When It’s Fun to Grade

Very Steep Grade sign

This morning I was grading work for a 2-credit, half-semester course I teach called Cluster Learning Springboard. While going from one assignment to the next, I suddenly realized I was having an emotion I don’t usually associate with grading: joy. It was legitimately fun to see what the students had created.

If you are a teacher or have friends who are teachers, your social media feeds may now and then fill with complaints from folks, especially at exam times, about the drudgery of grading. There’s a perennially popular McSweeney’s piece from 2016 called “I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Grade Your Final Papers”. Grading tends to bring out many emotions, few of them ever good. Some of my most painful experiences in life involve grading: the agony of massive piles of papers to get through, the disappointment of realizing an entire class has apparently paid no attention to anything I’ve tried to teach them, the angry heartbreak at discovering plagiarism. I shiver with memories of grading.

It’s not just the work of grading dozens of students that wears us down; there is also the wearying power of sitting in judgment. Some people perhaps are energized by that position, but for me, and I think quite a few of my colleagues, the work of assessing and evaluating is itself exhausting and dispiriting. I know that one model of teaching sees the teacher as the person who judges how well someone has learned something, and certainly such evaluation is sometimes necessary — but for me the place of joy in teaching has nothing to do with that and everything to do with my joy in sharing knowledge and experience. Really, that’s the reason I got into this job, not to be a judge or cop. Sharing knowledge and learning together is fun; indeed, it’s one of the things that gets me up in the morning. (Along with my alarm clock!)

I’m lucky these days to teach all Pass/No Pass courses and to work in a program that encourages ungrading. I have built most of the activities in my courses around the idea of students having experiences rather than students needing to be judged. They do good work and bad work, amazing work and disappointing work, but the ultimate goal is less that I will stand in judgment about the work’s quality than that I will try to guide the students to assess that quality for themselves and then decide what to carry forward from the experience of doing the work: what learning do they want to hold onto and remember ten days or ten years from now, what do they want to think about doing differently in the future, what are they proud of, what do they know they could do better, what kept them from doing their best this time?

Cluster Learning Springboard is a particularly special course. It is based on our school’s idea of “cluster learning”, a type of project-based, interdisciplinary pedagogy. The course is one of the weirdest and most experimental at the entire university. It’s relatively new and I’m still figuring out how to make it work best. Last term, it was awful. The previous term had been pretty good because of a particularly strong group of students, and I didn’t recognize some huge pedagogical flaws in the course because the strength of the students that term bridged the flaws. The course is based in Open Pedagogy, and the mistakes I had made with the design of the course all boiled down to not being brave enough with the openness. I had kept too many of the conventional features of a typical course students would take, and so while the particularly energized group had done well at seizing the open opportunities and running with them, the more “normal” group of students did a perfectly rational thing: they expected a traditional course, gravitated toward the traditional elements, and pretty much missed the entire point of the class. It really wasn’t their fault. It was mine for not creating an environment in which they had to engage with the course and each other in a more autonomous way. I had myself fallen too easily into the role of Teacher.

This time, to prevent this from the very beginning, I did not show up to the first class. Instead, students arrived to a message on the board and a bit.ly link to a webpage of explanations, including a video of me briefly assuring them this was how things were supposed to go. Their job was to break into groups to figure out a variety of things, including the learning goals for our course, both the ones in our syllabus and ones they would like to add themselves. I assured them that I was downstairs in my office and they should send a representative to get me once they were done.

It would have been fun to have been a fly on the wall that morning. I sat in my office that morning filled with anxiety. Would the students see the bit.ly link on the board? Would they seize the moment or just give up? Would they all just leave? Would they hate the experience? Soon enough, two students came down to get me, and seemed none the worse for anything. They were a bit earlier than I had planned, but I also had no idea how long the activities would take. In our debriefing conversation, they seemed to have really understood what we were doing. I was able to clarify some things about the work that were, indeed, unclear in my written explanations.

The heart of the course is a menu of projects students can choose from. To pass the course, they need to turn in 100 points worth of projects. Like the course, the projects are pass/no pass. If they aren’t adequate, they have to be revised to earn the points. There are no gradations of points: it’s all or nothing. I’ve been pretty liberal with the projects because it’s our first time with them in this form (we did them a bit differently before) and the point is not to have great final products but rather to have good learning experiences.

We’re in the last week of classes, so a lot of projects have come in recently. Normally, this feels burdensome. The drudgery of grading. But this time it’s been fun to see how the students interpreted the often quite open (deliberately vague) guidelines and tailored the projects to their own interests and skills. None of them so far have been earthshaking, but all of them have shown the students thinking in interesting ways, exploring, experimenting. Next week, during our final exam period, we’ll do a reflection activity to bring it all together and, I hope, solidify the learning and give each student something to take forward into other classes and life.

One of the reasons the grading this time is for me joyful is because I feel less like a judge than an appreciator. I have repeatedly told the students to think of the course as basically show and tell. My feedback to them is almost entirely made up of comments such as, “Neat! I would never have thought of interpreting the assignment this way. I really enjoyed seeing what you did with it.” This is honest feedback. Being able to step away from the role of Judge (and Jury and sometimes Executioner) and to step into the role of Receiver and Appreciator makes grading a vastly more pleasant and even exciting activity.

The ways we grade students can be invisibly disempowering. I’ve known this ever since I was in high school and first read the work of Theodore Sizer and Paulo Freire (yes, I was a weird kid; this was my way out of the misery of school — imagining better schooling). But the insight is continually reinforced whenever I try to help students think of school work in new ways. This term, it was most apparent in our smallest project opportunity: for 5 points, students could do a “random act of kindness”. I thought of this as a simple way for them to get 5 points if they ended up with 95 instead of 100 at the end of the term.

This proved to be the most confusing assignment for most students. I did not predict that. The challenge seemed to be that it’s an assignment. “What would count?” they asked. “Do something random and kind…?” I said, a bit perplexed. “What is random?” they asked. “What is kind?” they asked. “Who judges?” they asked.

Interestingly, a lot of their ideas ended up having to do with money — buying something for someone. This isn’t in and of itself bad, and led to some fun stuff (random flowers for a mentor; tipping a waiter 100%), but I worry about how transactional it is. It’s as if by spending money they felt more assured that they were doing something of worth. I wasn’t prepared for this because I did not expect this particular option to be the one to cause the most confusion, but I will prepare for it next term and try to encourage the students to think about kindness more broadly, less transactionally. (They did appreciate the idea at the end that part of what we can use our time to do is bring some goodness into the world. They very much got that. But having it as an assignment made it feel somehow weird. Something to work on.)

I began experimenting with nontraditional forms of grading back when I was an English teacher and finally reached a point where I realized I was creating all sorts of misery for myself. Who assigned all this horrible work that I had to grade?! Oh, it was me. So many of my grading miseries were self-inflicted. I began to adjust my assignments, always keeping the course goals in mind but beginning to ask, “What do I actually want to grade?” Sometimes, drudgery is unavoidable. Sometimes, content just has to be learned, tested, and assessed to be able to move to more interesting and engaging experiences. The problem for me was that I wasn’t giving my students and myself ways to move on to those more interesting and engaging experiences. The content had become the be-all and end-all, when really the content needed to be a waystation along a greater path. Memorization for its own sake is no fun, dealing with a bunch of fiddly details just to deal with details is no fun. But if those tasks are part of a bigger goal, then they can at least be bearable.

Content isn’t at all the point of Cluster Learning Springboard, thankfully, so I am even more free to play around with the pedagogy. Yes, I want students to be able to speak with some knowledge about interdisciplinarity and about higher education, and there’s definitely still a ways to go in finding good ways to get them there, but one of my basic goals for the course of helping students break down social barriers, learn to work together, and take some steps toward seeing their education as something of their own are goals we made real strides toward this term. And I got to have some fun grading the work as they made their way toward those goals.

The course still has a ways to go to become what I would like it to be, but at least the students are having some fun with the work, and their fun is now my fun as I receive and appreciate that work.

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