Thursday, November 03, 2011


Trading Papers

(Sorry for the unscheduled down time. Mother Nature decided to knock out electricity for five days, just for the sheer fun of it. I wrote this just before the power went out.)

What if Professors Smith and Jones swapped papers for a semester? I’d be intrigued to hear from anyone who has actually tried this.

Anyone who has taught courses in which grading relies on judgment knows the delicate balance of both encouraging and judging students. You try to set the student up to succeed, but the result is dreadful; now you have to be the bearer of bad news. Since students don’t always understand the basis of the judgment, especially in the heat of embarrassment, it’s easy for them to default to some not-very-flattering assumptions about the instructor. Suddenly, you’ve got a psychologically fraught situation that does not lend itself to good teaching.

So a thought: what if Professors Smith and Jones traded papers for a semester? Obviously, I’m assuming that they’re teaching different sections of the same course, with enrollments close enough to equal that their workloads would not meaningfully change. If I grade your 25 papers and you grade my 25 papers, the workload adjustment is pretty much a wash.

The upside, I think, would be that the role of ‘coach’ and the role of ‘judge’ would be clearly separated. Now it’s not “try to psych out the teacher;” it’s “you and me against the guy behind the curtain.” With the roles more clearly demarcated, the instructor would be free to position herself as the student’s ally, which, in fact, she is.

It could conceivably make for more consistent grading, too. It’s easier to be objective when you don’t know the student. (At least, it’s less likely that personal likes and dislikes will enter into the judgment unconsciously.)

The major objections I’ve heard have been twofold, but neither strikes me as terribly compelling.

The first is the task of coordination. Yes, there would have to be some planning and communication between the instructors to keep things aligned. But this strikes me as the kind of thing that gets less true as you do it more. The first time out, I’d guess that the costs of coordination would be non-trivial, but by the fourth or fifth, they should be pretty minor.

The second is that the instructor would not get as complete a picture of student performance as she would if she read the papers herself.

There’s some truth to that, though it doesn’t strike me as a deal-breaker. I’m thinking that in a class with, say, four papers over the course of the semester, maybe the swap occurs in the final two. The professor gets to prep the students for the objective, outside judge. You’d still get a sense of who was who, but having that outside person come in later could help with the psychological dynamics of the class. That would be especially true if the grades on the later papers counted more heavily.

As with so many back-of-the-envelope ideas, the devil is in the details. So I’d like to hear from any of my wise and worldly readers who have actually tried this or something like it. Did it help? Did it harm? Is there a trick to getting it right?

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