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December 04, 2009


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Andy Rowell

Well said. I'm grading papers this week at Duke Divinity School. After giving my students a description of an A paper, I concluded my note to them this way,

You can expect my comments to be sympathetic ("good") and encouraging ("yes") while also giving you feedback ("unclear" "have you thought about this counterexample?")

You have been a great class and I know these papers will be very good because you have generally kept up on your reading, attended class, and participated enthusiastically in discussion. Whenever we turn in any paper--even a finished published book manuscript--there is still a sense that it is a "draft," "preliminary," and "tentative"--that is, it is possible that someday we will change our mind on something. The paper represents our best effort given the time we were able to give to this course and paper. We can always go back some day and revise it and publish it in a journal article or on a blog. I realize you have three other classes and this is a stressful time. I often have to tell myself to "just get a C" to get myself writing.

"The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace" (Numbers 6:24-26).


Steven Niccolls

I enjoyed reading this post. I am living in both worlds. My profession is a high school teacher. However, I am also attending seminary as a part time student. I experience both sides of the fence each quarter.

Peter Evans

I suspect most teachers will agree with you when you say that grading is the "hardest part of the job." And as more and more courses move online, the feedback that students get on papers becomes more and more important.

eMarking Assistant - 60 day trial available from http://emarking-assistant.baker-evans.com - will save you time and help you provide detailed and timely feedback when grading papers. It is best for electronic papers but you can also use it for paper assignments. It allows you to easily create, modify, and reuse comments containing text, audio images and links. The audio comment facility is very useful giving more personal and encouraging feedback.

http://www.baker-evans.com/emarking-assistant/movies/using/ demonstrates how it can save you time when marking assignments and grading papers.

Best wishes in your teaching,
Peter Evans

Aaron Sturgis

Well---seeing as you haven't herd from a student yet---typically we are thinking, "what the hell, we paid sh%$ loads of money for these credits, the least the prof could do is gives us some feedback before the week is done." Basically Mary - you are teaching and grading papers of a very self-centered generation of students who think that "my" paper is the most important paper in the class and that you are to pay close attention to "my" paper. I don't know...but I would have to say its a lose lose situation for those in your profession. So I need to ask - do I get extra credit for this response? I expect immediate feedback...lol

Mary Hinkle Shore

Aaron: you get tons of extra credit!


I had to wait until I'd turned everything in to give this post the attention it deserves. Mary, you're brought up many excellent points, and I agree with Sturgie that many students think their own papers are the most important ones. However, it is equally true that some professors think their classes are the most important--or even the only!--ones, too. The reality is that we all have real lives and we're all trying to find that balance between school and home (the big difference being, of course, that some of us get paid to do it while others pay to do it!) These suggestions are not really limited to just grading, but encompass more teaching as a whole.

That said, I'll add my own few points:

1) Give students the benefit of the doubt. It is totally reasonable of teachers to expect work to be turned in on time, but when teaching adults who often have other significant responsibilities, life is going to happen sometimes. Consider whether the extension for which a student is asking is reasonable and in keeping with what you know of him/her. (This is something Luther professors seem to do very well.) And remember that when you ask us to meet deadlines, we expect you to keep up your end the bargain and grade in a timely fashion. Don't say you'll have papers done the next day if you can't reasonably do so. Be realistic in your stated timeline and/or let students know if something changes and you need more time to grade. We can be flexible, too!

2) Resist the temptation to be sarcastic. For some people, this is a normal method of communication and, as you pointed out, it is not particularly helpful and may be actively hurtful without the mitigation of vocal tone. If you think you might be making a comment that comes from someplace in you other than honest, professional, constructive criticism, put a star by that part of the paper and come back to it a while later to see if your initial response is the same. Then figure out a way to say it gently. (This goes along with your point #2).

3) If something really doesn't make sense, ask. Technical difficulties happen and sometimes the sender of an electronic version of the paper has no idea something got lost or garbled in transit. If it doesn't make sense to you, chances are if won't make sense to the student, either. By the same token, if something doesn't arrive on time and your student is usually on top of deadlines, drop a quick note to ask if they've actually turned in the paper. (Again, this is something Luther professors seem to be good about.) I'm not suggesting you babysit the class--you know when someone is not responding in the way you'd expect and sometimes just asking can help that person get back on track or at least give you enough information about their situation to help you know what to do next.

4) Try to provide periodic feedback as the class goes along. It is difficult to know if one is doing quality work if there is no feedback until after the class is over. It is always helpful to hear constructive criticism early enough to make adjustments to one's work.

5) Remember that we're the students; we're learning and trying on new ideas all the time. We aren't professionals yet! Graduate school should not be an experience of "I'm-the-professor-I-paid-my-dues-and-now-I'm-NOT-going-to-share-what-I-know-so-you'll-have-to-guess." (Sadly, I really do know people in programs like that). We want to learn and assume that you want to teach. Your grading might best reflect this duality by judging us not just on mastery, but on growth.

I suppose my point is that nearly everything you have said to us about being a professor grading papers could be said right back about being a student with papers to be graded. The more we treat each other respectfully as adult human beings and our sisters and brothers in Christ, the fewer of these misunderstandings we'll have and we'll also have a common ground to discuss them calmly.

Wouldn't it be nice if the world really worked this way? {sigh}

Mary Hinkle Shore

Susan, your comment could be a guest post! Thanks for taking the time. I once said to a student, "Could you start from the place that the faculty and administration have your best interest at heart, even when we don't get the precise execution of that interest quite right?" He agreed, and also asked that faculty and administration try also to see students as respecting them, even when that respect doesn't get communicated quite right. It's good advice, and I was reminded of it reading your comments.


"4) Try to provide periodic feedback as the class goes along. It is difficult to know if one is doing quality work if there is no feedback until after the class is over. It is always helpful to hear constructive criticism early enough to make adjustments to one's work." - THIS is the salient POINT.

We are at University to learn. All else is ego and politics and should be left at the door. This is my only complaint with otherwise brilliant Professors - most of whom I admire and respect in every other aspect.

Please just give us the straight forward feedback so we can do it right on the next assignment.

As a grad student we are, more than likely, paying credit-by-credit. At my uni, if we get less than a B in the class, we have to take it over again. If we are not receiving timely feedback this causes an enormous problem. Do the professors see this at all? Or are they more concerned with how sarcastic they sound in their little comments? I couldn't care less about the sarcasm. Just give me the straight talk, people.

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