Saturday, March 11, 2006

I hate grading! Or do I just hate grades?

I have been frustrated with the educational system at Big Ag U. As a grad student, it works fairly well for me. I'm a small enough fish to go mostly unnoticed by the powers that be, which allows me to do pretty much what I want will teaching enough to get my degree paid for. But I feel bad for the undergrads; these people are supposed to be the top students in the state and this is how the system repays them for all their hard work during high school? It’s true that their writing skills are frequently pathetic and most of them refuse to say a word in discussion, but is that really their faults? They have been brainwashed by too many years in the public school system.

My problem is the wave of apathy and disinterest that I feel when I walk into my discussion sessions. It’s not fun to try to fight against that sinking feeling. I'm tired of being asked, "Is this part of our grade?" I'm also disappointed with students' ability to retain any of the lecture materials. The lecturer I’m TAing for is a very enthusiastic and fun and yet students barely remember anything about the lectures. It could be their lack of attendance, considering the class has close to 120 students and on most days there are no more than 70 present. But there is no way, as far as I can see, for me to effectively teach them three hours of material in 50 minutes of discussion.

I have been grading term papers after sitting on them for a week. They actually aren't as bad as I thought at first glance. Many students wrote sophisticated analysis’s of the connection between historical forces and the development of a specific landscape. Its not that I feel bad for giving poor grades; its just that I hate seeing work half finished, ideas mashed together and only partly formed. But without the power to reshape the class syllabus, I feel powerless to really improve student writing or thinking. Unfortunately, the system seems to reinforce students' focus on grades as primary motivators.

Just when I was about to give and attempt to motive students by threatening grade punishment, I ran into an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov 8, 2002, titled "The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation." The author, Alfie Kohn, confirms my suspicions that the extrinsic motivation provided by grades as been found to be inversely related to an intrinsic love of learning. He also points out that there is no real proof of grade inflation and academics have been complaining of this phenomenon for over one hundred years. But as a tiny cog in the giant machine called Big Ag U. it is very difficult for me to refocus my students away from grades and towards real learning.


Leslie M-B said...

Oh come on, Breena. . . You can couch your distaste for grading in all kinds of philosophical refections on grades themselves, but in the end, we all just hate the sitting down and marking up papers. :)

Breena Ronan said...

Ok, but it would seem more worthwhile if I thought students were actually learning something from the process.