Now is the dreadful time of year when I have to grade exams. I like to think that I am good or better at most parts of my job, and competent at the rest. But even hubris would not suffice to make me think I am an efficient grader. I am slow.

No, I am very slow. I agonize. I get upset at the weak exams — I want the students to do well, and the reality is that they don't all do well. Among the worst parts is seeing common errors float up: could so many people have sat through a semester of my class and not learned that? Did I somehow say something that unintentionally misled half the class? Or is it some commercial outline somewhere that led them astray? There is no way to know.

I used to get really upset about the disasters, the D's and the (rare) F's. Now, perhaps my heart is hardened. Or, more likely, I've come to understand that not everyone is cut out to be a lawyer. Those are not my fault.

It also helps that today's students at UM are better than they were over a decade ago. There are far fewer disasters, and some of the students are very very good. Even so, there are a lot of mushy waffly exams. C+'s dragged down lower by blatant errors, or pushed up by an insight. B's listing under the weight of distractors or unspotted issues.

The A's are the best. Quick to read, easy to grade. They got it! I smile. I wish there were more of them. For the very best I'll be writing them a note, asking them to drop by so I can congratulate them in person, offering to write them recommendations. Most come by, not all take me up on the offer; some already have their futures mapped out, others I never learn the second act much less the third.

Grading is serious business. It matters enormously to the students; they think it determines their prospects. They are not entirely wrong, although for most careers it will affect the first job more than any other, and in five or ten years will be much less relevant than what they have been doing since. I have all sorts of strategies to try to be as fair as I can be. I split the exams up into piles of questions to increase consistency and so that performance on one question won't subconsciously affect the grade of the next. I grade each question in a different order so no blind grading number always comes first. I read every very low grade twice to make sure I gave it every consideration. I have certain issues in mind which, unless you see them and deal with them properly, you cannot get a top grade.

I am fairly confident that if you gave me the same pile of exams to mark last year or next year, almost all the grades would be the same. Certainly the A's, the B+'s, they're quite clear. So too with the C's on down. We don't have a B- grade. The high B's and the low C+'s are very different exams. But right at the margin between the B and C+…there I always suspect that on a different day things might have fallen a little differently. You can only do the best you can.

Grading is serious business. I spend hours and hours at it, while only a few rooms away, my wife grades twice as many exams — she's justly a more popular teacher and also teaches the business subjects that more students think they want or need — nearby, my wife grades twice as many exams in about half the time. She's a grading machine. I find my mind has wandered, and I have to start reading the essay all over again. Grading is serious and important and requires attention. But it's just not that interesting to read the fortieth essay on the same subject.

This year may be different. Normally when I'm not grading I have the alternative of doing something more interesting — usually research. But this year, when I'm not grading what I should be doing is unpacking boxes: our nearly endless home remodeling project is near enough to completion that we've taken back the half of our worldly goods that we had stuffed into a 10×15 container. (“Thank you for staying with us” said the man at the storage facility, as if I were checking out of 3-star hotel…) Now the boxes are in piles on the floor. And it's not all obvious where it all goes.

It's time to start grading today.

Or maybe tomorrow.

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7 Responses to Grading

  1. Jack Lake says:

    My son, a teacher too, says that in hell all you do is grade exams.

  2. Cyberbug says:

    I like this Michael — do you guys use set marking criteria? I will post something akin to this on my site.

  3. Cyberbug says:

    Oh—one reason the “A”s don’t tally with what gets taught in the module – may be that the learning aims and objectives have not been incorporated into the assessment strategy. My students find that “horn” books don’t quite help — since what they are asked to do starts when the solutions provided in the texts ends!
    In other words — instead of focussing solely on whether, Jane is negligent, the question might go on to ask, what theory best explains the legal ascription of responsibility (and of course, whether you agree with this theory)…

  4. Pingback: The Volokh Conspiracy

  5. Ben says:

    It is interesting to hear that you write notes to your best students asking them to drop by your office. I remember when grades finally came out after my first semseter of law school I eagerly went to the registrars office to gather and review my exams. I was disappointed to see that none my professors had made a single comment on any of the exams. There were some stray red marks, some check marks, but not one comment. I never bothered to return to the registrars office in later semesters to get my exams to review. Makes me wonder if perhaps I missed out just such a note.

  6. michael says:

    I’m afraid that the notes used to be actual letters, but for the past several years have just been emails.

    It’s quite interesting that there’s not much correlation between writing a good exam and being good in class. In my experience, some of the big talkers write great exams, some don’t. And some quiet, even silent, people turn out to be stars.

  7. thomas says:

    at UM Law I found that the vast majority of professors don’t put comments in exams.
    even exams/papers that i aced, and 1 class that i “booked” only got red pen underlining
    important points, which i think is how they count how many issues you’ve spotted.
    same for my so-so exams; just a couple “yes!” or “but why”s in the margins.

    more importantly than the exam-taking or the exam-grading, and you can’t appreciate this unless you’ve been there i think, is that many (not all) professors are extremely reluctant to discuss the exam with you after the fact, if you wanted to see what you got, what you missed, how you could do better, what you are doing well…
    in short, if you want to try to make the exam a learning experience, if you want to get something out of it other than just a grade, you will find that many professors just don’t want to take the time to sit down with you and go over it.

    that’s what really separates the great teachers from the merely salaried professors, IMHO.
    they really want to help you learn and will help you go over the thought process.

    it never really came up in a post-exam setting but i suspect that michael is one of the great teachers, in this respect, because i do happen to know how much he actually cares about whether or not his students learn the material. alfieri is another one. sadly, probably getting rarer and rarer to find that type of professor.


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