Climb that mountain of ungraded papers with confidence… and smart skills!

Grading papers sucks.

There. I said it.

Most of us got into our profession because we love teaching. When we design courses and lessons, when we interact with our classes in discussion, when we see the look of wonder on our students’ faces at the moment of significant learning, we feel a charge of accomplishment and authentic meaning. Sometimes we feel that in the best student essays we read, too. And then…

What kills us a little each time is different for different teachers. Maybe it’s the frustration of noting the difference between genuine student struggle and a genuine lack of effort. Maybe we chafe at the instructions unfollowed, or the writing mechanics still unmastered (and unproofread). Or maybe it’s just the mountain of paper at the start of the process. Mountain climbers may climb the mountains because they are there. We aren’t freaking mountain climbers. We never asked to be, we never trained to be… and the threat of the seemingly insurmountable task can hit many of us (especially the serial procrastinators among us, myself included) with a sense of paralysis.

Of course, pro mountain climbers don’t just gambol out into the wilderness with a rucksack and a jaunty song and start climbing. Through knowledge of appropriate equipment and safety rules, and the wisdom that comes from reflective practice, they have learned how to prepare and proceed in order to reach the summit most effectively — at the right pace, applying the best practices, and avoiding the slippery spots that can send the unwary off the edge. And by climbing those mountains in the right way, the pros can forego the dread of “inevitable” risk and enjoy the purpose of the climb.

Rick Reis of the tomorrows-professor listserv introduces us to a fellow climber, Brian Martin of the University of Wollongong. He reminds us of some important best practices in essay grading that can keep us safe and sane, and thus help us approach grading’s true purpose: as the assessment-as-teaching needed for effective student learning.

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Folks:

The posting below gives some excellent advice on how to approach the task of marking, or grading, student essay assignments. It is from the September 8, 2014 issue of the postings on a blog by Brian Martin, professor of social sciences in the Humanities and Social Inquiry department at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and is reprinted with permission. More information about his blog and how to subscribe can be found at: http://comments.bmartin.cc.

Regards,
Rick Reis
reis@stanford.edu

Marking (Grading) Essays: Making it Easier and More Fun

It’s worthwhile discovering methods to make marking more enjoyable. The same methods can be used to tackle other dreaded tasks.

Sitting on your desk is a pile of essays that need to be marked. There might be just 10 or 20, or maybe 50, 100 or more. For most teachers, this is not an eagerly awaited task. Is there some way to make marking easier and more enjoyable?

I’ve been marking undergraduate essays for over 25 years and have tried out various methods to make the task less onerous. Gradually I’ve discovered ways that work well for me. You may or may not want to adapt these for your own circumstances. In any case, I encourage you to undertake your own search for better methods. If you’re looking ahead at 25 years of marking, surely it’s worthwhile to explore better ways to go about it.

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A productive summer writing plan: It’s not too late!

"AHA! Now I can finally finish that article! Pass me another shandy and ear of sweet corn!"

As the extended July 4th weekend festivities retreat into memory, I know what many of you are thinking… because it’s what I’m thinking:

“Gads, the summer break is nearly halfway over! What happened to the time?!?”

Especially for those of us at teaching-intensive institutions, and/or with hefty service obligations during the academic year, summer is a time we count on to get reconnected with our scholarship, especially our writing. But it’s also a time — and rightfully so — when we reconnect with our families, our hobbies, our capacity to rest and recreate. And so it’s all too easy to let our work slide. That is, if we don’t have a plan.

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President and CEO of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, wrote this short but useful piece two months ago. Rick Reis of the tomorrows-professor e-mail listserv (have you subscribed yet???) helpfully resent it last week. These tips, incidentally, aren’t just useful for the summer… so you’ve got plenty of time to prepare for your fall writing plan!

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Let’s Get Ready for Summer Writing

Happy end of term! Happy Graduation! and CONGRATULATIONS! You survived another academic year! And you know what that means: the summer writing season is right around the corner. Throughout the spring semester, I kept hearing from beleaguered faculty and graduate students who couldn’t wait for summer so they could “get some serious writing done.” And yet, every August I hear from just as many folks lamenting about how another summer has passed by and, once again, they failed to make progress on their intellectual projects. As we head into the summer break, I’m feeling motivated to help eradicate end-of-summer regret among academic writers! To that end, this summer’s Monday Motivators are designed to be your week-by-week support system for your summer writing and productivity.

Summer Writing Challenges

While we often fantasize about the freedom that summer represents, there are some important challenges to consider during the summer months. The most important challenge is the deception of unstructured time. Freedom from teaching, committee meetings, advising, and the day-to-day drama of campus life can create the illusion that we have lots of time. Imagining that we have infinite time can lead us to procrastinate and/or belabor tasks unnecessarily. Additionally, for those of you who aren’t daily writers during the academic year, you may experience the challenge of heightened expectations. In other words, putting off writing until the summer can create intense pressure (particularly for tenure-track faculty) that you must complete a year’s worth of writing in 12 weeks.

Childcare poses yet another challenge to summer writing. Changed schedules for school-aged children, gaps between the end of school and beginning of summer camps, and the increased expense of additional childcare during the summer months can leave some parents struggling to manage additional childcare and a rigorous writing schedule. Finally, some of you are simply exhausted from the intensity of the academic year and, more than anything else, feel the need to address all the neglected areas of your physical health, social life, and personal relationships during the summer months.

While it’s important to understand the challenges academic writers face during summer breaks, they point to the keys for a productive summer. I believe those are: 1) knowing what you need as a human being and what you need to accomplish as a writer and researcher, 2) creating a realistic plan to meet all of your needs, and 3) connecting with the type of community, support and accountability that will sustain you through the summer months. I think each semester should start with a plan, so for this week I want to encourage you to set aside 30-60 minutes, grab your calendar and a piece of paper, and develop a clear and concrete plan.

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How to stop lamenting our students’ critical thinking and do something about it.

"If I read one more bad argument my head will explode... What to do?!? OK, going into my mind palace..."

Been there, right?

As a long-time teacher at a liberal arts college, and as a friend and colleague of loads of teachers at colleges and universities, I’m pretty sure I’m not going out on a limb here when I assert three truisms about the tension between the typical teaching philosophy and the typical teaching practice:

  1. Teaching students to think critically is central to our mission;
  2. We lament that our students frequently demonstrate that they can’t do it;
  3. However, most of us frequently wonder (and even worry) that we’re not actually teaching them to think critically.

This, clearly, is a quandary.  Some of our fields have built-in  or disciplinary practices or pedagogies that center on critical thinking. Others may not. And the related and growing emphasis on “creative thinking” can be even more elusive… can creativity actually be taught?

This brief yet helpful piece recently shared on the tomorrows-professor e-mail list (have you subscribed yet???) might be useful for you to start tackling this quandary. Rebecca Brent from the ASEE National Effective Teaching Institute and Richard M. Felder from North Carolina State University (2014) published this piece in Chemical Engineering Education, 48(2), 113-114.  Rick Reis from tomorrows-professor also suggests that you check out Felder’s website at http://www.ncsu.edu/effective_teaching.

So, let’s stop lamenting and start these folks thinking!

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Thinking Creatively and Critically

Want Your Students to Think Creatively and Critically?  How About Teaching Them?

 

Ever hear a conversation like this in your department?

Professor X: “All these students can do is plug numbers into formulas-give them a problem a little different from the one in the text and they’re helpless.”

Professor Y: “Yeah, and they’re also functionally illiterate-most of them couldn’t write a coherent grocery list. On a quiz last month I asked for a clear and grammatically correct definition of vapor pressure, and a bunch of the students stomped me for it on the midterm evals. “I went into engineering to get away from this crap,” one of them said.

Professor Z: “It’s this whole spoiled generation-they want the grades but don’t want to do anything for them!”

If you haven’t heard anything like that, you haven’t been listening.

Two popular targets on the list of Things These Students Can’t Do are creative thinking (coming up with innovative ideas) and critical thinking (making judgments or choices and backing them up with evidence and logic). When our colleagues complain to us that their students can’t do them, after we make appropriate sympathetic noises we ask, “Where were they supposed to learn to do it?” The answers may vary, but one we rarely hear is “In my class.”

Leaving aside anomalous prodigies like Mozart and Gauss, people develop skills of any kind — musical performance or composition, math or physics, critical or creative thinking — through practice and feedback. That’s how you acquired your skills. You were either given or voluntarily took on tasks, and with someone else’s help or on your own you learned how to do them. The more you did them, the better you got. Unfortunately, creative and critical thinking are not routinely taught in our schools, nor are they activities that students eagerly learn on their own. It shouldn’t surprise us when our students can’t magically do them on our assignments and exams.

Let’s suppose you decide to take on the job of helping your students learn to think creatively or critically. Can you equip all of them to be brilliant at it? No, any more than you or anyone else can turn them all into brilliant scientists and engineers-they don’t all have the talent. How about the ones who have it-can you do it for all of them? Probably not — some lack the motivation to do the required work. Well then, can you help the talented and motivated students become much better at creative and critical thinking than they were at the beginning of the course? Definitely!  How? Easy — show them examples of the kind of thinking you have in mind; ask them in class and in assignments to complete tasks that require that kind of thinking; give them feedback; and repeat.

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