Creating Assignments with Grading in Mind

This monkey must be grading papers. He looks bored enough.

Last week, I caught myself being happy when a student failed to complete a discussion post. I found myself wishing others would do the same. I was grading discussions. Fewer posts meant less to read and nothing to evaluate. Entering a zero is easy and quick. Essentially, I caught myself wishing that students would fail. That realization snapped me back to reality, and I wondered what could possibly have pushed me to that point.

When teaching most canned online courses, I come to resent the assignments have to grade. They’re often tedious, formulaic, and detached from reality. I feel relief when students don’t turn in the assignment. That’s the exact opposite of how assessment should work. A well-designed assignment generates student work that is distinctive and compelling. When I can’t avoid grading, I should want to grade the work students do.

In my classes, I always work to build excitement for the subject matter and curiosity about students’ interests. The less we ask students to infuse their own interests into their work, the less, well, interesting that work will be. And when we have stacks of papers to read, shouldn’t we want more than anything for them to be interesting?

But What About Un-Grading?

I know that ungrading is all the rage these days, and particularly given the craziness of grading during a pandemic. But many educators can’t drop everything and stop grading. Indeed, many of us who teach online can’t even change the assignments inside our courses. For all the talk of ways to avoid or eliminate grading, the mass-distribution approach to course design and the institutional insistence on standardization makes abandoning grades nearly impossible. The institutional inertia is just too great, and the social equation of grades with learning is just too cemented. For many teachers, grades are an unavoidable necessity of teaching.

As a result, course developers and instructional designers must create assignments that work for the graders as well as the students. Course designers take great care to ensure progress through a class works well for students who experience the course once. But what of instructors who experience each assignment twenty or more times, each time they teach the course? What may be procedurally sensible for a single student becomes indefensibly mind-numbing for those in the school’s employ.

The Offending Assignment

For example, I have taught my school’s online first-semester writing course for years, unable to change any of the assignments. The course has as its overarching goal the development of students’ abilities to write properly structured five-paragraph essays. (Please don’t shoot the messenger here; I remind you I’m unable to change the course content.) Anyway, as an introduction to the five-paragraph structure, the course designer created an assignment that is at once genius in its simplicity, offensive in its separation of purpose from writing, and criminal in its dehumanization of students. We call it the “12-point essay,” though at a mere dozen sentences in length, the word essay seems a stretch. For this assignment, students must write exactly twelve sentences that mimic the structure of the assignment’s progenitor, the five-paragraph paper.

Bear in mind, the five-paragraph essay form itself was created to simplify (read: standardize) the grading of writing in composition courses. It is not based on any real-world writing situation at all; instead, it is derived from a teacher’s need to grade. This 12-point assignment, then, is a second derivation, created to simplify (read: standardize) instruction on the structure of a five-paragraph essay. It exists to teach students how to force their writing to conform to the needs of a grader by providing them a sentence-by-sentence template to fill in.

The Instructions

Sentence 1 introduces the topic. Sentence 2 begins with a turn, makes a surprising assertion, and lists three reasons to accept the assertion — a proto-thesis. Sentences 3, 6, and 9, therefore, address each of the three reasons in turn, echoing the thesis and performing the role of topic sentences, with each followed by two sentences of elaboration on the topic. Students then have a single sentence in which to conclude their thoughts. As you might imagine, that sentence often takes the form of, “In conclusion, these are the reasons I think [assertion statement].” When the assignment squeezes all the life and love out of writing, why should we expect anything more of the conclusions?

Now imagine grading that mess, twenty times in every eight-week semester, six (or more) semesters in a year, for six years. Imagine what it does to my determination to grade. Or, for that matter, my interest in reading. Believe me when I say that convincing myself that a twelve-sentence paragraph strictly adhering to the assignment expectations is “good writing” seriously messes with my standards and affects my sense of joy. Grading these becomes more than challenging, more than tedious. It’s offensive to ask students to strip away their autonomy, craft something formulaic, and call it “good” work. Anything — anything — becomes more interesting than the grading I have to do. Twitter. The news. That squirrel outside my office window.

A Better Approach to Grading

Here’s my theory: If we create assignments with grading in mind, we’ll automatically create better assignments for students, too.

While creating assignments, we should think about the future in which we’ll read twenty copies of the result. We should remember that some of them will be initially unsuccessful, because students are by definition still learning. We should give our future selves something a bit more fun to grade. Maybe more flexible. Definitely more creative. And the variety I’ll get will make reading and grading the assignments more interesting. Each student will take their own approach, write about what interests them, and try to do real work.

Our assignments should never ask student writing to fit a mold. We should never ask students to write something that seems almost like a Mad Lib in its approach. “Use this structure, this many words, and add your own nouns here. Twelve sentences. Sentence 2 does one thing; 3, 6, and 9 do another.” That’s not teaching writing. That’s animal training. We have to do better.