easy grader?

When I first started teaching (over 10 years ago!), I was something of a tough grader. Actually, I was kind of a hard-ass. My first teaching assignment was during my second year of being a graduate student, so I was in that weird limbo between teacher and student. I think uncertainties about my own competence made me a harsher judge of my students’ abilities. As I’ve since figured out, this is an all-too-common side effect of being in grad school.

The program I was teaching for was also partly to blame for my early hard-ass-ness. As new teachers, we had impressed upon us the gravity of grading, the importance of serving as the university’s writing gatekeepers. Sometimes it felt as if our mission was to weed out the bad writers and certify the decent ones. Back then, I took this task seriously. At the end of each term, I’d ask myself questions like “Does this student really deserve to pass?” and “Could I justify passing this student to his or her future instructors?”

Given my history with grading, I was amused to receive the following comment on a recent student evaluation of my course:

“He might actually be too easy of a grader. I feel I could have done much less work for an A.”

I’m not sure I would call my grading “too easy,” but I have to admit that I’ve lightened up over the years. Part of it may have to do with my own (growing) confidence as a teacher. More important, I think, is the fact that my reasons for grading have changed quite a bit since those early days. Frankly, I don’t give a crap anymore about justifying the grades I give to students (except to the students themselves). What I care about now is that the grades reflect a student’s learning and engagement with the course. Now, at the end of a term, I ask questions like “Has this student had the experience of the course?” and “What signs are there that this student has grown?”

All of us who receive student evaluations fantasize about responding to the anonymous comments we get. To the student who thought my grading might be too easy (but who otherwise loved the course), I might say something like this:

“Yes, you might have earned an A with ‘much less work,’ but you didn’t. You did more than was strictly necessary, and the fact that I could get you to do that without holding a grade over your head actually gives me endless satisfaction as a teacher.”

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