Monday, November 15, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Falling Behind on Grading

A new correspondent writes:

What constitutes “falling behind” on grading in a college classroom and what are the consequences?

It strikes me that there are two parts to this issue:
1. Pedagogically, timely feedback is crucial, most would probably agree. But what, exactly, constitutes “timely”? ASAP is far too simplistic an answer. I teach English FT at a CC, and I have between 120 and 150 students, depending on the semester. What is a reasonable amount of time to take with grading given such a workload? And on the other side, what constitutes “poor performance”? Where is the line?
2. Realistically, FT professors, at least at the CC level, often need to balance the demands of the grading and teaching workload with commitments outside the classroom, including committees, student clubs, faculty senate etc… Often, both inside and outside my particular institution, I hear that the path to tenure and promotion for CC profs has more to do with visibility to admin outside the classroom than with effectiveness inside it. I would love to hear about the ways others have managed these parts of the job in ways that allowed them to continue to be successful inside the classroom.

It’s a great question, and I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on it.

In my teaching days, I set a self-imposed deadline of a week. Sometimes I’d beat that, but it ensured that even in the worst cases I’d have a weekend to grade. It required me to stagger assignments across my various classes so I wouldn’t have every class turn in a pile of papers at the same time, but that wasn’t prohibitive.

In my current role, though, I draw a distinction between “good practice” and “minimally acceptable practice.” Good practice would be something like a week. The next class would be even better, though that’s not always realistic. Minimally acceptable practice -- not great, but enough to keep you out of trouble -- would include the students having at least two graded assignments back before the end of the withdrawal deadline (usually around the 10th or 12th week of the semester), and adhering to any self-defined deadlines you’ve set. The latter could mean two weeks or even more, as long as the students know it’s coming. What gets them upset -- and I can’t entirely blame them -- is when they have no idea when their papers will come back, and the time just seems to stretch.

It’s largely about managing expectations. If a realistic timeframe for you is two weeks, say so upfront, and plan accordingly. The students may grumble a bit, but from my perspective, as long as you live up to it, you’re okay. (The same holds with student attendance policies. I can defer to almost anything reasonable in a syllabus, as long as you stick to it. But if you start making it up on the fly, or applying different standards to different students, I’ll have a harder time backing you up.)

In terms of promotion and tenure at cc’s, each context is different, but in the ones I’ve seen, the default assumption is that people on the tenure track will get tenure. Since there’s no publication requirement, and teaching quality (or lack thereof) is hard to prove legally, most people make it. In my years in administration, I haven’t seen anybody denied tenure yet. Admittedly, it could happen; I’ve heard of past cases on my own campus. But in those cases, there was usually either an over-the-top incident -- thou shalt not sexually harass students when angling for tenure -- or conspicuously awful teaching.

Promotion may be a different issue. Depending on how it’s handled on your campus, there may be a heavier burden of proof on you to show that you’ve earned it. If that’s the case, then greater visibility may matter.

For what it’s worth, neither I nor any admin I know buys the argument that excessive college service demands should excuse excessively slow grading. Your colleagues have the same obligations you do, yet they manage. If you’ve been put on so many committees that you simply can’t handle it -- this can happen to the first minority hire in a long time, who is suddenly put on every committee under the sun in the name of diversity -- ask for either a course release or a free pass to resign from a few. But don’t half-ass your teaching and then blame college service for it. Not impressive.

I imagine that different people in different contexts view this one very differently, so I’ll open it up. Wise and worldly readers, how would you define a reasonable amount of time to return graded assignments?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I tend to try to get grades for one assignment back before the next of the same kind... so, for mid-term exams that's easy... for weekly papers that's more difficult.

I've found that, if I have weekly writing assignments, as long as I get the first few back before the next few are due, then it's ok. Later in the semester they know what I'm looking for and they don't give me much trouble about it.
"I hear that the path to tenure and promotion for CC profs has more to do with visibility to admin outside the classroom than with effectiveness inside it"

When I hear statements like this, I know the US educational system is in serious trouble. I cannot dispute it's truth.

How can we continue to employ, let alone promote people who cannot or will not do the job they were hired for? Learning involves the correction of mistakes. Delayed feedback is almost as bad as no feedback at all. If you do not wish to teach, please find another profession.
As a student, I always really appreciated it when I got feedback within one week; two weeks was okay; and anything past that was very frustrating. (My undergrad institution had 3,000. Classes were generally no larger than 25 students, and most were smaller than that.) It's not because I was a grade-grubber, it's because (particularly in the case of writing assignments) I genuinely wanted to know if I was doing well and how I could do better. If I had a professor who admitted to us that s/he couldn't grade our assignments in a reasonable timeframe because of excessive committee work, I would have been pretty disgusted. Students are expected to juggle multiple classes and in many cases, jobs and family responsibilities, and get their work done in a timely fashion. I don't think it's right to expect less of professors.
“For what it’s worth, neither I nor any admin I know buys the argument that excessive college service demands should excuse excessively slow grading. Your colleagues have the same obligations you do, yet they manage. If you’ve been put on so many committees that you simply can’t handle it -- this can happen to the first minority hire in a long time, who is suddenly put on every committee under the sun in the name of diversity -- ask for either a course release or a free pass to resign from a few. But don’t half-ass your teaching and then blame college service for it. Not impressive.”

Neither thoughtful nor realistic. I am an administrator, and I find this statement insulting and silly. Administrators at my institution do not give course releases, and moreover, hold it against faculty who attempt to resign from committees. Moreover, not all faculty service is equal; chairing an important committee – such as curriculum – during curriculum review can be a major job. Yes, faculty got into the profession to teach, but don’t forget an increasing service load due to unfunded mandates (assessment, anyone?).

That being said, I tell students two weeks – but we have fairly large classes (close to 40) in a writing-intensive discipline. I need to space out my reading of student papers, since if I read too many at one sitting they all start sounding the same. I also need time for my administrative duties (see above). I have had very few complaints (if any).
I think expectations depend on the type of assignment and the size(s) of the class(es). Clearly, scores on machine-graded multiple-choice exams/quizzes can be available very quickly.

Equally clearly, the larger the class and/or the more complex the assignment, the longer it's going to take. Equally clearly, we need to communicate what we expect to be able to do to our students (just as we need to communicate to them what we expect them to do).

The worst possible outcome is to over-promise when things will be graded...
"It required me to stagger assignments across my various classes so I wouldn’t have every class turn in a pile of papers at the same time ...."

Bingo. There must be nothing worse than facing a stack of 150 papers that all came in on the same day. Gumption trap. But it can also help to make effective use of office hours during the day. It also helps to have a scheme for grading so you don't spend two hours correcting every error on an F paper.

I can dispute the truth of that statement about tenure, even if Anonymous at 7:08 cannot. The number 1 priority here is the classroom, and -- although we share the premise that faculty will earn tenure -- I have seen someone denied tenure for ineffectiveness in the classroom. I've also seen a close call, but that person didn't do any special admin service to get tenure.

Our college does not load down new faculty with service, precisely so they can figure out time management issues like this.
Your correspondent is, like me, a community college English teacher, so her grading load is enormous--and the quality of student writing is often disheartening which compounds the problem.

There's a huge literature out there about effective grading practices, but the short version is that English teachers often try to do 'way too much. Red-inking (liberals use green ink)each and every error is endlessly time-consuming and is ineffective.

Years and years ago, I was on a hiring committee, and one the top candidates said that if she required so little writing that she could only mark half of it, she wasn't requiring enough.

That's a sense of the right direction to go.

Am I missing something? Any teacher has to get all of the grading done by the end of the semester, so no matter how much other work you have to do, you have X amount of grading to do and Y amount of time to complete it. The staggered assignment strategy and relatively quick grading described by DD and several commenters seems like the obvious choice, both for the students and the teachers. Why would committee work enter into the timeliness calculation, instead of simply being a matter of total workload?
Here's the thing that I don't get. Quick turnaround time doesn't equal (though it doesn't preclude) quick substantive feedback. Now, it might mean that, but it doesn't necessarily mean that. Also, staggering assignments so as to allow for quick turn-around time doesn't necessarily make good pedagogical sense. [For example, let's say the goal is to get 4 sections of comp their first essay returned by week 5 of the course. Is it fair to say that section one must turn in a major essay in week 2 while others turn in a major essay a full two weeks later? Does the quick turn-around time in getting the feedback make up for the fact that the student didn't have the same benefit of time that students in the same course but in another section had?]

I teach both comp and introductory lit courses with a sizeable writing component. My rule of thumb is that at midterm, students should have submitted and received substantive feedback on at least one major piece of writing and they should have submitted and received their grades on a midterm test or on another major piece of writing. In classes where I do quizzes, small writing assignments, etc., I expect that at midterm students will know where they stand with those assignments. I'm very clear about the turn-around time that they can expect on their assignments, and I do my best to assure that students get them in that time. So, clearly, I care about assessing early and often and keeping students up to date about their progress.

But, frankly, I take two weeks to grade some major things. And what guides me in doing so is the best practices in my field and caring about my students and wanting to *teach* them through the way that I grade - not just assess them. If an administrator of mine were to judge me negatively for taking that two weeks, because in his head 1 week should be sufficient? I would find that utterly ludicrous.
Dictyranger: Because a lot of service and administrative work isn't predictable ahead of time. Even committees - with agendas set at semester's beginning - often face unexpected problems, agenda items, etc., that can result in an unpredictably increased workload.
Even if committee/service work is unpredictable before a class/semester begins, it doesn't hurt to be upfront with students beforehand. While saying "I'm not sure when or if I'll get assignments back to you" is definitely a non-starter, maybe mention you might be unavailable at certain points of the class/semester, or to expect grading to be a bit slower than that. I've had profs say they're away for one or two weeks at a time out of the country, and yet they still had evaluations back in plenty of time. Also, I have a hard time believing that any committee work is so unpredictable that you literally can't determine at all how you'll get assignments back to students in a timely manner at all over the course of a semester.

As an example, I had a professor once who just disappeared during the winter semester. She said we were having a quiz in our first class of the week during the following week. When we showed up, the TA was there, who proctored the test, and told us there would be a quiz in our next class, and the class after that was cancelled. When we tried to get a hold of the prof, she was unavailable during her office hours and by email. When she arrived to upset students, she angrily said that she had some commitments she couldn't get out of from before the semester started. I think this is crap, since all she would've had to do was tell us in advance there would be back-to-back quizzes and/or she'd be away for a week in March. A little foresight can save a lot of trouble.
Obviously, the type and level of classwork are relevant.

I don't know about anyone else, but I figure out pretty quickly who the students are that I can actually help. There are the folks who master the material straightforwardly, the folks who don't want to put time in (occasionally the same), the folks who aren't prepared intellectually or scholastically, and the folks who are close to "getting it" but need encouragement and/or nudges.

Guess which one should get close grading, and which ones should get adequate but not extraordinary feedback? Don't spend your time doing things that don't help your students.
With the spread of online grade books I have noticed that it has gotten harder to manage student expectations. Now, even if my students get back assignments in a very timely manner, they tend to be obsessive about how and when I update the online grade book, too.

It isn't that I don't keep records - it is that I don't use the online grade books as the primary grade record, because they are prone to occasional catastrophic failures. So, while I regularly update the online grade book for my students' convenience, that's all it is and I don't do so obsessively. I kind of figure that, with the actual assignments in hand, they can figure out for themselves where they stand in class. (and I'm very upfront about this with students, but that doesn't stop them from "needing" to know when each point will appear in the online grade book.) I sometimes wonder if they realize that when I get 100 emails in a day, all asking about the online grade book that I haven't updated in 3 days, then I have choices to make about how I can allocate my time. I can either update the grade book, or answer their emails, but probably not both.
Your colleagues have the same obligations you do, yet they manage.

No, they don't have the same obligations. I routinely teach half again as many students as my colleagues. In some cases I have double their enrolment, and that's just comparing against my department colleagues. You don't want to know what comparisons I can make to other departments in toto. (And I can: my university has given me datamart access.)

One term I kept track of the pages that I processed for grades. We're talking several thousands of pages of assignments. No wonder I felt a bit loopy by December of that year!

Some assignments I get back for the next class. Most assignments I'd like to see back in a week but at this point in a term, it's become two weeks. As reassignedtime noted, we want to give feedback, not just grades!
My personal answer is the same a Patty's for classes where there are regular assignments, such as a lab. If the students have to turn in a report each week, I'm going to grade it before the next lab meeting.

If I have them do a worksheet or quiz in class, I get it back to them by the next class, although sometimes I will simply grade them as "present" for doing it because I will coach them on it during class.

I agree 100% with the comment about on-line grade books, although I have two pat answers:

1) Do you want me to change my grading policy about dropping the lowest exam score because the on-line grade book can't handle that?

2) If all of you agree that the only thing you want is a grade, and that you won't question why a particular grade was assigned or where you made a mistake on a particular problem, I can get the exams graded in half the time it would otherwise take me. Is that what you want, or are you interested in learning from your mistakes and passing the class?
My department just had this conversation not too long ago. It seems that a week is the average response.

My outlook is that if the students groan while writing the assignment and I groan while reading it, then something about the assignment and my assessment has to change. I don't understand why teachers abuse themselves, and their students, with the same assignments semester after semester after semester. I'm not suggesting that the correspondent does in fact beat themselves up like this, but quite often this is the practice of the grumbling educator.
In my CC humanities dept. (which includes English), we just talked about this and decided a week was appropriate for the vast majority of assignments. Some very big papers would take longer to grade, but we though almost everything else could be graded in a week. Students have to manage their time and so do professors.

Part of the problem can lie in how assignments are first presented to the class and then how they are graded. Crystal clear instructions that demonstrate a logical connection to course learning outcomes, a sample of the grading rubric, and samples of previous students' work (anonymously of course!), all available electronically on a learning management site like Blackboard, can be a great help! Since I've started posting the aforementioned materials, I have spent MUCH less time correcting formatting problems and problems of the "okay-I-don't-think-you-understood-the-assignment-to-begin-with" types of problems.
I just thought of another wrinkle to add into the mix as I've been thinking more about this issue. You know, I often will have something graded very quickly, but I will hold it back rather than return it immediately. I do this not to torture students, but I have found that sometimes it's counterproductive to return a graded assignment when I need my students to be really focused on something else. Does anybody else decide when to return things based on what's happening in class on a particular day? Because I think that's entirely legitimate.
Yes, I do that from time to time. Of course I rarely hold onto graded assignments for any serious length of time (maybe an extra class day). For the same reason I won't give back assignments at the start of class, or post online grades before I return hard copy assignments. I need their attention elsewhere during class time.
During most semesters, I try to return student work within a week. However, this semester I have fallen behind on the grading due to my somewhat high-risk pregnancy. My priority right now is not pleasing the "customers," rather it is relaxing so that I can carry this baby to full-term.
Glad I crossed this post. From September 28 and on I have not received any feedback in my English class. As of Nov 3, 2013 I still have five papers (And some discussions topics) that are due for grading. My English Class ends on November 9th. Admittedly, when a professor is this unprofessional I lose my respect for him/her, the teaching profession, and even the subject! This has put me in a position to have to rely on my humanities professor for constructive feedback on my writing.

I was asked to submit feedback and you can guess what I had to say. What I want to know is, how professors are approached by their employers when things like this happen?

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