Why Does Grading Feel So Hard?

Tis the season for faculty complaints about grading. Not that I blame them. Grading is the absolute worst part of teaching—just ask any teacher. I myself was feeling incredibly unmotivated to review my students’ midterm projects, and then I immediately felt guilty. After all, I am the one who sets the assignments. I am the one who controls the pace of feedback/evaluation. I know I’ll actually enjoy reading my students’ words once I get started. AND I know I’ll feel even worse if I keep putting it off. So why does it feel so hard?

Let’s face it, even if you have complete autonomy to decide what work your students do and even if you do contract grades or some version of ungrading, you still have to actually read/watch/listen to your students’ projects to offer your feedback on their work. But surely that isn’t the reason it feels so hard? Cue feelings of guilt and/or indignation. Don’t worry, you can let yourself out of the teacher-doghouse. It’s not you, it’s higher education. Let me explain.

Scale

I don’t know about your experience of teaching in higher education, but mine has almost always been teaching what most institutions would consider to be an “overload.” Even the most amazing student work is fatiguing to read/watch/listen to by the 100th student. It just is. That’s not on me. That is on the crumbling university system that thinks I might as well imitate a teacher-robot. Not to mention the completely ridiculous strategies some departments have for handling “grade norming.” As an adjunct, I once taught at a school where we ended up grading 3x the number of exams our own students actually completed so we could “grade norm” them by assessing one another’s student work (all without additional compensation, I might add).

Squish

It occurred to me only recently (10 years into teaching, ha!) that part of what makes grading feel so hard is the semester timing. I find grading my students’ mid-term projects more onerous than the final ones because of what I call the Second-Half Squish. This is the time of the semester where I am evaluating the mid-term projects WHILE giving feedback on the various stages of the final projects WHILE teaching. It’s no wonder I’m not super cheerful during this period in spite of how much pride I usually feel while working with my students on their ideas. The Squish, of course, feels worse, the more “Scale” you’re dealing with.

Sprint or Slog*

This reason might have less to do with academe than our own approach to time management (except the part where we are expected to do more work than is feasible), but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how the choice to sprint or slog through your students’ projects may contribute to your feelings of malaise. I hear there are unicorn-faculty out there who are able to spread out their evaluation of 100 projects evenly over two weeks and therefore avoid getting burnt out. I try to be this unicorn. I really do. But once I’m in an evaluation flow state, I want to keep going in an effort to see the pile significantly reduce and then…I get burn out. And then…I avoid it because I associate it with burn out. And then….well you get the idea. This, again, might be more relevant to you based on how much “Scale” you’re dealing with.

*I couldn’t think of a nicer verb that started with an ‘s’ for ‘move slowly through’

Shame

This might be too strong a sentiment, but I couldn’t think of another ‘s’ word for embarrassment. What I mean is that sometimes, especially when we are teaching a course for the first time and/or we had little time to prep our courses (#adjunctlife), grading shows us that we kind of…failed. There’s nothing quite like sprinting or slogging through 100 students projects only to realize you forgot to teach them *insert important skill or concept here.* If you care at all about doing your job well, it can be incredibly dispiriting to see piece after piece of evidence that you bungled the assignment. If this happens to you, don’t despair. Make a note of what went wrong and what you’ll do next time to fix it. Then, move on. Of course some faculty write it off as the students’ fault, but if the vast majority of them didn’t do well, that’s on you, my friend.

The point of this post (not writing always needs a point!) is not to offer you a handy solution to all these difficulties, but to (hopefully) make you feel a little bit better about feeling like crap. We all feel extra squished right now what with our extra pandemic-related cognitive loads, and sometimes it just helps to know that others are feeling the same feelings as you and that those feelings aren’t necessarily your fault. I have no true wisdom to offer except that a) it is always less burdensome than you think it is and b) you always feel great after finishing if not because you love all the work your students did then because you are done. Happy grading!

Do you have any grading advice? Or perhaps other reasons why it feels so hard to grade right now? Leave a comment below!

Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page)ALSO, I am happy to announce that I recently launched a biweekly podcast called Vita Abundantior in which I conduct interviews with awesome women and ask them how they go about living such abundant lives (avail on all major streaming platforms).

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