Grading student papers may be the college instructor’s least pleasant duty. Most of us carefully mark each page, noting problems, questioning assumptions, and offering additional information, many times on the final version of the essay ...
This article first appeared in the August 2011 issue of The Teaching Professor. We're republishing it as part of our October 2022 grading and feedback theme.
Grading student papers may be the college instructor’s least pleasant duty. Most of us carefully mark each page, noting problems, questioning assumptions, and offering additional information, many times on the final version of the essay when it is too late to make improvements. I have colleagues who spend up to an hour on each paper, despite the distinct possibility that their feedback may not even be read, much less understood.
Still, careful and thoughtful grading is worth our time and effort. Students deserve feedback on the quality of their ideas and the clarity of their writing, if only to hear a different perspective, and certainly to improve their next written assignment. Although I try to achieve these goals with my marginal notes and end comments on every paper, I rarely find out whether these comments helped. However, things change considerably when I deliver my feedback in person. I invite my students to sit with me while I grade their papers. These voluntary “grading conferences” achieve three mutually beneficial goals.
First, the conferences expedite the assessment process, satisfying students’ anxiety about their grades at the same time they force me to overcome the urge to procrastinate. Towards this end, I frequently invite students to schedule grading appointments with me immediately after turning in their assignments. The sooner I provide feedback, the sooner they can incorporate my observations into their next effort. For my part, the more writing conferences I can accomplish on the day of turn-in, the fewer papers left to grade.
Second, these personal conferences allow for clarification. They give students the opportunity to clarify ambiguous claims, explain disjointed arguments, and identify elusive thesis statements, while I gain the chance not only to ask what my students meant, but also to hear their answers. I take as much interest in what they think as how they think, and I want them to know how the tone of their arguments and the quality of their evidence influences their audience.
Finally, grading conferences improve the quality of my feedback to students. In person, I can show them specific ways to improve their writing, and their verbal and nonverbal cues tell me whether they understand my comments. When they don’t understand, I can find other ways to illustrate my point, and they in turn have the chance to ask me what I mean.
Grading conferences do have limitations. For one thing, they consume more of my own time and effort than simply grading in private. Conferences also require students to invest more time and energy in assignments they have already completed. In addition, some students may object strongly to my assessment, argue with every suggestion for improvement, or seize the opportunity to negotiate for a higher grade. Occasionally, students attend merely to humor me, stoically accepting my comments as if the conference were a trial to be endured. As these situations are generally unpleasant for both parties concerned, attendance at my conferences is voluntary.
Despite these risks, I continue to invite and encourage students to sit with me while I grade their papers. Successful conferences enable us to reach a mutual appreciation of what did and didn’t work in a specific piece of writing. The student leaves with a grade, a clear understanding of why it was assigned, and one or more strategies for achieving better results. Occasionally, I get to look a student in the eye, praise the excellence of his or her work, and affirm that it is as good as or better than I could have done with the same assignment.
The main benefit, however, is better writing. The grading conference provides a great opportunity to move towards that goal. Students deserve our feedback on the quality of their ideas and the clarity of their writing. I find that such feedback has its greatest impact when delivered in person, where such exchanges create that most rare and precious of opportunities in a college course—the teachable moment.
At the time of writing, Bill Latham taught at the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.