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So, here it is. Finals week.

Fortunately, I had my finals ready to go weeks ago, despite the fact that three of my six classes were brand-new preps (every single class was a different course, whee!). Fortunately, I have minions, I mean teaching assistants, for the two huge lecture courses with 160-plus students each.

I teach at two schools. One has a bunch of middle-class kids in its population. The other is the inner-city school. The minions are at the middle-class school. When it comes to grading the finals and the papers, I'm alone at the inner-city school, where the classes are smaller but I have no minions.

So there's still plenty of papers and exams that I get to grade, too. I'm halfway through the papers and three-fourths of the way through the exams (and the last exam is tomorrow, or I'd have had that one done by now too). But reading some of these papers makes me realize that even with all the instruction and help I'm giving them, some of my students still just. don't. get it.

If you're a teacher, or you love a teacher, come past the fleur-de-Kos for some humor and maybe a little angst. It'll only be a little, because I have to be in bed very soon for a four a.m. wake-up call (thankfully the last one I ever have to do this term).  

A friend of mine sent around a "grading bingo" card a week or so ago, on Facebook. On it were many of the fine mistakes and problems that we, the teachers, can expect on papers (normally due at the end of the term). Here's a few that I've found in the 68 papers I've managed to get through in the last three days (which is about half of the total I need to finish by Sunday):

Overpersonalization. I've had three or four students tell me massively overpersonalized stories about abuse, or gang backgrounds, or criminal family members... and it just makes me cringe.

Spelling errors, verb tense errors, incorrect word choice errors... I sort of lump these all together. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's just annoying, and sometimes I wonder if it's their way of "writing like I talk" when they say that people "loose" their ability to think rationally, or that people "just aren't use to things like that." Either way, it annoys me.

Excessive verbiage. College students are notorious for this. Extra words, repeated sentences, and on and on and on. Most of these four-to-six page papers are more like three-to-five when you cut out all the excess word clutter.

Missing thesis. This is a fun one. When I'm writing, on every single page, "What is your main point, argument, thesis?" you know that something didn't get through.

Citations of Wikipedia, Newsmax, WorldNutDaily - yes, I've seen all three. And yes, I've scolded in my comments, because I told them to stick to .edu, .gov and real, peer-reviewed research.

Now, I'm not a grammar or writing teacher, but I feel that college students should know how to write, dammit, even in a history class or a sociology class. I am working towards getting them to write better, and one person put out what I can only term a Herculean effort to improve for this paper. I do have to admit that they are getting better. I just wish I could send them out of my class as thinkers who really know how to write.

On the other hand, one of the TAs at my other school just sent me this e-mail about the papers that he's grading: "These are exceptional - the best undergrad papers I've ever read. What did you do??" So I guess it's not all bad - although I'm jealous of him, getting to read better papers than the ones I've got at the other school.

Anyone have similar grading angst to share? The comments section is open.

Originally posted to Killer of Sacred Cows on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 10:06 PM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I gave two finals yesterday... (2+ / 0-)

    ...have to give some make-ups for past exams missed today, and have one more final to give on Friday.

  •  My finals are done (3+ / 0-)

    I'm spending my break building three classes from the ground up, however.

    And I include writing of some sort in every class meeting, as well as essays, etc.

    I don't mind the personal writings. Knowing a student's background is helpful for me, in fact, and encouraging it at the beginning of the semester often gets it out of their system. Just a thought ...

    In general, however, this gen of kids seriously sux at writing.

    •  Personal stories can be useful... (5+ / 0-)

      On the first day of class, have your students write a one-to-two page essay about themselves, their lives, etc.  Have them turn it in the first day of the second week.  

      Two weeks before class ends, hand it back and tell them to re-write it, but to explain it in terms of things they learned in the class.  

      Works well with sociology.  If they can apply sociological theory to their own lives, it means they get it and, we hope, can apply it to the lives of others.

      People love to talk about themselves.  So let them do it.  Just make sure they're reflecting on what they've supposedly learned in the class when they do it.  

    •  I don't mind it either, normally, (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      indubitably, ladybug53

      but it really is inappropriate in a research paper, especially where the topic has nothing to do with the personal story that gets shoehorned into the first two pages of the five page paper.

      "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." - Hubert Humphrey

      by Killer of Sacred Cows on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 07:57:45 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  .edu & .gov (3+ / 0-)

    are not terribly reliable guarantees of accurate & credible information. And for science anyway, wikipedia ain't half bad, at least according to 'Nature,' one of the most prominent peer reviewed scientific journals:

    "A witness stand is a lonely place to lie. (...) We put fear and prejudice on trial, and fear and prejudice lost." -David Boies

    by corkys debt on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 06:10:54 AM PST

  •  An interesting finals story... (6+ / 0-)

    the class was game theory.  

    The grading was as follows:  there were three exams scheduled, plus one final.  The grading was curved.  At the end of the semester, the highest grade in the class becomes a 100, and all other grades are determined proportionally from there.  

    What do you think happened on finals day?

    Nobody showed up!  The students colluded with one another and every student agreed that they would not show up for the final.  Thus, the grade they had at the end of the third exam was the grade they kept.  

    It was an interesting strategy, but what's disappointing is that nobody cheated.  

    Say out of 300 points available after the three exams, student #1 has 280 points (a 93% or A-), and student #2 has 225 points (a 75% or C).  Student #1 is also the top student in the class.  

    Student #2 has tremendous incentive to cheat by reneging on the agreement and betraying the cartel.  All he would need to do to get an A+ in the class would be to show up, take the test, and score a measly 56 points.  Student #2 would be the highest scorer in the class, and would get an A+.   Student #1, formerly our star student would go from an A- to 70%, which is a C-.  

    The fact that our mediocre student #2 did not figure out that he had tremendous incentive to cheat (by breaking the deal with the other students) is to be expected:  if he'd paid attention in game theory class, he would have known, and had a better grade to begin with!

    Extra Credit:  Identify the well-known game in game theory that the grading scheme represents.          

    •  I haven't done much reading on game theory (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Killer of Sacred Cows

      but is it similar to the El Farol bar problem?

      Shoot blues -> Tell Vile Rat

      by CayceP on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 07:00:30 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Looks like Prisoners Dilemma? (4+ / 0-)


      by profewalt on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 07:57:08 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I once used this dilemma to catch cheaters (3+ / 0-)

      I saw two kids hand in identical programming assignments once when I was a TA for PL/I   (in other news, there was a time when we taught classes in PL/I.  I can't give you an exact year because we didn't have calendars yet.)

      I taught recitation sessions with weekly quizzes, while the lectures were taught by an asshole professor who decided one year that he hated people and that everyone was out to get him and that he would flunk everyone if he had an excuse.  

      So I announced in recitation that there was a cheating incident on the last assignment, and if you have anything to do with it, write a confession on the quiz.  If I gather the quizzes and the confessions all make sense---two people admit to collaborating, or one person admits to stealing someone else's assignment, and the other quiz says nothing---I'll just give the guilty parties a 0 on the assignment.  If the stories don't jive up, I'll have to take it to professor McAsshole and let him figure it out.

      Of course, they could have all written nothing and gotten no points off, but each one faces a huge penalty if the other doesn't do the same.  

      Taking jokes seriously is the exact mirror activity of laughing if someone says they have cancer. --jbou

      by Caj on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 11:04:10 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I very much share your annoyance at bad (4+ / 0-)

    grammar. If I had any hair left, I'd pull it out in frustration and horrified amazement at the apparent inability of so many to know how to use "its" vs. "it's", "used to", "lose" vs. "loose," etc. I paid attention in school and it seems I was a fool for having done so.

    And I think the argument "Listen to what I say, not how I say it" is laziness and baloney. Requiring students to speak and write standard English is not a crime against humanity.

  •  The funniest error I've heard of (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    CayceP, Killer of Sacred Cows

    was related to me by a religion prof.  He said a student in an essay had mentioned Jesus in the Garden of Yosemite.

    Maybe the Mormons were right?

    -5.13,-5.64; If you gave [Jerry Falwell] an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox. -- Christopher Hitchens

    by gizmo59 on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 06:31:39 AM PST

  •  I still have trouble crafting a good thesis (3+ / 0-)

    It's just something I've never been good at--mostly because I wander in interdisciplinary no man's land. I constantly have to evaluate if what I'm writing is clear to others or you know, just me.

    Shoot blues -> Tell Vile Rat

    by CayceP on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 06:54:55 AM PST

    •  My rules for a thesis are simple. (8+ / 0-)

      1. It has to be an argument (stating a position).
      2. It has to be specific, not broad or generalized.
      3. You have to support it with data (experimental results, other people's research).
      4. You have to be able to state its counter-argument.

      So, as an example:

      I guide my students (most of them working-class kids of color) through an exercise where I start by saying "Michael Jackson was the most awesome musician ever." I point out the problems ("'Most awesome?' What does that mean?" "Ever? Really? You want to do that much research?").

      Then I say, "How could we show that Michael Jackson was the best musician of his time?" 
Well, some students say, he was mostly popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. I say, "OK, let's make it just the 1980s. What data might show that he was the best musician of the 1980s?" Then I get someone saying "But he was only one kind of music!" so we narrow it down to "pop" or "Top 40" musician. 

      Once we have hammered out the argument to "Michael Jackson was the most successful Top 40 musician of the 1980s," (yay, specificity!) I ask them to show me proof. And they tell me: sales records, Grammy and other music awards, gold and platinum records, Billboard charts. All to the good - this is good evidence/data.

      Then I ask them for the counter-argument. And someone immediately says something like "Phil Collins" or "Billy Joel" or some other Top 40 pop star was actually the most successful Top 40 1980s musician.

      By tying it to something they know (pop music), I make it easier for them to tie it to something they may not yet know (the content of my course). It really does make a difference. 

      "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." - Hubert Humphrey

      by Killer of Sacred Cows on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 08:04:53 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Sharing the pain (3+ / 0-)

    Taking a bit of a brain break here. I have about 50-60 papers left to read averaging 7-8 pages in length. My final was take home and emailed. I gave up trying to read the excuses for handwriting that I have experienced using a "blue book".  Some of my favorite moments...
    Using 20-30 point fonts and triple spacing for a 5 page paper...
    4.5 pages of pictures and a paragraph of writing for said paper...
    Idiotic plagiarism by copying 5 different fonts in a paper..
    Text speak..."cre8, nameen" and so forth"....
    Using the bible as a reference to refute global warming..
    Using said reference as an approach to world wide fisheries depletion...

    Grading Policy..In answering the question posited:
    Make me think ....A
    Good answer, correct references and well thought out B
    Dancing around question, structural deficiency, poor ref's.   ..C
    See examples above for F

    The class is Environmental Policy, using law and policy in working on big problems...

    And remember the reason for the season 22.5 Degrees South Declination...


    by profewalt on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 07:52:24 AM PST

  •  My version of end-of-semester bingo... (5+ / 0-)

    ...would involve the kinds of e-mails I expect to receive just before and after finals grades are posted (listed in approximate order of frequency):

    1. Questions about when the grades will be posted. I don't answer these; the entire process only takes a few days, so I ignore demands to hurry up about it.

    2. Questions about whether we plan to "curve" (by which they actually mean increase) the final grades. (Answer: no.)

    3. Requests to "meet to discuss my final grade." (Answer: sure, we can meet and discuss it, but I am not going to change it.)

    4. Pleas for a higher grade because "If I get a D, I won't be accepted into [whatever post-graduate programs] I applied to." (Answer: no.)

    5. Happy or relieved e-mails from students who received a higher grade than they expected to. I do get these on occasion, and I am truly happy for these people.

    6. Requests to regrade some or all previous exams or assignments. They hope that they can argue for just enough points to bump them up to the next grade level. (Answer: no.)

    You teach a lot more classes than I do, KoSC, and frankly, I don't know how you do it. Enjoy your end of semester and have a nice break; you should be proud of the positive impact you are having on so many people.

    •  All of your comments hit home (6+ / 0-)

      Adding to your list..

      1. e-mails from irate parents, Johnny failed you must be a bad teacher, should be sacked..No Johnny spent most of the class texting, never bought the books and had a 30% average going into the final exam and had his cell phone taken away as he was using it to cheat...

      2. e-mail from dean of students regarding irate e-mail from parents...Telling me that I did not understand Johnny or his needs...

      3. phone call from provost...regarding irate email from parents...notifying me that Johnny had F/D in all six of his classes...

      4. Having the pleasure of sitting on the Academic Board that ultimately dis-enrolled Johnny..Priceless..


      by profewalt on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 08:20:36 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Sounds like something my wife would write... (9+ / 0-)

      ...that's one of the disadvantages of working at a $45,000 per year "New Ivy" school:  you get a lot of spoiled rich brats that have had everything in their lives handed to them on a silver platter, and expect professors to do the same.  

      They typical story:  kid shows up for class sporadically, and when he does, he smells like distillery, and spends most of the class with his hand under the desk texting (back in my day if you sat with your hand under your desk, people might think you were playing with yourself).  He does poorly.  He then runs to my wife saying she needs to raise his grade, or he won't get into medical school.  

      Wife says "No."  

      Kid gets in a huff.  "My parents pay your salary!"  

      "Well, they pay part of it.  It takes about four parents to pay my salary, and the other three would be pissed if their kid who worked his ass off and got an "A" had that achievement cheapened by someone getting an "A" who rarely shows up for class, and is generally still drunk from the night before if he does."

      Kid goes to academic dean.  Wife is dragged in front of academic committee to defend the grade the student earned.  She brings attendance records, grades, and papers that look as though they were written by an 8th grader. Some people on the committee pressure her to be more lenient.   She refuses.  

      Happens every year around this time.  

      When she worked at a comm college for a semester as an adjunct, she said the students there were a lot less whiny.  For the most part, they knew how lucky they were to be there, and worked their asses off to make the best of it.  

      •  The worst part.. (4+ / 0-)

        The kid will probably get into Med., Vet or Dental school due to influential parents..Taking a spot away from someone who worked their proverbial asses off..Just saw this with a kid who went to HS with my daughter. He majored in extreme sports and communications in Colorado, took 6 years to graduate with a BA (low gpa)....Just found out from his parents that he was accepted into a Med school..Another classmate of hers,  BS Bio..4.0 gpa is on his third year of applications.


        by profewalt on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 08:33:03 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I remember when my wife applied to grad school... (6+ / 0-)

          She applied at Harvard and Cornell for the Ivys, U Chicago, Stanford, two state schools (Wisconsin and Indiana), and University of Toronto. (Amusingly, the only ones who turned her down were University of Wisconsin and Indiana University!)

          Anyway, at the Harvard meet and greet for prospective students, the applicants were talking about application process and the subject of rec letters came up...  One guy bragged that he got a rec letter from the Surgeon General.  My wife, impressed, asked "How do you know the Surgeon General?"  

          The guy said he didn't know him.  He wrote the letter himself and his dad had a friend of a friend of a friend who worked at the Surgeon General's office stamp his signature on it.  

          All these kids had similar stories.  

          My wife wasn't impressed.   The people who wrote her recs are pretty well known (if you're a scientist in her field), but she knew each one of them personally.  She still keeps in touch with them all these years later....  

          So yeah, you're absolutely right there.  It all comes down to who you know.    

      •  I wonder how much (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Killer of Sacred Cows, ladybug53

        a student's personality affects their grades.  I was a very shy, quiet student and never talked with my professors.  My son is the same way, perhaps for different reasons though. He said it just never occurred to him to become friendly with his teachers.  I would guess that at least 80% of my professors didn't know who I was.

        We both know more outgoing students who were much more familiar with the professors and whose professors always knew their names and something about them.  It would seem to me that this would have some impact on grading.

        I also wonder if some of the students who write very personal things about themselves in an assignment do so as a way of letting their teachers know who they are because they are uncomfortable talking to them in person

        Oh, and do students who write long sentences drive you crazy?

        I know it drove a couple of my professors nuts! It is a hard habit to break.


        by jennybravo on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 12:34:27 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Depends.... (2+ / 0-)

          The most impressive people I've ever seen are usually quiet.  They're the ones who sit there for 45 minutes and say absolutely nothing.  They just look and listen.  Then they finally say something.  The room goes silent.  They say a sentence or two and it's the most profound thing you'll hear all day long.  

          If you are shy, you might better off at a small school.   Compare my education to my wife's:  I went to Massive State U., she went to Small Town Liberal Arts college.  I never saw professors.  When I did, they had no idea who I was.  She called her profs by their first names, and still talks with them to this day.  Some of my classes were held in theaters that were designed to hold 300+ people.  In her classes, she was usually one of less than 12; once she was in a class of three students, and the class was specifically put together for them!  

          Both types of educations have their benefits and detractions.  I think if you're pretty shy, Small Town Liberal Arts College is the place for you.  If you're able to thrive in an impersonal, rat-race like environment and have the kind of personality to seek things out and take them, you might have more opportunities at Massive State.

          The daughter of a friend just started her freshman year at Massive State.  He and his wife tried pushing her towards Small Town Liberal Arts College since they felt her personality would be a better fit there, and since money was no concern.  One of her concerns was that she grew up her whole life in a small town in a rural state:  she wants to get into a bigger, busier, livelier place.  It will be interesting to see how she makes out when the report cards come out next week.    

          It bothers me when anyone uses run-on sentences.  But I find myself doing it from time-to-time, so I can't complain too much.  The difference is, I usually fix mine.   ;)  

          •  I actually did (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Killer of Sacred Cows

            well. I graduated from the University of Washington with a 3.85 GPA.  But I always envied the students who were more outgoing with their professors. Since I was the first in my family's history to attend college, it never occurred to me that I could be friendly with the teachers.

            My son is currently a junior a Yale and is doing okay.  His current GPA is about 3.4.  I must admit to being slightly disappointed  that his GPA doesn't quite make the "A" territory. I was used to his 4.0 GPA in high school. But in his defense it is Yale, and he is working 20-24 hours a week and involved in a couple of student groups.  But I still worry about him getting into a top notch grad school.

            I also find it odd that parents would actually contact the professors. I'd never dream of it. And my son would have heart failure if I did.


            by jennybravo on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 01:38:02 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  It might not affect grading, but (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Killer of Sacred Cows

          it could have an impact in other ways, especially at a large university. Most students eventually need recommendation letters from faculty members, and detailed letters have much more impact. If a top student asks me for a letter, and I have never spoken to her, what can I say? Only that she was in my class and got outstanding grades. I can write a MUCH better letter if I know how she got where she is, and why she wants to do whatever it is she is applying for.

          Shyness is also a disadvantage if it prevents someone from taking advantage of opportunities like student research, or advanced reading courses. These usually require a student to approach and interact with a faculty member.

          The good news is that there are plenty of low-stress ways to catch a faculty member's attention. My favorite is when a student e-mails a link to an article or news story relevant to a topic from class. In fact, it makes my day, and it would be a great thing for a reserved student to try. Quiet students sometimes show up for my office hours with a couple of outgoing friends; this gives them a chance to make an impression without that awkward one-on-one interaction.

          Students can do very, very well without doing any of these things, but they might miss out on some activities that they would really enjoy.

    •  Well, I love to teach. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      CayceP, gffish

      It's just during the finals that it's a little more difficult, and during the prep that it's a little more stressful. Being in the classroom, connecting with students - that's just the best thing in the world, to me.

      I stop most of the things you've listed in their tracks by putting specific statements about them in the syllabus and reminding the students about it two or three times over the course of the term. (Example: this morning I reminded them that under FERPA (federal law) I cannot discuss grades in e-mail, so don't e-mail me asking for your grade.) I don't curve, I don't give extra credit, I have specific guidelines for what qualifies you for an incomplete, and I do not, under any circumstances, talk to parents. All of this is spelled out in black and white in the syllabus and gone over on the first day.

      Do I still get e-mails asking for grades? Sure. And they go right into the bit bucket, along with the emails from parents (since I'm legally not allowed to talk to them).

      "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." - Hubert Humphrey

      by Killer of Sacred Cows on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 08:49:37 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I had one professor who wrote into (3+ / 0-)

      his syllabus that sure, he'd be happy to review your paper for a re-grade, but that you had to wait a day before you asked for one, and he had the right to lower the grade further.

      Shoot blues -> Tell Vile Rat

      by CayceP on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 09:27:23 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's what I put. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        CayceP, Ree Zen

        If you disagree with any grade I give, you have the right to talk to me about it in office hours. However, this constitutes asking for a re-grade. If I find more errors this time, your grade may be adjusted accordingly.

        It's amazing how few grade-grubbers and quarter-point beggars I get.

        "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." - Hubert Humphrey

        by Killer of Sacred Cows on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 09:44:13 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  My husband teaches computer science (3+ / 0-)

    and every so often he gets an email from a student that doesn't make any sense-- he literally can not figure out what the student is trying to say.

    The complaints that I hear most often, though, are these:  students don't seem to retain what they hear in class, math skills are shockingly weak, many students don't seem to know how to think.

  •  I'm a piano teacher... (3+ / 0-)

    So obviously the issues that I run into are slightly different. But they stem from the same root causes, I think.

    Lack of attention. Lack of focus. Lack of curiosity (I had one student tell me that he didn't read the words to a song I'd assigned -- printed VERY clearly between the two lines of music -- because I "didn't assign the words". Hair-tearing moment.)

    Generally, a total obliviousness to the beauty and complexity of language (if I ask most students to read a basic song lyric in a "poetic" way, they can't.)

    The expectation that they are going to be spoon-fed their entire lives. That I'm a machine whose job it is to TELL them their notes. Granted, after about 2 weeks in my studio they quickly drop that idea...but still...!!!

    Is it just me? Or are kids getting less curious, less intellectually independent, and more content to just coast?

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