Grading student work is one of the most important, and most challenging, duties of being an educator. As one of my colleagues, Keith Kenney, recently reminded me, setting goals and evaluating our students’ progress are what we as educators do — they are the twin pillars supporting the entire education edifice. So, here are some thoughts about the grading process, as it applies to the visual communication courses I teach in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. As usual, I’d love to read your comments, whether you are an educator or a student.
Challenges of Grading
What makes grading student work so challenging? It will probably come as no surprise that educators and students approach grades with different mindsets. At the University of South Carolina (as well as at other places I’ve taught), C is the grade given for average work; B is above average, and A is excellent. However, for many students, a C on an assignment is the equivalent of an F — in fact, for some, anything less than an A represents failure. Why? Students are under intense pressure to maintain a high GPA for a variety of reasons, including graduate-school admissions, jobs and internships, scholarships, and parental support. Thus, merely gaining a college diploma is no longer sufficient for many of our students — a high GPA is essential.
This pressure, I suspect, has led many students to view grading as an adversarial process, rather than a realistic evaluation of their progress. We educators are not just grading students’ work — in their minds, we are determining their futures. I have had students tell me at the start of the semester that they have a straight-A average and hope to maintain it; I have had other students rail at getting a C on an assignment. In all of these interactions, I believe students are trying to exert leverage, to gain some small advantage in what they probably consider an unfairly lopsided power relationship. Lost in this shuffle is the prime reason behind the relationship: the collaborative exchange of knowledge and information.
There are also pressures on educators. We evaluate our students, but they also evaluate us, whether in anonymous, semester-end questionnaires, or on Web sites such as Rate My Professors. In addition to the natural human desire to be liked, there is an understandable concern among some faculty that poor student evaluations may impact their continued employment. On the other hand, we educators are often exhorted to uphold high standards and guard against grade inflation — so that an A will always mean excellent, not average. In order to do this, we must be willing to give out not only Cs but also Ds and Fs. Otherwise, the grading rubric is meaningless.
Another grading challenge is that students tend to be very literal: if they’ve done everything called for in the assignment, then why shouldn’t they get a good grade? After all, they may have tried hard but did not succeed in producing excellent work. For the most part, we are evaluating results, not effort. This seems logical to me as an educator, especially if I am trying to prepare my students for a professional career. In the business world, you get rewarded for results, not for how hard you try. The notion of excellence needs to be a part of the grading process — especially at the university level — or else it becomes a feel-good exercise, where everyone goes home with a trophy.
Meeting the Challenges
So what can the hapless educator, buffeted by so many conflicting forces, do to meet the challenge of grading? Here’s what I’ve done—again, I’d like to hear your suggestions. First, be perfectly clear about your expectations; leave as little to interpretation as possible. For example, I’ve noticed that in my beginning photography course, many students are uncomfortable photographing people, at least initially. This discomfort needs to be overcome, especially in a journalism school. Thus, I have begun specifying that people be included in all the assignments — otherwise I may get all inanimate objects, such as flowers or buildings. Also, unless I specify that my students must make new images for each assignment, I am apt to get vacation pictures from last summer.
In my advanced photography course, I’ve begun writing the assignments as if they came from an art director or editor: here are the specifications and expectations. This not only makes the assignment clearer, it introduces a “real world” aspect to the project. This came about because, during the critique process, I found myself saying things like “If I were laying out these pictures, I wouldn’t have enough variety to make an interesting spread.” The students, literal as ever (see above), responded by saying “You never said this was supposed to be a layout!” Good, helpful feedback.
Second, develop a series of assignments that build on each other — a progression from easy to more difficult. One such progression is to go from environmental portraits to a simple picture story to an audio slideshow. Another is to go from a window-light portrait to bounce flash to multiple light sources. In this way, students can take what they learn from each assignment and apply those skills and techniques to the next. You, as the educator, can clearly see if they are making the required progress and meeting the course objectives.
Third, tell your students (and remind them often) how you determine which assignments get an A, which get a B, and so forth. Here’s what I tell my students: the only grade I have trouble assigning is a B. Here’s why. I know an A photograph when I see it because my jaw drops and I say, “Boy, I wish I’d shot that!” It is clear from looking at the photograph that the student has mastered the technical aspects of the assignment, has thought about the best way to solve the challenges at hand, and — most importantly — has created an excellent image. Further, the best students will use the assignment as a way to make images that express their personal and artistic vision in their own style.
C photographs are snapshots — the student has pointed the camera and pushed the button. They are usually all taken from eye level, often with direct flash or in midday light. The student has given little or no thought to lighting, composition, perspective, or any of the other photography principles we cover in the course. I give a D grade to pictures whose flaws — poor focus, poor lighting, camera shake, etc. — make it impossible for me to “jump” into the image: the hurdle is too high. An F is for late or missing assignments.
That leaves B. I can see the student has put some thought into creating the images—these are more than just snapshots. There is variety in the lighting, composition, perspective; the subject matter is interesting. However, either the result is lacking in impact, or there is a hurdle standing between me and full appreciation of the image. This is where I have to draw on my experience as a working photographer, without forgetting that I am grading student work, not professional efforts. As I said, B is the hardest grade.
Finally, I tell my students that I will not discuss grading via e-mail; I am happy to meet with them during office hours or by appointment. In addition to alleviating privacy concerns, this helps prevent grading from becoming a chat between e-mail buddies and keeps it in the realm of educator-student relationship.
I’d like to continue this discussion of grading practices; I look forward to your comments and suggestions!