August 07, 2007

Guidelines for Grading Papers

(Part 2 of my series summarizing John Bean's book Engaging Ideas)

Bean offers a lot of ideas on how to both make papers easier to grade for teachers AND more useful for students. Imagine that -- a process that works well for both parties! There's even a whole chapter called "Writing Comments on Students' Papers." Here are some of the ideas I want to incorporate into my paper assignments and grading:

* Bean goes through the whole paper structure offering concrete ideas for grading different sections -- thesis, organization (macro & micro levels), stylistic issues, and so on. Finally, he offers suggestions for "writing revision-oriented end comments", which he calls "strengths - major problems - recommendations":
---- Describe strengths ("you're on the right track with X")
---- Address 2-3 major problems ("sometimes I got lost when you ...")
---- Recommendations ("for your next draft, you need to do the following") (pp. 250-251).

* Bean offers several concrete suggestion for comments on page 244 ("Nice comparison of X to Y here" ... "Expand & explain -- could you give an example here?" ... "What's your evidence for this assertion?")

* Bean states that students' prose contains fewer errors than teachers sometimes perceive. Bean quotes Williams (1981) who "notes that many teachers read student essays with the the primary purpose of finding errors, whereas they read their own colleagues' drafts-in-progress for ideas." (p. 60). Definitely some truth there for me, which is humbling.

* Bean therefore recommends focusing on higher-level organization problems & argument-making rather than on sentence-level errors.

* Overall, he suggests limiting "... commentary to a few problems that you want students to tackle when preparing the next draft. ... [E]stablish a hierarchy of concerns descending from higher-order issues (ideas, organization, development , and overall clarity) to lower-order issues (sentence correctness, style, mechanics, spelling...) ... [L]imit your comments to only two or three of the questions; proceed to lower-order concerns only when a draft is reasonably successful at the higher levels." (p. 242-243)

* "Hold students responsible for finding & fixing their own errors" in rewrites. Teachers should mark sentence-level errors (i.e., grammatical, spelling) with a check in the margin & ask students to revise them in a later draft. If these errors are significant, teachers can mark the final grade down -- and revise it upward if the student resubmits the paper and fixes the errors. (p. 69)

One possible solution is to line-edit one early passage and then simply mark other errors in the margin. (p. 246) "This allows me to comment on papers as if they were drafts in progress and yet assign a grade as if they were finished products. Students are satisfied with their grades do not rewrite ... [T]he point of your commentary is to stimulate and guide revision." (p. 235)

* Suggest they read their writing out loud & then revise. Hmmm ... good ideas for any of us who are writing!

For me ...
* I will modify the Reference Observations paper assignment so that they write it for a new librarian, what to do & not do in a reference interview setting and why, based on observations and analysis of literature. (Clarify the audience for the paper).

* Require more detail about papers than just "topic & audience" in class. Perhaps 2-3 sentences about topic, audience, items to be discussed, etc. Bean says that "these ... sentences can reveal a surprising number of problems in students' drafts, enabling teachers to identify students who need extra help." p 222. And the goal for me is to improve their writing -- and therefore thinking! -- about the topics we're having them write about. Extra help is a good thing, if it helps students' thought processes improve.

* My new attitude for grading: first things first. Evaluate ideas and overall structure first, then notice grammar, spelling, etc. Allow rewrites when temporally feasible, and grade as if they will be rewriting.

I'm curious to see how all this plays out in the grading room.

For More Information
* Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas : The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey Bass, 1996.

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