Use grades and comments to teach, not just to justify

The lack of absolute standards for grading can make marking assignments a task filled with anxiety. Are you too strict a grader? Too soft? Are you letting your annoyance at the kid who sleeps through class influence his essay grades? Why did one student get an 84, while another got an 83? This anxiety can lead you to put much of your energy, while marking, into justifying the grades you are giving. This is not ideal.

Instead of seeing a student’s grades as an official judgment that you need to preemptively defend, focus on your grades for your students’ assignments and tests—and your comments on the assignments and tests—as an opportunity to help your students improve. James Lang offers some suggestions to move the focus away from self-justification and toward further pedagogy.

  • Don’t just focus on the negative. Make sure, when commenting on an essay or an exam, to emphasize the things that the student has done right. Of course, you want to correct mistakes, and explain what he or she has missed, but let your criticism be constructive, and don’t forget to encourage what you’d like to see more of.

  • Return student work promptly. Your students have busy lives, and may forget most of what happened in class five minutes after you let them go. If you return their assignments three weeks after they’ve written them, your comments will most likely fall on deaf ears: they’ll hardly remember having done the assignment by then.

  • Keep your comments simple and few. It is tempting to think that by spending plenty of time on your students’ assignments, and giving them plenty of detailed feedback, you are doing more to help them improve. What may happen, unfortunately, is that the student will see page after page of comments and just assume that she’s done a terrible job and leave it at that. Too many comments can be overwhelming, and can detract from your pedagogical aims. Rather, focus on two or three important points that the student can improve upon, and highlight them in your comments. Underline the most significant matters, and do your best to ignore at least some of the small stuff.  -DG

Source: James M. Lang. On Course. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. 148-51.