emotional labour · ideas for change · student engagement · teaching

Grading: It is personal, actually!

Grading is personal. And I’m starting to recognize that, for my students, no matter how I frame my response to their papers (“This paper argues” rather than “You believe”, for example) they take it personally: the grades hurt their feelings, they feel personally slighted.

I don’t blame them. In fact, when I get graded, I have exactly the same reaction. I feel hurt, misunderstood, angry, sad, judged. I feel hopeless, or like a failure, or that my whole career is a sham. I drink. I cry.

Of course, I don’t stay there. In the last couple of years, I’ve come to understand that it is perfectly natural and understandable to freak out like this about a less-than-perfect peer-review. It’s okay to freak out. But. After a certain period (I take three days), you pick yourself up, re-read the review, and deal with it a little more dispassionately, because 90% of the time, the feedback is apt and valuable and attending to it will only make my work stronger.

So, I though to myself, why not model this for my students, too? The whole process?

I handed back 40 first year response papers this week in class. While I did that, I projected a couple of peer reviews of my work on the screen. One was really positive: I told them this is the review we all want to get. And the other was …. less positive. In fact, I highlighted all the negative words (too descriptive, insufficient, inappropriate, inadequate, lack of, dont’ like the title, etc. etc.) in red. They gasped. I told them what I did when I got the review–feel sorry for myself, get angry, mope, drink, complain to my friends. I stamped my feet and pouted for them, in class. I called the reviewer names and questioned her intelligence. They laughed. Then I told them that it was okay that they probably felt the same way about how I’d responded to their work.

In fact, I said, I’m just going to sit here on the floor behind the podium where I can’t see you, and you’re going to take two minutes to complain about your marks to the person sitting next to you. And then we’re going to move on.

So I sat down on the floor, and told them they weren’t complaining enough. And then the room erupted in a storm of complaining and laughing. It was awesome. I stood up, and we talked about strategies for dealing constructively with the feedback they’d received.

I think it worked.

I used to give the graded work back at the end of class, telling them there was a 24 hour cooling off period during which they had to calm down before talking to me about their work. But it occurs to me that that disrespected and minimized the emotional reaction: I mean, I have always got super-emotional about being graded. It is personal, actually! Or at least, it feels really personal. It’s not wrong, it’s just part of the process. So now I model that to them, in the context of my continuing to be graded by my own peers. We go through it all together. And then we move on.

Getting assessed always made me feel awful–and for a long time I felt awful about my emotional reactions. It was a double-fail: not only was I sad and hurt, but I understood my sadness and hurt as evidence of my wussiness and inappropriateness as a scholar. I don’t want to make my students feel like that. So go ahead: feel shitty when you get feedback that diverges from your expectations. Set a timeframe for moping and crying and yelling. That’s okay. Later, we can deal with it. But for now, it’s all right to just feel your feelings. Because we all do.

I don’t know about you, but I feel a whole lot better now.

10 thoughts on “Grading: It is personal, actually!

  1. Seriously, I love this idea, too. I have gotten some absolutely brutal and unkind anonymous peer-review feedback over the years. I should share some with my students, and that I am still, indeed, standing, writing, and publishing.

    Now, I can totally relate to taking feedback personally. My first jobs were in technical writing and my work was eviscerated by my bosses/editors. I remember bursting into tears at a meeting (yes, I know, completely unprofessional). Problem was I had NEVER received that much feedback/criticism on my writing in my life. I was a “good writer” who got good grades and who didn't receive much feedback. But in the workforce…

    What I didn't realize at the time because I was too attached to my own work (and too used to being told I was if not brilliant than more than adequate) that what they were giving me was valuable feedback in order to make my work better. That was there job. And my job was to suck it up and incorporate their recommendations, or justify why I didn't think it was legitimate.

    I, of course, didn't. I gave up being a technical writer and kept at being an academic writer, a place where, at the time, I felt my talents as a writers were appreciated (insofar as they received A's and little in the way of negative feedback).

    I think we also need to keep in mind that feedback, many times negative, and how we deal with it, are important skills to be used in the “real world.” And more often than not, our bosses could give a sh*t about our feelings or how hard we worked, just that we get our work done and done well.


  2. This is a great idea though Lee's comments illustrate how important it is to also reinforce the fact that you are in fact grading a piece of work NOT the student as a whole person.

    All that research on praising the work not the identity of the child doing the work applies even for adults.

    This is a good reminder for the good students, too. A brilliant piece of work needs to get specific feedback on what makes it brilliant.

    I have had too many colleagues respond to my giving mediocre marks to particular students with “But he's a brilliant student”. Brilliant students sometimes do less than brilliant work. And mediocre students can do better work, too.

    Maybe our response to criticism is also tied up in the feedback we have received being too closely tied to who we are for too much of our lives.


  3. I totally agree with JoVE–we define ourselves by what we do, and if we're told we're not doing it well, criticism gets interpreted as “you're a bad person,” not “this is flawed work.” I LOVE this idea. I do exactly what Aimee does–end of class, 24 hours, etc.–and they were pissed off on Friday about their grades in a way that I could have addressed better. I tried to make it clear to them that the grades weren't about how smart they were, or how capable they are (and the fact that this was their first essay of their first year made things worse, I think), but some venting and some modelling could have gone a long way.


  4. This approach might be especially valuable in journalism classes, where I normally hang out. As Lee Skallerup Bessette pointed out, in the real world bosses don't much care about feelings. This goes double for newsrooms where the pressures are intense for work to be done fast and well. When graduating year students complain about the “toughness” of my marking on their news-writing assignments, I usually say that I'm simply trying to toughen them up for the real world. But now I might also show them in advance a story of my own after some editor has eviscerated it.


  5. Oh, this is brilliant, and quite timely, too. I've got reader comments on an article right now that I've given myself a cooling off period before I dive in and work on the article, because at first glance, my response was, “Great! I'm an idiot!” After reading this, I'm now considering sharing with my students as they're starting to tackle their final paper assignment.


  6. I'm an instructional designer who works with faculty to develop online courses….struggling with assessment and grading is a major task for us. What a great approach to this topic – am going to think about some creative ways to adapt this for the virtual environment. (How about a YouTube video of the rant!)


Comments are closed.