Higher Education

What’s In A Number (Or Letter)?

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my last two semesters of teaching (my first classroom experience after grad school.) I avoid grading. I look upon it with dread and procrastinate as much as possible. But isn’t that normal? Don’t most instructors hate to grade?

I realized it most strongly at the very end of last semester. I was finishing the final projects and the final exams and… there it was. A number. One number. And a number that got translated into a letter. A whole semester’s worth of learning and work condensed down to a single character. Is that it?

I know it’s forefront in the minds of my students throughout the semester, as that makes up the majority of their questions. Will this absence effect my grade? Is there extra credit? Am I passing? What can I do to improve my grade? I’m happy to work with students on those issues, but at the end of the semester as I’m passing out these single characters knowing that I’ll probably not see these students again, my inner educator rebels and internally screams, “Is this IT?!”

Okay, that sounds a bit melodramatic, but note that the end of the semester, especially the fall semester, is full of all kinds of stress. Add in the fact that I realized that my current university grades on an A, B, C, D, F system only. No A-‘s. No B+’s. All whole number GPAs. Seriously?!

I want for the learning experience to be about the content and the processes, not the end grade. Formative and summative assessment are great tools to aid learning, but the assessments have become the end in themselves. The students I have need the good grades to get to their next career step, whatever that is. For most of them, right now, that’s a job in elementary education. What I want to know if that they are going to, if given the chance to teach science, bring inquiry methods into the classroom. But a grade can’t tell that.

No, this is not how I grade. Sort abstracts, maybe. CC BY-SA 2.0 Sage Ross

No, this is not how I grade. Sort abstracts, maybe. CC BY-SA 2.0 Sage Ross

This semester, I’m watching my reactions even more closely, and noticing that I feel a kind of anxiety as I begin to grade. It’s strange, not because anxiety is new to me. In fact, I’ve been dealing with an anxiety disorder of one kind of another my whole life. But it’s always been tied to MY own work, my own sense of self-worth. Why am I feeling anxious as I take out the green pen (no I don’t use red) and get grading? I must feel a sense of responsibility and ownership over the work that my students do. If the work isn;t good, is that because I did a poor job in the classroom?

As I look forward to my new job as a professor, I know that teacher performance is incredibly important to the tenure process. Classroom observations are one part of that, but surely they look at student performance and evaluations of the professor. (I don’t even have my full evaluations back from last semester… that’s another story.) I think I’ve already internalized this. I WANT my students to succeed, and a grade on paper is the chief way that success is defined for far too many students. Assuming I did an okay job of designing the assessments, then a good grade means I’ve measured an increase in learning, but clearly that’s not easily definable without more rigorous test design.

So what do I do? For now. I’m going to grab that green pen and finish grading on my way to ChiFi. And if I celebrate my students’ successes along with them, that’s great. If I can use the less good grades as a guide for whom to help, then I think it has served its purpose. I just hope my students know they are never just a grade to me.

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Nicole

Nicole

Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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