Marking mindfully

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!


4 thoughts on “Marking mindfully

  1. Hi Kim!
    I, like you, like to use feedback as an opportunity to encourage students as well as point out where students need to improve. I always try to be as specific as possible, showing students where they provided great analysis (including a quotation or page number) and where I think something could be developed, or the structure was a bit sloppy (again including a quotation or a page number) helps to orient and clarify feedback, which can sometimes seem a bit generic after a while.

    I have spent in-class time on feedback, generally in the lesson following the one in which they receive their marks. This means that students have a week to look at feedback, come and talk to me if necessary and gain a bit of critical distance from the work. This session can take a whole two hours (though with smaller groups I have done it in 1 hour). I ask students to bring their essays back to the following lesson and provide them with a further photocopy of their work. I start the session with a disclaimer. I need to explain the value of working on pieces of work that have already been graded.

    The first thing I do is ask students, one by one, to share a positive thing about their writing (“I structure my work well”, “I can integrate theory and personal observation”), and I write these on the board: collectively we write first class essays. I then ask students to nominate something they would like to develop (emphasis on the develop). If a student tells me that ‘I’m not good at using academic vocabulary’ I tell them that they are, they can, and they do, but that maybe this is something they would like to gain more confidence in. Phrases like “I can’t” and “I don’t” are not allowed. I also take part: sharing my strengths and points for development. This allows me to assess who has read feedback and how useful my feedback has been for them. For the most part, students will notice that one of their peers is very skilled at a task or aspect of writing they would like to develop and that they are skilled in something one of their peers would like to develop.

    We then skill share. I might kick this off by reminding students of what I want to develop in my writing (e.g. “I have a tendency to go off topic”) and ask one of the students who has expressed a confidence and skill in staying on topic for advice about how I might avoid going off topic. Suggestions like “writing your keyword/ research question on a post-it and sticking it on your monitor” start to be shared between students.

    I then ask students to do the following tasks (we sometimes don’t get to all of them):

    1. On a separate piece of paper write out the first and last sentence of each of your paragraphs to create the skeleton of your essay. Does it make sense? The labour of this task makes students realize how long some of their sentences are (there have been times when a student has remarked “I just wrote out the whole paragraph”). It has tended to make them laugh rather than get frustrated. I give them a set amount of time, and they complete as much as they can in that time.

    2. Provide students with scissors. Ask them to re-structure their work. They cut up their essay and move it around.

    3. I ask them to swap work with a partner and look at the introduction. They then highlight or underline the most important sentence, and write a little comment explaining why. They can then move on to take a look at the next paragraph and underline/highlight the most interesting sentence. Again, they add a comment explaining why. The only ground rule is that they must not underline a quotation. When students receive back we can discuss why particular sentences were underlined. Students then look at the sentence their peer suggested was the most interesting and use this as a starting point to re-write or develop a section of their essay. You may have students who gained high marks and don’t see the point of this exercise: encouraging them to use this as an opportunity to develop ideas they didn’t have space for in the essay can help see the point.

    I have found these exercises a really great way of encouraging peer-support in the classroom, of helping students to recognize their strengths and practical skills for developing their work and their approach to it. The initial discussion does raise issues such as “I left this until the last minute” as well as specific issues around writing essays.

    A rather long comment, sorry.
    C x

    • These are superb suggestions, Charlotte! I’ll be taking them up next semester for sure. Can I ask if you’ve seen improvement from paper to paper as a result of doing these workshops? And how many of them you will do with any given module?

  2. Kim,

    I have had the benefit of receiving detailed feedback from you–and found it extremely, extremely beneficial. I found myself learning (often in spite of my self!) to focus on my argument at the same time as my sentence construction. I was an instinctive writer–relying heavily on just knowing what sounded better on paper–before I began work with you. After receiving your feedback on numerous drafts, I learnt to focus more on the “how” of my writing, and that has helped me become a better writing instructor. Does that mean I could emulate your feedback style as an instructor? Not necessarily. With the sheer number of students’ papers I grade over a typical college semester, I feel lucky on the days I can read each and every word on each and every assignment. I have felt less effective as an instructor because of that logistical nightmare–I typically grade 50 student papers every week–but at the same time, I have learnt to make quick notes of general student mistakes, and focus on those every week. I have also learnt to offer students personal meeting times at the end of the semester, so if they desire feedback, they have the opportunity to get it.
    The demography I am talking about here is, of course, completely different from the typical university setting. Having taught an upper-level university course this year, and having graded numerous student papers as a TA, I know for a fact that both university and college students need more instruction in writing at the post-secondary level. Does that mean it is our job to provide that instruction, even when that instruction is through detailed feedback on student assignments? If good writing is important to us, then shouldn’t we set aside time for a workshop BEFORE the assignment is due, rather than wait till the end of the year?

    • I like your notion of making notes on problems cropping up in papers and then addressing those each week, hopefully nipping those problems before they become ingrained. You’re absolutely right about working on things early, though – perhaps setting an assignment very early in the semester, and using that as a workshop tool, is key. It’s also worth it, I think, to compile best practice examples over time, and work with students using those examples early in the semester. While teaching writing isn’t strictly our job – at least, it’s not mine – increasingly it just has to be. As I noted in my post from today (13 May), writing well, and teaching students to write well, is an activist matter for me. It’s not divorceable from the other work we do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s