Monday, October 26, 2015

Grading And The Dreams Of A Frictionless Pedagogy

Cute picture from this site.

I almost didn't get this post done on time because I was too busy grading. If you teach or if you know someone who does, you know that grading is not only massively time-consuming but also one of the least pleasant activities there is. When you're grading, washing the dishes counts as a comparative treat, something you would definitely do in order not to do what you're supposed to be doing, namely, grading.

Actually, I've given a certain amount of thought to the question of why grading is so unpleasant. I like my students. I'm interested in their ideas. Often the work is good. So what's the problem?

I'm sure it varies from person to person, but for me a big part of the answer has to do with the massive decision fatigue -- fatigue that can set in within the first few moments of the first assignment. When I'm grading, my interior monologue is like this:

That sentence is awkward. Is that worth mentioning in the context of the paper as a whole? Should I just say it's awkward or should I explain how its awkwardness affects the meaning? Should I try to say how it could be improved? Is this even worth noticing, given the other problems I should bring to the student's attention? If I give an explanation, will that make the student more or less likely to pay even a second's attention to the comment I've made? Also this part of the paper is unclear. Is it "unclear" like there's a good idea there but it's badly expressed? Is it "unclear" like it's a middling idea that could be improved with specificity? Does the student understand the text they're writing about? Is this unclarity a major issue, affecting the grade? How much?

I don't know how it is for you, but within 45 seconds I'm exhausted and ready to look at some cats on the internet. Too bad though -- there are literally *hours* to go before it's done. 

It's fascinating to me that in all the recent discussion of disruption in pedagogy, grading gets almost no attention. We hear about MOOCs, about flipped classrooms, about whether lectures are evil, but strikingly little about grading. There is, I think, an obvious explanation: while "content delivery" is the kind of thing that *seems* open to radical changes induced by social and technological innovation, grading -- well, grading just isn't.

I guess you could say that in certain areas and for certain subjects, the multiple choice question was a kind of social innovation. But when it comes to things like thinking things through or learning how to write, there is no other way except the massively labor intensive and personalized system we have now: you sit down with a student, or with the student's work, and you discuss with them or write notes to them about the various things they are thinking and writing; you make comments and suggestions, and -- crucially -- you keep in mind the magic ratio of criticism and encouragement, which varies from student to student and moment to moment.

Compared to the pace of other modern activities, it's like being back in the nineteenth century. Success is utterly unpredictable. It takes forever. It is, as we've seen, mentally draining.

The fact that students only learn from certain kinds of actual time-intensive feedback means that whether you teach your course "online" or not doesn't matter much, relative to the question of feedback and how students get it. To make it really work you're always going to need a ton of people spending a ton of time doing a difficult and time-consuming task -- a task, I might add, whose adequate performance has to be preceded by a long and expensive education.

This is, I think, just one among many ways our dreams of a frictionless world are not just inconsistent with our reality, but actually on a radically different track. The dream is connecting to a super-brain and suddenly speaking fourteen languages. The reality is sitting in a classroom being corrected on your verb conjugation and making the same mistake for the tenth time in a row.

Like caring for children, cooking wholesome and delicious food, and helping the people around you feel like life is worth living, grading is slow, personal, often repetitive, having almost nothing to do with modern fetishes like ruthless efficiency, massive scale projects, and problems you can solve with a quick internet-based rethinking of the status quo.

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