by Christian Lambert, Goldman School of Public Policy
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016
Assessing student work is the household chore of any given course: important and useful, but often begrudged and disparaged, too. As an instructor in an introductory course that many students pursue in order to fulfill pre-requisites for various programs, I find that my students’ grading anxieties are a potent distraction from their learning outcomes. This problem is exacerbated by the nature of my discipline, in which grading is less likely to involve objective numerical or multiple-choice assessment and more likely to entail subjective assessment of the strength of reasoning conveyed by students’ narrative answers.
Grading anxieties are surely all too familiar. Students who receive grades below their expectations become mistrustful of their GSIs and resentful of grading schema they find opaque. Students who exceed their expectations become complacent, ignoring their instructors and focusing their energy on securing the highest letter grade rather than developing mastery over course concepts. GSIs waste scarce office hours and precious classroom rapport on stressful, unproductive grade disputes.
In economics, we might call these problems transaction costs. I devised a simple plan to implement a general grading rubric to help lower these costs. My aim was to help assuage students’ anxieties, increase their buy-in to the course, lower my own stress level, and decrease the overall time I spent grading student work. Here is the simple blueprint for my general grading rubric idea:
Step 1: Plan your general rubric well before the course begins. Consider your course’s learning outcomes and identify flexible criteria that will be applicable to all major opportunities for student assessment in your course. For example, my primary rubric criteria are precision and completeness: students should demonstrate their learning with detailed answers that employ relevant course concepts correctly and thoroughly. Beginning on Day 1, I share these criteria with my students and explain my expectations at length. I also add a third criterion — concision — that does not affect the grading itself but does help reduce some students’ inclination to overprovide.
Step 2: Emphasize the general rubric early and often. Even before students have completed any assessable work, I use brief active learning challenges to demonstrate my expectations. For example, I often use a simple productive failure exercise, challenging students to explain a given course concept with ten words or less. Students are then invited to critique their classmates’ responses, using the general rubric.
Step 3: Maintain consistency when providing feedback on assessed work. Take your vocabulary from your rubric; this saves you time and garners buy-in from students. I often respond to students’ grading questions with a question of my own: could this answer have been more precise or complete?
Since I began using a general rubric, starting with my second semester, I used my first semester’s course evaluations as a counterfactual for comparison. That semester, students listed grading as an area for improvement: “I found it confusing when I didn’t know the correct answer”; “ultimately the correct answer is unclear.” After the second semester, students described my approach as a strength of the course: “He makes it clear to us what it is that he expects.” Just as importantly, I found that the time I spent on providing feedback and resolving grading disputes (not to mention the associated stress) was much lower. This self-reporting aside, the general grading rubric offers a flexible approach for any GSI to reduce the transaction costs of grading. The added honesty and clarity will help to assuage students’ grading anxieties and to keep them focused on their learning.