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Thoughts on student graders

Warning! Whining within!

This morning, the Grinnell faculty received an email message from Dean Latham entitled Student Graders And Blackboard. Here’s the message.

Dear Colleagues,

Last semester, ITS made the Executive Council aware of some concerns pertaining to the presence of student graders in Blackboard class pictorial rosters.

Following the campus move to a hosted Blackboard environment over the summer, a number of customized components that would otherwise not be available after the platform change were recreated. One such component was the pictorial roster that provides consolidated images, by class, of everyone who is enrolled.

Unfortunately, this roster no longer allows individual class members to be excluded from the lists, something that had been available in the past. This function was previously used by some faculty to include anonymous graders in the class roster, but have them hidden from the pictorial list. ITS assessed what it would take to add this functionality, and Executive Council has determined that the potential benefits are not sufficient to justify the large financial cost to the institution. We did explore potential technical workarounds, but these proved complex to administer and Dave Robinson and I have become concerned regarding potential challenges in safeguarding student data.

A solution that has been recommended for those of you who wish to use anonymous graders in your classes is not to list graders in your class lists, but instead provide the assignments to the graders outside Blackboard, collect the grades, and then ask an ASA to input the grades into the grade center or to do so directly. As a reminder, information pertaining to students’ grades is FERPA-protected and should be handled securely. ITS has advised that a correctly-configured shared folder within the College’s Microsoft OneDrive environment is an appropriate manner to share this data, and the ITS Information Security and User Services teams are available to provide assistance with that as needed – you can reach them through the ITS Technology Services Desk at extension 4901.

Thanks very much for your patience with this situation.

All the best,


As you might expect, I have a lot of reactions to that message [1]. I’m troubled by the lack of concern for faculty time and for ASA [2] time [3]. I’m troubled that we made a decision to switch platforms without doing an appropriate needs analysis. I understand that the new feature will cost too much, but I’m troubled that no one found a work-around [4]. I’m troubled that it assumes a particular model of grading (just assign a number and upload it) rather than the model I found that I used when teaching online (enter lots of text comments and then a number). I’m troubled that it essentially tells us not to use the technology; given this stupid workflow, why would anyone have students submit electronically rather than on paper? And what about grading online quizzes [6]? I’m troubled that hosting on an external provider may be a FERPA violation, particularly given that ITS has not always paid close attention to such issues.

Amazingly, none of those topics are the subject of this essay. Rather, this essay is about a comment that a colleague not in the sciences made. It went something like this.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this. Grinnell promises close student-faculty interaction. Why are you having students grade in the first place?

As you might expect, I reacted somewhat defensively.

In classes with homework due multiple times a week, faculty don’t have time to grade everything. I’d rather leave my grading time for things that require substantial input, such as examinations [7].

But my colleague raised a reasonable issue, so it’s worth thinking about. And, as is my norm, I’m going to try to think about it by writing about it.

It feels like I should use myself as an example, since I know my habits and pressures better than most. My weekday work schedule already consumes 35 to 42 hours per week, and that does not include class prep for two or three of my courses, writing assignments, handling the many student emails I get, grading, scholarship, or enough time for the paperwork that the College asks me to do. I just don’t have the time to grade everything and to stay sane [8].

Where do I use graders? Primarily in 100-level courses, such as CSC 151. In that course, students have a daily lab writeup, a weekly quiz, a weekly homework assignment, and an exam every four weeks or so (four exams total) [9]. Each lab writeup takes between one and three hours to grade. Each quiz takes about the same amount of time. Each homework takes eight to ten hours to grade. Each exam takes about twenty. I grade the quizzes and the exams, and leave the rest for my student graders.

So, what are the options for grading?

I could assign less work. However, evidence suggests that students don’t learn as much when they don’t work as much [11]. So I’d really like to have them do the work. The College also expects me to assign that much work. (That’s right: A four-credit course is supposed to have at least twelve hours of work each week.) So, no, I won’t assign less work.

I could just not grade the work, which is what used to happen before I used graders [14]. However, it seems that students spend more effort on their work when they know that they will get a grade and feedback.

I could grade a fraction of the work, and not let the students know which assignments and writeups I will and will not grade. That would probably push the students a bit harder, since they know what parts I grade and (I assume) work more on those parts.

I could grade more. I will admit that in the semester I graded the daily lab writeups in CSC 151, I had closer contact with my students than in most semesters. But it really was overwhelming, and I fell behind in my other work to get that grading done.

So what does that leave? It strikes me that it leaves student graders as a pretty damn good option. Students then get more feedback on their work than they would if I were grading. Students are encouraged to do all of their work, which helps their learning. It also benefits the graders, and not just financially. I regularly hear from our graders about what they learn while grading, whether it be approaches to avoid, new strategies for solving problems, or, most importantly, how to write comments that help someone learn [15].

Does that grading interfere with the close student-faculty relationships that are a hallmark of small liberal arts colleges? I wasn’t sure, so I asked my sons. They said (approximately): It’s not worth faculty time to have them do what is generally straightforward grading. They’re right. Given a choice between checking off whether or not students have reasonable answers to forty problems, or spending that same time answer more difficult questions for a few students, I’d rather do the latter, and I think that individual assistance is more what we expect from a place like Grinnell.

If I had infinite time and energy, would I do all of my own grading? Probably. There are subtle things I can catch early as a faculty member that only our best graders catch. I learn much more about individual students when I grade more. And, since the students get Rebelsky style comments, it can help build bonds.

However, given the reality of academic life, I have neither infinite time nor infinite energy. Graders really do seem to be the best option. While I’m not the typical faculty member (in any way, shape, or form), people in disciplines that give fairly regular straightforward work are in similar situations. Yes, they could grade the work. However, everyone is better served if they use student graders, since they can use that time for activities that provide greater benefit.

[1] You may recall that I refuse to use Blackboard because it doesn’t make courses open to the broader world. You may therefore wonder why I care about this message. I care for the reasons I am about to explain (or that I explained, if you read the endnotes last). I care because even though I don’t use Blackboard, faculty in my department do, and I have a responsibility as department chair to try to keep their workload reasonable.

[2] Officially, Academic Support Assistant, but the term Awesome Support Assistant also applies to the ASAs in the sciences.

[3] For example, I don’t think the ASAs were told about this policy before it was announced. And I’m pretty sure that the Science ASAs (and, likely, all ASAs) are busy enough.

[4] I’m not sure how many people I’ve heard suggest Why not just create separate accounts for the graders each semester? [5], but it’s a lot. I don’t know the answer.

[5] Including myself.

[6] Do you really want to read 40 quizzes in CSV format, rather than online?

[7] I think the last time I timed it, it took me an average of 30 minutes per exam to grade CSC 151, plus additional time for paperwork. I have 43 students in CSC 151. You can do the math.

[8] You might argue that the hour I spend each night writing these essays could be better spent grading. However, the College already gets another ten to twenty additional hours each week between evenings and weekends. I need some time to myself.

[9] Believe it or not, but that workload is designed to meet Grinnell’s expectation that I require at least twelve hours per week of work, including class time. Students in CSC 151 have four hours of class per week, two hours of outside of class reading (three or four short readings), two hours of finishing lab writeups (30 minutes per class seems to be enough for most students), one hour of review (either formal or informal), and three hours of homework [10]. It’s a bit worse on weeks in which they have take-home exams (which replace the homework for that week).

[10] I tend to have policies that let students effectively say enough is enough if they spend more than three hours on a homework assignment.

[11] As far as I can tell, one of the reasons that many of the blended [12] courses are so successful is that students end up spending significantly more time on those courses than they spend on traditional courses.

[12] Blended courses traditionally have both an in-person and an online component.

[14] It still sometimes happens even when I have student graders.

[15] At some point, I should probably write a full essay on the benefits of serving as a grader. But that really is an essay for another day.

Version 1.0.2 of 2017-11-19.