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grading blues

On campus in summer
Last week I finished grading research essays written by my first year university students.  It is not one of my favourite tasks, I have to admit.  Oh, it starts out well enough.  As I read the first few papers I am filled with hope, eager to discover what the students have unearthed in their excavation of facts, texts, and philosophies.  However, by the end I am usually deflated, discouraged, and never want to see another essay.  After hours of grading, the mere misuse of a comma, an improper citation of a source, or a paragraph that extends longer than a page makes me grind my teeth, emit a primitive groan, and reach for another square of chocolate.  I get so tired of trying to decipher what students are trying to say and having to hack my way through a jungle of incoherent words (is there a point somewhere in it all?), that I want to put a big X on the page and tell them to start over.  In English this time, please.  But I don't.

Of course, there are always a few eloquent, well-structured, and thoughtfully researched essays which prevent me from losing my sanity, but they are few and far between.  I try to grade with mercy, remembering that a research essay is one of the most difficult assignments students will ever be asked to complete, but after awhile, even pity can't hold back the frustration that I feel building inside me when student after student seems to lack the ability to write a clear thesis or compose a topic sentence or follow a simple style guide.

The only thing worse than grading substandard papers is seeing the disappointment, shock, sadness, and demoralization on students' faces when they receive a low mark.  The last thing I want to do is demotivate students, but I can't give marks away for free.  I want them all to do well, I really do (what teacher doesn't?), so there is nothing quite so depressing as seeing a demotivated and deflated student, crestfallen and doubting their abilities.  But the fact remains that writing a research essay is demanding.  It requires a lot of diligence, attention to detail, clear thinking, hard work, extensive reading, careful editing, and most of all, practice.  And not everyone in a first year university course has had that practice.

Evaluating student's work against a static rubric is not ideal, I know.  But neither is being dishonest about the students' abilities to follow directions nor inflating their self-confidence when they have underdeveloped, superficial self-learning skills (good research is the foundation of self-learning).  I realise that part of the problem with the grading process is that it makes me feel like a bad teacher.  I am not perfect, but I am not a bad teacher.  I care about my students, I try to give them all the tools they need to learn, I try to make the study of theology accessible while preserving its mysterious and ineffable nature, and I use a lot of different teaching techniques that allow the students to come at the material from a number of angles (and keeps us from getting bored in class). 

Sometimes I (and probably my students) need a few reminders about the nature of learning. 
1.  Learning is not about getting a good grade, but about knowing more than I did at the beginning of the process.
2.  Learning takes time and never ends, so be patient. 
3.  Never compare myself (or a student) to others; this never ends well.  Either one gets inflated by a high standing (overconfident, proud, perhaps an increased pressure to perform well) or one is discouraged by a low standing (which is demotivating and can make one want to give up). 
4.  If I do something, do it to the best of my ability at the time.  Next time or the time after that, I will undoubtedly do it better.
5.  Appreciate lessons learned by correction (or error).  These are hard, but I won't forget them.
6.  Learning is a privileged journey.  Not everyone has ready access to resources like we do.  Not everyone has a positive and supportive learning environment like I do. Be thankful.
7.  Learning goes hand in hand with discernment, so make sure wisdom is part of any learning process; it's more than just getting an assignment right or doing well on a test.
8.  Be kind to your fellow learners (students).  At times one has to be firm, but one never has to be unkind.

Here are a few wise words from Proverbs 15:
Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.  Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.  Wisdom's instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honor.



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