last day of this week finding answers. Some of their questions were, “What is a FICO score?,” “How do I start investing in retirement?,” and there were lots of questions about Social Security and its financial stability when they would retire.

Many students felt they were not strong interviewees, so I created a “mock interview for a job” assessment and had the Career Opportunities staff take the status of employer and give students feedback. Students felt they were “too brutally honest” but also told me they learned a lot about their “bad habits.”

All these out-of-class assignments were buttressed by sociological conversations in class. Students mapped our program and groups brainstormed concepts and theories they found useful from each class. They also mapped how they wished the program was and explained why. That helped students to see that yes, they had learned skills like statistical analysis, etc., that could become part of their resumes. We talked about the role transition from undergraduate to employee or from undergraduate to graduate student and what kinds of challenges they might experience during these transitions. We studied research on how to analyze their new work culture, and why seeing their new job as a site for “sociological analysis” might help their transition.

While there was an assignment due every week of the term, students stated that only after this class, did they feel ready to search for a job, know how to “read” the work culture of their new job, know how to negotiate for more salary (and when not to), understand how to figure out what graduate degrees they could attain, and how to think about their strengths and weaknesses effectively. They thanked me for pushing them academically—and pushing them to succeed in this next part of their journey.

Black text on white paper; "Its really" typed. Red pencil has circled "Its" as a grammar error.One more thing about the course. I showed students data which says that even one misspelling can mean that their resumes would be tossed. Each student received 100 writing and grammar points at the start of the semester. So I instituted this policy: for every writing error a student made, one point was deducted from the 100 points. We talked about how to use grammar and spelling checkers, etc., if they thought this was a weakness of theirs. Again, while this policy didn’t always make them happy in the moment, all stated that they appreciated it by the end of the term.

I recognize that this is but one way to help students realize the professional skills they have learned during their degree program. So readers, how do you socialize students into your profession?

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.

Grading Nightmares

Cartoon-like image of human person pushing large boulder up hillIt’s that time of the academic term – you know, when you are buried in papers, tests, lab reports, outlines of future papers, active learning activity reports, and so on. The pile(s?) keep appearing on your desk and seem to never disappear. So perhaps it’s time to ask a few pedagogical questions: Must every assessment be graded? And what do you mean by ‘graded’?

My foremost pedagogical concern is that students receive honest comments from me on the assignments where I ask them to write and think theoretically. It took me a while to realize that means that some assessments, which are more, for example, reading comprehension questions, do not necessarily have to have individual comments from me to my students. So as I began to use publisher-created online quizzes (pre-selected by me however to focus only on those sections of the text I used), that I could write comments for each of the incorrect answers which any student who chose the wrong answer would see. I made the comments “approachable” and definitely used my “voice” (mentioning examples from class, a few jokes, etc.) so that students would know I had written it. Since these online auto-graded quizzes were done before the class, I could look at the questions which were most missed and refocus my plans for the day to ensure that I emphasized those concepts that were problematic. That meant that instead of grading 5 point quizzes for every student twice a week (which would have taken hours), I could spend about 30 minutes each class day examining the grading results and tweaking my presentation slides.

Every non-test class day, I had students write an “exit question.” They would write about what material we covered that day which confused them or made them anxious. They could try out an original example for a concept if they wanted. So these assessments required responses from me. All students were required to write the exit questions and one-third of the class each week received a grade for their work. In addition, I also commented on another one-third of the class’ questions every week, but not for points. And if a student in the “not commenting or grading this week” group made either an especially strong point or was very lost, I also commented on that paper too. So on average, I was commenting on about 225 exit questions every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and evening.

So how did I get all the grading done in a few hours? First, if possible, I had my graduate assistants alphabetize the exit questions during their office hours immediately after class. By the way, have I shared how much I hate to alphabetize? Detest is not even close to how I feel about doing it. We had students put their exit question in file folders, based on their last names. Once a file folder was alphabetized, I would start commenting. Most wrote 3-5 lines (and we recycled the paper every day) and I would write about the same amount. I’d congratulate them if they did well or answer the question they asked, offering another example, etc. It was also a way to communicate; sometimes students asked for an appointment outside of office hours and I could reply, etc. If I could work uninterrupted (ha, ha!), I could finish the grading in 90 minutes. For me, that usually meant that I had to do that work at home rather than in my office at school.

Tests (usually 3 during the term and an optional final during finals week) were a mixture of objective and short answer questions. Each version of the test was run on different color paper and students could not sit next to someone with the same color test. As students were turning in the tests, my lead graduate assistant would be at the front of the class and would receive the test and immediately place it into the correct pile based on the paper color. As the test time ran down, proctors and I would quietly begin to alphabetize each pile. That way when I got home, I could grab a key and a pile of tests and get to it.

I want to admit that how I graded is not necessarily what I would recommend. I graded for the next 18 hours almost without stop. I’d be downing cups of tea and grade one page of a version completely, then go to the next page of the same version. My goal was to “just get them done.” If I got very tired, I would save the last version for the next morning. I would write comments on each of their short answers – where it went well, where it strayed from the sociological point, etc. I sometimes used a grading shorthand if the student forgot a section of the answer. So if I had asked for an original example not used in class or the readings, I would write “Orig Ex?” and then would explain the codes at the start of class. I also totaled the student’s standing in the class at that time and also put that score on the last page of the test. Then I would calculate statistics: each version’s grade distribution, the most missed questions, and the ones where students were confused during the test and asked clarifying questions. I would diary about all these data so that I could consider them as I wrote that test in the next semester. And when I was all done, I had to re-alphabetize them. And then do it again when students turned the tests back to me the day we went over the test. (Alphabetizing student work was the worst part of my job, just in case I haven’t made that clear to you!)

My teaching life, as you can imagine, was grading-intensive, with 300+ students each term. This grading plan worked for me—but I don’t necessarily advocate it for anyone else. It meant that I had little time for my ethnographic research of new religious movements until vacations and breaks. But students were confident that only I graded their work. Given that I primarily taught  first year students, they often told me that they appreciated the fact that I was the sole person giving them feedback. They grew confident in their sociological imagination when I said their original example was strong or when I commented on their growth as a sociologist. This was important given that I had a team of 2-3 graduate assistants and an undergraduate supplemental instruction leader every semester. They quickly learned my handwriting versus the other members of my team.

Now that I have retired, I have some distance from this grading routine. There are days when I look back and completely agree with it and others when I worry about how I kept up the pace and did I wrongly prioritize my life balance. So let’s think of ways to assess students and give them feedback without as much of your time involved.

What if any of the feedback you give students could you shift to an online platform? Especially to one that would allow for auto-grading? I would feel more comfortable with electronic auto-grading if the software also allowed me to give “canned” feedback about why each of the wrong answers were incorrect or incomplete. This kind of assessment can be a time-suck in the beginning to set up each of the individual assessments, write the feedback to students for every incorrect answer, set up the gradebook, and schedule the calendar for each assessment. But once that is done, it almost is a “set and forget” type assessment (unless the learning management software goes offline, of course).

Must every student’s assessment be graded? Could you design an assessment that would be graded “done/not done” and you examine a sample of those completed. You would look for strengths and weaknesses in them and then provide that feedback to the entire class, either in person or in an e-letter to the class? I would pull a sample that includes some of the strongest, weakest, and students in the middle of the grading scale each time, so that you see most of the likely errors.

Could you create codes which could allow you to grade more quickly? I always wrote open-ended comments for students, but I developed a coding system which I used in upper division courses for sociology and anthropology majors, which focused on writing and style errors. We used the American Sociological Association’s style, so many majors were unfamiliar with the peculiarities of this style versus APA or MLA. While I always went over the major differences before written assessments were due, I attached this coding sheet to their assessment or had it in my class presentation for the day I handed back the assessment. It was also posted from the start of class in a section of the learning management system which I called “Tools for Success.” Here are some examples of these codes:

-“c” or “C”     capitalization error (either was and shouldn’t have  been or wasn’t and should have been)

-“s” = spelling error

-“f” = ASA style form error

-“f/ind” = ASA style form error, in this case, about indention  (all lines after the first one in a bibliography entry should be indented  one half inch)

-“f/p” = ASA style form error about punctuation

-“h/s”= homonym spelling error  (e.g., “their/there,” error)

Using these codes through the years cut hours off of my grading of written assessments. Since I often had the same students in several upper division classes, they came to expect them and became our constructed grading argot.

Are there some assessments which could be graded by students, for students? This might be a self-assessed assignment, gone over in class or it might be where you pair students up and each grades the other and provides feedback. You might not even have them included in your grading system; they could be more about encouraging students to engage with the course content. These can be excellent for assessments as students are learning a detailed theory or reading, where you primarily want to assess that students have started the conceptual journey. I find these kinds of assessments do not work well for when I need to assess their deep learning, for example, near the end of an academic term.

Could you grade online? Once I developed a system, I found that I could grade papers faster if they were submitted online and I added Word comments to them than I could if I graded by hand. But I hated to give up handwritten comments. They felt more personal when I wrote in a bright color (never red ink though) with my calligraphy style. I also could take papers anywhere and work on them, whereas I rarely brought a laptop with me during the day, so that meant that grading was confined to working from my campus office or my home office. My coding system transferred easily to the Word comment format though.

Could you ask for grading help? For most of us in non-elite institutions of higher education, even the question makes us laugh (maybe even cry a little!), for the answer is “of course not.” But some schools do allow graduate assistants to grade, so I don’t want to minimize that as an option. If you do receive help, please give them training—even if they are grading just a T/F quiz, you want to teach them how to mark the incorrect answers, what kind of comments are appropriate and inappropriate to put on an assessment, etc. There are additional things to consider: Should you tell students that someone other than you graded that assessment, or is that just asking for grading challenges? How many should you regrade/check to give yourself and the GA confidence in their grading? How, if it became necessarily, would you “override” a comment given by a GA on a student paper?

And finally, what is your policy for fixing a grading error? I rarely made errors grading my tests (mismarking an answer), but sometimes I added up the number missed from each page of the test and could make an error in totaling their score. So my policy was this: “If I made a math error that hurt you, write me a note above your name on the front page of the test and tell me what it should be.” When I was realphabetizing tests, I pulled out any with these notes and dealt with them immediately. I recalculated the points and went to the learning management system, where I’d change a grade if it was warranted or write the student if my math was correct. That’s a pretty standard policy; we don’t mean to make errors and we’ll fix them. But I found I more often made a math error that benefitted the student by a point or two. I asked them to tell me if I had done that, because I needed to know to slow down a bit, etc. But I would not take the point or two away from the student—this encouraged them to tell me truthfully if I made this kind of an error. Making these errors about me versus taking something from them, increased the likelihood they reported these kinds of mistakes to me. This policy eased my mind a bit when I was grading — nothing was “permanent” until after the student had seen the assessment and we went over it.

I hope these questions can help you to understand your current grading routine. Ask yourself if there are some ways to tweak your routine. But ultimately, it has to be what works for your life, the norms of your institution, the type of class (size, grade level of class, etc.) you are teaching, and the course content. Share your grading tips in the comments and best of luck!

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How Much Required Work Is Too Much?

Will students complain about the amount of work? Brain science meets harried students


My fall syllabus is done, but now the worrying starts. I believe in how I am asking my first year students to learn, but I expect that many of them will be moderately unhappy with me.

I am asking them to read the e-text and answer the embedded questions (usually from 5-15 questions – they can take these multiple times to learn the material), before class. These questions are somewhat gamified – that is to say, students can double down on questions and earn more points based on their confidence level, etc. It’s a new software for me, but I believe it is going to work well. Then they will come to class and we’ll talk about the concepts and theories. I can know which ones were the most problematic by logging onto the e-text’s software and looking at the results in advance of class. Then after class, students have 25 hours to log on to our learning management software and take a 5 point quiz on what we just covered.

Lots of new brain science research has shown that this repeated querying about the topic can cement new pathways and increase learning. I know that it works.

But this is a change in how I have structured my class. I used to have what now will be the post-class quiz in the learning management class before class. Students suggested moving that to a post-class assessment and I resisted that until this new e-text software was developed, which allowed me to create pre-class assessments as well as after-class assessments.

I believe that frequent quizzing which requires students to retrieve information, assess it, and apply it to real-world circumstances is the best way to learn course content. But from a first year student’s perspective, my class requires them to be active between 3-5 days a week, including coming to class twice. With 3 to 4 other classes, they might feel that I am asking too much, given that they want to dive into the college experience, especially the freedom to live life on their terms – and their time! I’ve had non-sociologists do the reading and for most of them, the pre-class requirement took 30 minutes to complete (reading the assigned pages and the answering the questions just once – again, students can retake questions as much as they’d like) and the post-class quiz has a 20 minute time limit. So I am asking for up to an hour or more twice a week for the pre-class assignment (depending on their reading speed and how often it takes to answer all the questions correctly), 40 minutes total for the post-class quizzes, and two 75 minute class periods. I believe that is reasonable, but I don’t think some (many?) students will.

So for the last two weeks I have had this battle in my head: “Students will say this is too much work.” “No, it’s how to best assure that learning happens.” Of course, the reality of our comments back and forth will probably be more nuanced. Some students likely will complain about too much work, while other students will see the benefits of this learning plan. One other type of student complaint I hear in my head is “Why do other Intro Soc sections do so little work compared to our class?” That’s a harder one to answer; colleagues have the right to design classes as they see fit.

Most of the time the “depth v. breadth” debate in higher education is about the amount of content which should be covered in any one class. But what we don’t often talk about is trying to look at the amount of work we require across all the students’ classes. Is this something faculty should consider? And how can we even know what others are requiring? It might be easier to predict when students are juniors and seniors and primarily taking major-only courses, when we can more easily talk with colleagues. But when they are first-year students, it is much more difficult to contact all faculty and to have these conversations.

It’s why I like teaching in first-year learning communities. Students take three general education classes together and faculty share syllabi, create at least one assignment which asks students to see the connections between these academic disciplines. We try to cooperate, for example, not testing all on the same day, etc. At least here I can see the amount of work other faculty are requiring and how that impacts my own students.

Still, I worry about balancing best practices for student learning (repeated retrieval of information over time) with my students’ other academic responsibilities and their social lives. How do you think through this issue in your classes?