Monday, May 09, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Final Grade Windows

A regular correspondent writes:

Apropos to the time of year... how long is it reasonable to expect faculty to turn around grades? What's it like at your CC? What do your wise and wordily readers experience? I am usually given no more than 48 hours at my various adjunct gigs. I can do that, but can't always give final exams/projects the time I'd like. I make projects due a week earlier than the last class, but student (of course) malinger and hand them during the final class. It also leads some colleagues to give their final exam a week early and blow off the scheduled final, which I know is always a perennial bugaboo.

This is one of those questions that seems like it has an obvious answer, until you actually look at it.

Nearly everyplace I’ve worked, the gap between the last day of finals and the deadline for final grades has been absurdly short: 48 hours sounds about right. If you have the lousy luck to have your exam scheduled at the end, and you assign something reasonably substantive, then you’re basically locked in grading jail for the last few days. Given the absurdity of the situation, of course, corner-cutting is rampant. The most common form of that is just moving the exam up a week into the body of the semester, and treating the exam period as a combination of grading time and early vacation. From one perspective, the obvious answer is just to add a few days between the end of finals and the grade deadline.

But stretching out the gap between the end of finals and the submission of final grades has consequences.

The deadlines on the back end are graduation certifications, the beginning of summer session, and student demand for transcripts as they go elsewhere. On the front end, intersession can’t overlap with Spring semester, and the MLK holiday can’t be moved. In between, our accreditation requires a certain number of class hours, which, in practice, requires a certain number of weeks. We try to maintain equal numbers of each day of the week, to recognize the predictable holidays -- Thanksgiving weekend in the Fall is a biggie -- and to build in some wiggle room for snow days. (This year that was especially important.) None of this is glamorous or cerebral, but it all matters. Within all those constraints, building an academic calendar resembles the old logic problems from high school algebra. (“two more than the number that got on at the last stop get on at the next stop...”)

Some schools dodge the issue by coming in under the actually required number of hours of seat time for credit hours. Lop a week off of teaching, and you build in more time for grading. In practice, some faculty do this individually, on a below-the-radar basis, by giving the final on the last day of class. Of course, that defeats the purpose of the “reading day,” and makes it difficult for students to catch up.

If it were up to me, the answer would be to do away with final exams as final exams, and to have classes run to the bitter end. But the folks who like to give “common” finals across sections don’t like that -- they have a point -- and the folks who effectively start vacation a week early would prefer not to rock the boat. Between the two groups, it’s hard to get critical mass for a change.

Wise and worldly readers, how much time does your college give between the last exam day and the grade deadline? Is there an elegant way around this?