We’re into our exam term at Queen Mary, and that means marking, marking, marking. Lots And Lots Of Marking.
I’ve just completed my run of seminar papers and am awaiting my second marking duties (we second mark to ensure fairness and consistency; second marking is less onerous, but still a job). While I wait, I’ve been reflecting on how I try to use marking as a teaching tool and whether or not it’s working.
I’ve used the same marking technique for seminar and lecture-class essays for more or less my whole teaching career, though of course I’ve tweaked it over time. I read a student’s hard copy, making copy-edit corrections as I go (or tracking changes if I’m marking an electronic version – something I hope to be able to do more of starting next semester!), and numbering spots in the paper that require further comment from me, or further clarification on an edit. Then, when I’m finished reading the first time, I return to the spots I have flagged, go over them again, and type up numbered comments to correspond with the flags I’ve placed in the hard copy. Finally, when I’ve finished working through the flags, I type summative comments at the end of the single sheet of paper (plus or minus a few sentences) the student receives as feedback.
The flags, for me, are the most important part of the feedback I offer: they represent detailed engagements with students’ arguments, sometimes offer queries or counter-arguments if I think a student has misrepresented evidence or misunderstood an idea, and, most frequently, provide clarification of grammatical points. It’s no secret that my students, in general and in both Canada and the UK, are receiving (or absorbing) a good deal less training in grammar and punctuation than I did during my primary and secondary education, and the result is some pretty confusing and convoluted prose. (Recently a group of academics in the UK was chided for writing an ungrammatical rebuke to Michael Gove, the Education secretary; read about it here.) Even though I’m no proper grammarian and not a trained writing instructor, I try to help students see what’s going wrong at points in their papers where their meanings are fundamentally unclear, and then I try to suggest grammatically correct phrasing alternatives.
In the summative feedback at the end of my numbered comments I try to give students a clear sense of why their papers have earned the grades I have assigned, and I try to indicate how specific, focused improvements may help them to leap over their current grade barriers (say, from a C to a B, or from a 2:1 to a 1) next time around. I use these comments to cheerlead if I can, but also to be direct and honest when warranted. If a student has turned in a fundamentally lazy piece of work – something that happened to me last week, when I received from one student what looked like an early draft banged out at 3am, complete with internal, self-directed comments like “GET REFERENCE!”) – I say so clearly, and I indicate what impression that piece of work has left on me.
So here’s the thing. I’ve always been proud of offering comprehensive feedback like this (and although this style of marking might look like a lot of work, I should say that, now that I’m practiced at it, it’s not as time-consuming as it seems on paper). And I’ve always imagined that students who read it and take it on board will be pleased with it and will use it to their advantage in the future. Honestly, though, I have no concrete evidence to support this imagining, and less and less anecdotal evidence. This semester, for example, I had a really large number of students make exactly the same kinds of small but pernicious errors on their major papers as they had made on their shorter ones, indicating that they may not have read in detail – or even read at all – the feedback I provided in the first round. That grates, but also disheartens.
Thus, I’d like to collect some strategies for upping my marking game: not to make more work for myself (god, no!), but to ensure students hear and understand the implications of the feedback I provide more clearly, and without feeling threatened or anxious (if possible). I know that one solution is to ask each student to visit my office to receive and discuss his or her essay after the essays have been marked, but that’s onerous for one thing, and for another not something my department currently sanctions as a feedback norm. I’ve also considered handing student papers back in lesson and devoting part of that lesson time to students’ explorations of their feedback, giving them the chance to work together and with me to understand it. I’m not sure how well that would go, though; I remember myself as a student placed in similar positions, and I remember panicking, being embarrassed, and not wanting anyone to see the feedback on my paper. (In fact, I remember faking illness in my Grade 12 IB calculus class to get out of just such an exercise!) If my students are anything like me as a young adult, they may balk at such a task, and very possibly not turn up for it.
Over the years I’ve collected articles about exciting and dynamic grading re-thinks (including Cathy Davidson’s compelling “crowdsource” grading scheme – here and here – and Kelly McGonigal’s reflections on “forward looking assessment” and using peer assessment effectively), and I’ve worked with colleagues at Western University on developing some of these strategies in my own courses, but none of these have satisfied me fully so far, and these days I feel in a bit of a rut. I’d love, therefore, to hear readers’ comments on marking strategies that have worked well for them, and I’d especially like to hear from students or former students who would like to reflect on what kinds of feedback were especially helpful for them.
The floor is yours!