How Do Professors Feel About Grading Papers?

Can professors have their dessert and eat it, too?

Posted Dec 24, 2018

Guest Post by Carl Pletsch, Ph.D.

You might have heard professors talking about how they love teaching, but hate grading papers. You might have even read Mitch’s blog post about the struggle it can be to grade fairly. (Of course, it’s not only professors who complain and struggle: I was going down some stairs heading off to class and heard one young student telling another how her grandmother had died seven times, permitting her to hand in papers late. I got a good laugh out of that!)

 Carl Pletsch, used with permission
Carl Pletsch, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pletsch, used with permission

Different professors feel differently about reading and grading papers, just as different students feel differently about writing and handing in papers. When I get a set of papers to read, I usually print them out, put them on my desk, and think quickly about which ones to read first. Actually, it’s a very deep question for me, a problem of human motivation.

As I sit there deciding, I’m reminded of what a fellow golfer said to me once when I hit a poor shot, swore, pulled out another ball to hit from the same place, and hit it rather well. He casually remarked, “There’s an old saying in golf — ‘Hit the second ball first.’” I also remember what another prof once told me in the cafeteria when I asked him why he ate the chocolate cake before his entree: “If I die in the middle of lunch, I don’t want to miss dessert.”

In a similar way, I am motivated to read the good papers first — the ones that I anticipate will be interesting, thoughtful, and well written. I really look forward to them. They will be gratifying. I know I will just love them! Just like that chocolate cake: I anticipate the happiness I will feel when I realize that some of the students have eagerly engaged with the material we have been studying together and have put some creative energy into their papers. I know I will learn something from those students. Bring ‘em on! I can’t wait to read them.

Of course, at the beginning of the semester, I can’t anticipate which papers will be so much fun to read, but there are hints. Is a paper well formatted and of the proper length? Does it have a title, and is there some evidence at the end of the paper that the student used some appropriate sources? In other words, did the student follow directions? Hmm, yes, that looks good! I’m already interested to read the paper.

Later in the semester, I have other hints. Has a student attended regularly, asked engaged questions, participated in class conversation with the other students, perhaps even come to my office hour to discuss the material in greater depth? These are all signs that tip me off to look for that student’s paper and read it first.

Isn’t that kind of unfair, though? Am I prejudging the quality of the paper by using irrelevant characteristics to form my judgments? That is a risk, but if I can approach the papers objectively (for example, using a grading rubric), then I can use these characteristics to decide what to read first, but still fulfill my obligation to evaluate fairly. I am prepared to see weaknesses in these first papers.

The flip side of this coin is being biased against those papers I’ve saved until later. It’s like after my dessert and entrée, getting around to the broccoli. I admit, I do approach a few papers with trepidation. But with these papers, I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised. In fact, I hope to be pleasantly surprised. My first impression may be wrong, or a poorly formatted paper may contain some really good, original ideas. What fun to discover them! Eating broccoli can be very nourishing and fulfilling!

The bottom line is that it’s human to try and motivate myself. At the same time, I believe strongly that professors have some special responsibilities. I am the one getting paid to read these papers. I have been granted a modicum of authority to facilitate students’ learning and to evaluate their work. It is my responsibility to keep an open mind and remain prepared to (a) grade papers objectively regardless of who wrote them, and (b) discover good work whenever and wherever I find it, even when I have seen some signs that it might not turn out that way. And so I hold out hope. And I am often surprised. I love to read great papers, I love to discover good ideas in all papers, and I love to help students become better thinkers and writers. Sometimes, I even have a good idea whose grandmother has died several times already.

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Blogger’s note: Carl Pletsch is professor emeritus of history at the University of Colorado Denver. In addition to conducting research on intellectual history (he wrote Young Nietzsche, Becoming a Genius), he taught modern European and ancient Greek history. He’s also done a ton of work on technology and faculty development. We got to talking one day about grading (probably as a way to put off the actual grading…). I like to grade papers in random order, so each paper surprises me. Carl has a different way to determine the order of the papers he grades, and he is surprised in different ways.