mental health · teaching

Does *everybody* hate marking?

Last week, I was so caught up in marking, I did not have time to put together a post, so I was only too happy when Danielle posted on Friday. The reason I was so caught up in marking was trying to return the first essays to the students before they wrote their midterms on Monday. So now I have midterms to mark. And they’ve been sitting on my office desk. Eighty of them. I know better than to commit pathetic fallacy, but I could otherwise easily anthropomorphize the entire stack of exam booklets, especially since Hallowe’en was only two days ago.

My whole shtick is trying to turn a bad situation on its head and find alternatives to things that are unjust, inequitable, or problematic. I don’t have a Messiah complex, but it’s my way of turning bleak criticism into a better reality. So I started to try to envisage marking more generously, as a teaching moment, which is what it should be in the first place. (No, really, it’s what my department document on marking says!) I love teaching, ergo I should love marking. But some of the things I love about teaching are absent in the marking process, especially that human interaction in which the immediacy of reactions can make the process successful exactly because you can see the coin drop or get stuck.

With the marking comments, I’m not convinced that the message actually gets across, because we tend to become so habituated to our own codes, we sometimes fail to translate properly. When you tell a first-year university student she should “take risks” with her argument, what exactly does she understand? Yes, it is my job to explain this shorthand, but when I’m not there to gauge the reaction, how do I know how it’s gone over? Yes, I know there are many problems with the previous question. I should be able to convey my message in writing, which is a part of what I’m teaching as well. But it’s not exactly a question of my conveying, it’s a question of the student’s being receptive. Picture a first-year student, in October, after she’s been bombarded with so many grounding assumptions for the five or six foundational university courses she’s taking, she probably cannot take yet another lecture on how to read my marking comments (and yet I deliver it every time I return essays).

Finally, it might be also an issue of care I’m concerned with. A question of the students’ general well-being. I’ve had a few students tell me of their mental health problems, primarily with anxiety. I’ve directed them to the Mental Health Centre, as I’m not qualified to give them that kind of advice. The most I could do is say “I’m overwhelmed at this time of year, too,” which is true, but feels like something of a cop-out. Where does marking come into this mental-health picture? Well, if I’m trying to convey constructive advice on how to improve writing, but I’m doing it in a language impenetrable to the student, although entrenched in my vocabulary, all I accomplish is increase that student’s anxiety. And I do not want to do it. I want to help her become a better writer while maintaining her sanity. And I’m not sure marking is the best route to that goal, but I’ll be happy and thankful to hear your strategies for effective teaching and learning with marking.

3 thoughts on “Does *everybody* hate marking?

  1. Don't shoot me, but – I don't mind marking. Certainly not my favorite part of the job (and yes, yes, I haven't done it in a while, but I have done my 120-students-a-semester time). I really do see marking papers as an opportunity to engage with students' learning. I've become less obedient to the discipline, over time, and more attentive to students' needs. Thus I know I'm not going to capture everything in my comments (that stack of papers, measured against some absolute standard, is overwhelming) but I figure I can offer 3 concrete things for each student to work on. I try to capture the 3 most important things, but I'm sure I don't always succeed.

    In terms of grading shortcuts, nothing new, just the obvious:
    – do ten every day
    – use an egg timer for each paper
    – use grading rubrics (which are easier for you and, in my experience, preferred by students – and mean you don't have to repeat yourself)
    – never start with the best papers
    – take student work seriously
    – assign topics you actually want to grade.

    There's no magic solution, and nothing is easy in the first week of November, but I find the big picture useful.


  2. This is a great post, and one I needed as a reminder to stop writing sarcastic comments on students' papers (thankfully only lightly and in pencil, but still . . . ). Students are people and it is important to keep the end goal in mind despite the temptation to write something helpful in a way that negates the student's further development.

    @Heather: I love marking rubrics, they really do make life easier; all of your points are excellent btw.


  3. Thanks so much for your thoughtful reflections on marking. You said “I love teaching, ergo I should love marking” – I wonder if this is also if students think “I love learning, ergo I should love feedback” It seems like it might be a larger issue than simply marking and giving feedback in ways that students can hear, but also in being able to have the time/energy/resources etc to have assignments that students are interested and invested in. It seems to me that if students are interested in their topics, are learning through their assignments in a way that engages them, they might be more prone to take comments and marks as more than a number that will get them into grad school/a job etc.

    Russ Hunt has some great articles about how cheating tells us more about the way we think about learning and assignments than students moral codes. Check out this piece if you have time:

    I really love his work about teaching, learning and community. Being a student with him in my undergrad was very formative for me.

    Honestly, I think a significant aspect here is the increasing neo-liberalization of the university, the growing class sizes and the encouragement of “I'm here to get a job” mentality. Certainly part of this is that more people are able to access education than before and this is important, but I wonder at what costs we create larger class sizes, imagine university as a conduit for getting a job, and prioritize transcripts over learning.

    I've just discovered this blog and am _so pleased_ that it exists. Thanks to all of you for this space. And especially for the concern about student mental health. People are saying that student anxiety, stress and mental health issues are on a steep incline and I think as educators we need to begin to think about how to make room for this, and help students care for themselves (and us to care for ourselves!) while not sacrificing the challenge to learn new things.


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