Grading Community College Students, pt. 1
Why am I doing this to myself?
Whenever I find myself pouring over pages of essays, quizzes, tests, and discussion posts, I often ask, “Why I am doing this to myself? Why don’t I just give a few multiple choice tests to each class during the semester and let the ‘scantron’ machine do the work?”
When I first started college teaching, I thought that I would now be free from the daily grind of constant grading. During my days at the primary and secondary level, life was a steady stream of paperwork. I could not simply stand up there all day, every day lecturing or showing movies in the hope that students were taking notes and absorbing all of this information. In order to be both an effective teacher and a person who stayed sane, I had to keep students doing things. And to give them a reason to do these assignments well, I had to grade them. In the end, the basic function of grading is to compel students to do (and hopefully learn) something. If there is no immediate reward or penalty associated with an assignment, then many students will think, “Why bother doing this?”
In a perfect world filled with devoted teachers and knowledge-hungry students, grading would be unnecessary. We might do occasional “assessments” to ensure that knowledge was being effectively transmitted, but we would not judge their performance in such a potentially harsh manner. Grading people, after all, can be a hindrance to learning. Students traumatized by the fear of failure will not be relaxed enough to develop proper academic skills or absorb necessary facts. In addition, the earning of a high grade will become an end in itself, and students will lose sight of the actual goals of this exercise called education. Following the system and pleasing the educators will then become the ultimate goals. And if the educators are choosing activities that do not necessarily measure real learning, students will merely become experts in the game of school – test taking, sucking up to authority, creative plagiarism, and doing the minimum possible to get the grade - rather than actual learning. Students should be able to learn at their own particular pace with their own particular style, and they should do this with the help of an encouraging teacher who is a partner rather than a judge.
Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, and the more mandatory the education, the harder the world of the teacher can be. Thoughtful educators recognize the flaws in the concept of grading. It is difficult, however, when you are dealing with compulsory education to find a viable alternative. This is part of the reason why I moved to the college level. At this level, I once naively thought, it would no longer be necessary to constantly collect papers. College, after all, is not mandatory, and these students who are there by choice will be wise enough to know that it is important to pay attention in class, take notes, and complete the reading assignments even if the teacher is not constantly checking up on them. They will understand that if they slack off, they will eventually pay the price when the day of reckoning arrives: test day. So as a college teacher, all that I seemingly have to do each semester is correct a few tests. If people choose to be irresponsible, they will fail. If they decide that they do not want to do the necessary work, they can drop at any time. Those who care will stay and be responsible, and I will be in an educational paradise, right?
My expectations may have been realized if I taught at Harvard. At the community college level, however, students often lack the proper level of “academic maturity.” If I just do my thing in front of the class and hold them responsible for absorbing the information, many of them will lack the self-discipline and/or the academic abilities to be ready for the eventual tests. Of course, I could say what many college teachers apparently say when students fail their tests: “too bad.” Unfortunately, I have this annoying thing called a conscience.
So as time has passed, I have found myself assigning more activities. I give short quizzes to see if students are reading the primary source documents that I assign. I give in-class assignments in order to both give us all a break from listening to me talk and to provide an opportunity for them to engage in more active learning. I also added shortly into my college career a couple of extra credit assignments to get them to do some writing and to give motivated students a chance to see an opportunity for success. I have also laid out organized Power Point outlines, but I don’t fill in all of the details or hand out copies of these outlines on paper. They must take good notes themselves with these outlines as a guide. Community college students, it turns out, need more immediate gratification. They need someone giving them activities that directly and immediately lead to points. In addition, they need help taking organized notes that will directly relate to the material found on the tests. If I merely lecture and give out tests, they will tend to become passive and irresponsible.
Finally, in spite of the pain it can cause, I have insisted on making essays a significant part of their test grades. When I first started college teaching, the tests were completely written: short answer, identification, essays, etc. But as I took on more classes, and as some of these classes began having more than 100 students in them, I was forced to start relying on every teacher’s friend: the “scantron” machine. I am not a huge fan of multiple-choice tests. They are good for testing fact recall, but it is very difficult to craft questions that test higher level thinking skills. Written responses can give a teacher a much better sense of what a student knows, and I can be much more flexible and precise in my grading than a machine. After all, not everything can be broken down into simple categories of right and wrong.
So in my smaller classes, I have always had two essay questions account for half of the possible points. In those big classes, however, for the sake of survival, I went to “all scantron” tests for a while. But over time, I noticed a couple of things. First, grades in these large classes were always a bit lower than the classes with fewer students. Second, I found it increasingly hard to live with myself. For the sake of survival, I had set up a grading system that I did not truly believe in. So it was not long before I gave them a shot at the same extra credit assignment as the other classes, but I knew that this was still not good enough. So a few semesters ago, I started giving these large classes an open book, open notes written final. This way, they would get a chance to do the kind of higher level thinking that scantron tests cannot measure. It was still clear, however, that many students were not doing the reading assignments. So, just as in my smaller classes, I started to give pop quizzes on the primary source reading assignments.
Part of me wonders if I am just masochistic. When I’m staring down 150 finals, punching in grades for in-class assignments, or reading dozens of extra credit papers, I wonder why I am using up precious time that could be spent on my many other hobbies. There is a tremendous sense of satisfaction, however, that every teacher gets when they see a student truly succeed. And unfortunately, in our imperfect world, a little compulsion and instant gratification are necessary for most students to experience success. So if I don’t want to be inconvenienced by all of this paperwork, I should find a new line of work.