Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

On Graders: A Behavioral Typology

Like birth, death, and taxes, grades are inevitable--but graders?

As the academic year comes to another close and the promise of summer is in the air, I thought a meditation on psychology teachers as graders seemed appropriate. Grading--the process of sorting, ranking, evaluating, marking, praising, and sometimes damning--can be both objective and subjective. Grading is objective when the answers are fixed, as in a multiple choice format. Subjectivity reigns when the grader relies on his or her reactions to the work, which occurs in the case of papers, essays, short answers, and the like, not to mention the more measured responses to undergraduate theses and PhD dissertations.

Few people are big fans of grading, and grades are rarely a pleasure to give or to receive. Still, an immutable fact of academic life is that assigned work must receive an assigned grade. Think back to your own experience. What were the graders in your life like? Here is a brief typology (albeit one partially tongue in cheek):

The Procrastinator. Assigns work, collects it, and then appears to forget all about it. Something, anything, seems to get in the way of dealing with those pesky papers. Where the Procrastinator is concerned, it is not at all unusual for 2, 3 or even more weeks to pass until student pleading rouses the reluctant teacher to action. A subtype is the Confessing Procrastinator, who is apt to share (in great detail) all that important work that "gets in the way" of the grading to be done. When feedback on student performance accompanies the final grade, it is usually too little-and certainly too late-to be of any help. But there's always next time . . .

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The Efficiency Expert. This grader is ruthless; the grading trains must run on time. Generally, the EE begins the grading marathon the same day the assignments roll in. But the long march is brief, as students usually get their work returned in the very next class. A good thing--no, an amazing feat, you say? Well, students get a rapid sense of how they are doing based on the grade attached to the work. Unfortunately, the EE grades so quickly that the accompanying comments, which are often copious, might as well be written in cuneiform, Sanskrit, or a secret code. Unlike the letter grade, the comments are illegible, the necessary sacrifice for a speedy delivery.

The Mysterian. Tests and papers are returned with a grade (a letter or a number, often written in red ink, but no comments or context are provided for it). Even essays are left blank except for the strategically placed, scarlet letter grade. Students are left to ponder such mysteries as, "Is an 82 a good score on this test?", "What was the class average?", and "Am I passing, failing, or doing really well?" As oracle, the Mysterian remains silent.

The Perfectionist. The Perfectionist approaches grading the way a preacher approaches a tent revival: There are souls to be saved in the name of psychology! Dr. P writes incredibly detailed, even expansive, comments all over the paper (that's what that double spacing is for!). There is so much exegesis in the margins (with arrows, underlining, exclamation points, and question marks, not to mention upside down writing) that students don't know where to begin reading-so they don't. They cut to the chase, heading straight to the end of the paper to see the final accounting. Does the Perfectionist ever learn that too much feedback is, well, too much? No. Why? Because the gates of grading redemption are always open to the wayward psychology student. Salvation lies in that fine print.

The Pal. To the Pal, college life--especially where the field of psychology is concerned--is more about personal relationships and sharing than the rat race of grades, graduate school, and gainful employment. "Hey, don't worry about grades! We're all here to learn and, in any case, I'll take care of you! You'll be fine. Really. I am all about students-call me student centered. Did you see my teaching award from a couple decades ago?" The Pal forgets the teaching maxim: Be friendly, not friends!

Dr. Easily Distracted. A fellow traveler of the Pal, Dr. Distracted is wont to share his memory lapses with the class: "I forgot your [fill in the item] again. It's [at home, in my car, on my desk, lost in my briefcase]. Sorry. I promise I'll remember to bring it for the next class." Repeat as needed, usually for several weeks.

The Paragon of Virtue. A rare colleague: One who reads submitted work in a timely manner, writes judicious comments, adds a note to the end of each and every student work indicating (a) any problems or shortcomings, as well as areas for growth, (b) at least one genuine compliment, and (c) a grade. The PoV also shares the grading distribution for the whole class with the whole class. And any and all work is returned within 2 or 3 classes. Are there anymore at home like you?

No doubt there are other campus grading denizens. Perhaps you recall one from your own past? All kidding aside, grades do matter, grading is an important and necessary activity, and students should seek feedback on their performance. They should also welcome such feedback, even when it is not what they want to hear---or read. We'll take this part of the grading process up in a blog. In the mean time, be grateful that the above cast of characters won't appear on the final exam.

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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