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OCTOBER 19, 2007 

The worst part of the job

Without question, teaching is a great gig except when it comes to grading student work. If you take grading seriously—as I hope every teacher does—it's very time consuming. Not so bad if you're using tests with multiple choice or yes/no answers. But when you're evaluating projects, as we often do in Visual Communication & Design classes, there is no quick & easy method.

I try to spell out grading criteria when I introduce a project: how many points for concept, how many for technical issues, how many for visual design, etc. This gives the students a clear (hopefully) idea of what I'm looking for. By assigning point values to these areas I need to think through the goals myself—is it about learning specific technical skills? If so, the "technical" grade should be worth more than, say, that of "visual design."

Sometimes I break the scoring down in more detail. The technical score may be a checklist of 8-10 items that need to be successfully completed, with individual point values. Again I sometimes vary point values to indicate the importance of a given item. Something critical may be worth 5 points while other items are worth only one or two apiece.

Of course this gets a lot more complicated when you're looking at qualities like visual appeal or usability. How do you break these into discrete tasks, and should you?

Personal preference is undeniably a factor, how do you compensate for that? I may hate the color purple, but that doesn't make it a bad choice. As much as possible I try to use standards that I'm confident are widely shared, based on my 30 years as a designer, but I can't honestly say to a student that these are absolutely, positively correct. There isn't a clear-cut "correct," although it's very useful to talk about how appropriate the choices made are for the project's target audience.

For example, using small text type (9 or 10 pt.) isn't just a matter of liking/disliking small text. If the audience is older people the small text would interfere with reading, thus making it a poor choice. Take a few points off. For a teen audience with better eyesight (typically) it becomes harder to criticize. I'd look at comparable publications (websites, whatever) for the same teen audience and use these as a way to set a standard.

My goal is to make my grades & accompanying comments as clear and objective as possible, realizing that objectivity is an unreachable goal. It's always a struggle and I'm never sure how well I'm doing. If a student complains about a grade, are they just whining or have I been unfair? I lose sleep over these questions.

Why do it?

So, if grading is such a pain in the butt, why do it? As a lukewarm hippie during the late Sixties I thought grades were a bunch of BS. We were a community of learners, right? Why attach numbers and letters to learning? If there was a movement for Pass/Fail at the University of Dayton during those years, I was probably in favor of it. Right on!

I still have a sentimental attachment to that idea. I know that in the right situation with the right teacher/student mix it can work. If everyone truly is interested in learning, feedback from the teacher is ongoing and more discussion than summary evaluation. The only time I've been in that situation is during summer workshops not a part of our degree program. Those students really wanted to be there and wanted to learn. Teaching was all fun and no agonizing over grades.

In normal semester classes however, I've found that most students need to be pushed & prodded into working at their capacity. My written comments on their work seem to be ignored until I quantify them with a D or F. Letter grades speak a language that students understand very clearly.

When the student works hard and does a good job, it's very satisfying to give them an A or B and write positive, glowing comments about their work. When they don't do well it gets harder. I feel that I have to explain why the grade is low or it's not of much value to anyone. If I can't point out clearly why a project isn't successful, how can the student learn and improve?

The very hardest situation is when the student is trying hard but just doesn't get it, something that happens all too often. Or you know that he/she has all sorts of stress in his/her life outside of school. When she comes in with a black eye and explains after class that she's involved in a domestic violence court case, the demands of a class project seem a bit silly.

Well, gotta go now. Grading to do.

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