The grading game

There was a pretty good discussion of grading Tuesday in the composition practicum that I’ve been auditing as part of an independent study on how to teach such a course.

Lately I’ve been think of grading in football terms. I’m not sure why, but I think that class kicked a neuron out of alignment.

The teacher is the quarterback. The assignment is a pass from shotgun. The student is the receiver on a pattern that aims for a 10-yard gain. The situation is 1st and 10.

An A happens when the student catches the pass 10 yards out like it was in their backyard, and runs it in for a touchdown.

A B occurs when the student catches the pass, dodges a few defenders, and gets tackled 12 yards out. It’s a first down with some gain.

A C is when the student gets slowed down by a meddling cornerback, catches the pass 7-8 yards out and is immediately nailed in midair by one defender and then buried beneath two others. The student is carried off the field in a stretcher and after the ball is found, it’s 2nd and 3.

A D is when the student maybe gets a piece of the ball but gets hit hard, it bounces out of their hands, a defender scoops it up and runs the ball back to the line of scrimmage when the quarterback manages to trip them, causing another fumble. No gain, maybe even a loss. 2nd and 10+.

An F is an interception. The student is not there to catch the ball, or the quarterback (me) was not clear enough about what play it was and threw into traffic.

Football does allow revision; that’s what the downs are. I try my best to tell my students that a D is not the end of the world. They can revise. There is another down. Even an F, an interception, is salvageable on the next possession.

This metaphor also works for lesson plans that just don’t work. Those, of course, are sacks.

What I really like about this metaphor, though, is that in football a pass is much more complicated than one person throwing a ball to another. There are other players on the field – the offensive team is all the student and I know about writing, and the defensive team is all the pitfalls teachers and students can fall into.

Also, there is dual yet separate responsibility. As the quarterback it’s my job to throw the ball in the right place, making adjustments based on how fast the student is running and the direction they’re going in, and the student’s job is to catch that ball. Once the assignment leaves my hands, they have to do something with it; I can’t change its trajectory in mid-flight. The quarterback is the most useless player on the field after that ball is in the air (discounting the pump-fake, which I don’t think translates well, although I’m sure there’s a brilliant teacher out there that has something that maps).

Now, I have to hand out the same assignment to all my students, so grading becomes, if I have a class with 26 students, analysis of 26 different variations on the same pass, all in their own parallel universes with their own contexts. My judgments must be individually tailored. The quarterback becomes a referee, trying to give a very complicated act a numerical value.

But not all 10-yard passes are the same. Some are hard-fought, some are screens, some are faked kicks, some start with fumbles that are recovered, and some are the quarterback not finding a pass and running 10 yards (use your imagination for that one). Should they all get the same grade? There are more than five kinds of passes, but expediency – papers should be measured only by the end result – demands that there be only a few in the grading game. Effort vanishes. Investment vanishes. The grade mercilessly reduces as it judges, spilling hundreds and thousands of words into a single letter.

I used to use the +/- system, but the UoM does not give extra GPA credit to students who earn an A+ and it penalizes the GPA of those with an A-, so I stopped that quick for final grade, and it’s carried over into individual assignments. The 6-1 scale is ok, and perhaps I will convert to it at some point, but I don’t like using numbers if I don’t have to.

So I default to A-B-C-D-F. It is a unsatisfying system, for the most part, only bearable if personalized by commentary. I’m tempted to just assign yardage. But any system is problematic. Writing is never numbers, nice and neat; writing is ideas, irregular and chaotic. The best writing is not in perfect order but strains to breaks its chains; it is not content with 10 yards. It wants 30, 40, 50, the end zone. Fortunately, the easiest of the five grades to give is the touchdown.

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