Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Subjectivity of Grading Essays

Note to self – do not assign the same essay due date for all three of your classes at one time.

by scottchan @
Yes, I made this rookie mistake.  But now, a few days after the due date, I only have essays for one more class left to grade.  It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  My English 101 class’s analysis/synthesis essays impressed me, actually. 

What I realized, while trying to grade these stacks of essays as quickly yet thoroughly as possible, is the subjectivity of the composition grading process.  I use a rubric and I believe I am a very fair grader, but there is a surprising amount of wiggle room in there.

Why don’t more students contest their grades?  Not that I am encouraging that.  But if I had known as a student how subjective this process was, I may have debated a few of my grades in high school and college.  But I, like most students, accepted my grades at face value. 

When I assign some of my students’ grades, I think about what I’d say to defend the grade I’ve given them in case they do argue about it.  Sometimes I adjust the grades if I can’t justify them. (Yes, I spend way too much time grading essays.)

Along with notes and suggestions doodled in the margins of their essays, I also hand back a cover sheet to each student with their grade and comments about each section of the rubric.  

Some of my students last semester said they would look at their grade, wonder why they didn’t do as well as they hoped, then read the comments and think, “Oh yeah, I forgot my thesis statement.  Now my grade makes sense.”  Or some derivative of that.  

The point is they understood why they received the grade they did and never felt a need to contest it.

Have you ever thought of the subjectivity of your grades as a student?  Or as a teacher, have you ever noticed your biases when grading?


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