This is the season that is most dreaded by students and professors everywhere: it’s Grading Season. Now is the time when all of the term projects are due, all of the papers are due, all of the final exams are given.
The light shining in our collective eyes is not that of the end of the tunnel. That wants another two or three weeks and a vast amount of work before we all see that. This light is the proverbial oncoming freight train.
It is at this time of the year when the well-meant cheery statement “At least it’s almost the end of the term!” is a sentence to strike fear, not optimism, into the halls and hearts of academia. Some students are in good shape, and know it, and sail through this period with a relaxed smile and a well-rested countenance.
They are hated for this, universally.
The rest of the students are starting to wack out on stress. Some because they’re convinced that their current situation is far more precarious than it is; some because they’re within sight of some vitally important grading goal; some because they’ve finally started to confront the reality that they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do to their parents over the break. Some are confronting the reality that they’ve made a poor choice of major, and are now compounding all of the above with the need to develop a Plan B for the direction of their life.
Regardless of the reason for the stress, it’s there. The classrooms are starting to buzz with it. If you’re not careful and you spend too much time in the company of too many students at this time, your teeth begin to vibrate and fall out of your jaw, and you start to lose your hair. And that’s if you’re the professor. For the students…well, it’s a good thing that they’re typically pretty young. Your body can take a lot when you’re 21.
The smart student, at this point, has a brief pow-wow with the professor to the tune of “What is my current average in this class?” and – if they’re accounting majors – runs some what-if analysis with a spreadsheet to find out whether the next-higher letter-grade increment is technically within reach…or whether the next-lower letter-grade increment is also within reach. Students who don’t have these quantitative analysis skills just have to hope that they’ve got a well-organized quantitatively-proficient professor (but this is by no means common). The big issue here is Study Slack, and the big question has to do with running cost-benefit analyses on incremental studying efforts. Or, to put it in English, no one has all the study time they need, and the smart student allocates the time they do have to the places where it will make the most difference.
If you’re hanging on to your current letter grade by a thread, you put more effort into it than if you’re solidly in the middle of that letter grade range.
If you’ve got ambition, or desperation (depending on which end of the spectrum you currently inhabit), and you’re within shooting distance of the next-higher grade, you put more effort into it than if you’re solidly in the middle of the range.
If you’re squarely in the middle of the range, you run some numbers to figure out what the lowest score on the project/paper/exam is that you can get and still keep your grade, and you put in just enough effort to guarantee that result.
The first and second groups, at this point, are burning the candle at both ends, cramming, sleeping with the book under the pillow, popping street drugs, engaging in competitive meditation, booking multiple therapy sessions per week, obsessively e-mailing each other and calling their parents several times a day at peculiar hours, and consuming enough caffeine to give a middle-aged man a heart attack. And, with all of that, many of them will find that their performance on the project/paper/exam is worse than usual, due to the lingering effects of too much stress, too much caffeine, and too little sleep.
I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve looked at a final exam and thought “Holy crap, what the heck happened to this student!” I’ve had people make scores of stupid mistakes – the kind that make you want to hit your head on the wall when you get the paper back. I’ve had people forget to answer questions on the exam. I’ve had people forget to answer entire pages of the exam. It’s insane, what happens when this mass psychosis hits the campus.
I hate it when I’m toting up grades and I see that a student who is competent and who works hard and has been studying like a maniac – and I know this, because I have answered 15 e-mails of increasingly desperate tone from this person in the last 36 hours alone – bombs the exam and drops their grade.
This creates a horrible ethical quandary for the professor, especially the professor at a small school where s/he knows all of the students they teach. It’s one thing when you’re at the kind of huge schools I went to, and for many of your undergraduate courses, the student is a number, not a name. But when the class sizes are small, and the students are names, and faces, and stories, and personalities, and demonstrable levels of competence, it’s more of a challenge. It’s an ethical issue for me. When I know perfectly well that Student X (the compulsive panic e-mailer described above, and no, if you’re one of my students reading this, I am not thinking of you. I know that because I am not thinking of anyone in particular here.) has just managed to screw up an entire term’s worth of solid good grades in one fell swoop of poor decisions about sleep, the library, and another cup of coffee, it’s hard for me to say “Well, the numbers are the numbers, and they screwed it up in the final stretch, tough shit.”
I can’t do it. I can’t.
This doesn’t mean that it’s up to me to arbitrarily determine the grades. I wish to God it was, because I have to grade 247 cases, 19 projects, and 30 exams next week, and that’s about 30 hours worth of grading, and if there is one thing that I – and every other professor I know – hate, it is grading. Grading is a four-letter word, starting with “s” and ending with “k”.
The rough thing is this: the grade I give has to be objective. And it has to be fair. I can’t give opportunities to one student without giving them to everyone. (And if you’re one of my students and you’re reading his, and contemplating sending me the e-mail asking – after the fact – if you can’t have an extra credit assignment, forget it. NOT happening. Everyone gets it, or no one gets it, and with 247 cases to grade, I don’t have time to be thinking up extra assignments for people to do after the term is over. Please don’t even bother trying, it will just be awkward for both of us.)
I’ve given a lot of thought about how to deal with this. I can’t give anyone a grade they didn’t earn, and I can’t give opportunities to some and not to all, and I also can’t find it in myself to dish out a grade that I know damn well does not reflect the student’s grasp of the material. The only way that I’ve found to deal with this is Grading Slack. Down-weighting exam averages relative to stuff that’s a little more under the student’s control, like homework. Weighting-up participation, which has the happy consequence of making the class more interesting, encouraging questions and interaction in a discovery-based setting, and putting control of the grade into the hands of the students. Assigning cases, which demand the same kind of skills you’d get on an exam, but which don’t have that time-pressure attached.
Which is how I come to have 247 cases to grade next week. And 19 projects. And 30 exams.
I keep hoping that if I say that enough times, it will start to look like a reasonable number instead of the Grading Tsunami that it feels like. I can’t start, even, until next week, due to some of that Developmental stuff mentioned above (see: putting more control of the grade into the student’s hands).
Because I can’t actually start on it, now I am starting to get stressed out. That oncoming freight train is loaded with papers. And it’s rushing to make a deadline.
Therefore, I have taken this opportunity to get distracted. One of my friends recently complained when listening to Pandora (yes, you, Carrie) that we don’t have enough “new” Xmas music…presumably meaning not “Jingle Bells” or “Santa Baby” or “White Christmas” etc. I am certain that she is just listening to the wrong stuff. Or some of the wrong stuff. “New” could refer to new interpretations of the classics, and while I love Norah Jones and Willie Nelson as separate entities, they did just about the worst duet rendition of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” that I can imagine. The singers don’t sound like they’re on the same continent, let alone in the same room heading for a Steamy Interlude.
Anyway, I’m going to share some of my “new” Xmas music favorites. If you think it’s weird that I like Xmas music this much even though I’m Jewish, deal. It’s isn’t about religion for me, it’s about presents, and eating, and bling. And I know perfectly well that I share this perspective with the vast majority of other inhabitants of this country, as well as all of the Japanese.