Sunday, March 18, 2007

On Grading...

I had intended to post the next part of my better reasoning series today, but instead, I got bogged down in grading mid-term examinations.

The latest set of mid-terms are quite unusual. Some are amongst the worst I have ever seen. Not one, but two students succeeded in getting just 4% of the possible points on the questions. This I find amazing. There were a few others who also did extremely badly.

When grading a set of exams like this, especially if one runs across a series of very bad ones early on, there is a tendency to wonder whether there was something defective in one's teaching. This would be a surprise, as this is a class I have taught many times before and covers material I know very well, but there is always room for doubt. However, as I worked my way through the pile of answers, it became clear that at least some of the students did very well indeed. The majority of answers were not too bad. Thus, the teaching is probably not the source of the problem.

As I went back and looked at the bad answers, I came to a shocking realization. It was pretty clear that a number of the students had probably hardly ever been to class. It was also doubtful whether they had done much if any of the reading. Misspelled proper names can be a dead give away. In fact, on some of the lower scoring answers, it was possible to discern which classes the student had attended and, possibly, which readings they had done. In the rest of their answers, it was pretty clear that the student was just guessing. This was clear from the fact that their guesses were based upon the parts of the material they appeared to know, aided and abetted by common sense.

In some ways, this kind of result should not be a great surprise. By and large attendance in this class is not that good. It appears that around one fifth of the students in this class (this is roughly how many truly abysmal answers there were) think that they know enough about philosophy to get by without coming to class, or doing any reading. Why might students think this?

The really sad part about this is that also about a fifth of the students in the class, did really well. The material we are covering is complex and old. There are many important references and allusions in the texts that no student would ever be able to figure out on their own. One group of students clearly have grasped and internalized these, while the other group of students has not.

Now, I am faced with something of a dilemma. I seem to have a couple of choices. I could read the class the riot act and then go back over the basics, in order to try and get the slackers up to speed. This would probably bore the majority though. Alternatively, I could just keep teaching the class at a level that will continue to engage the majority, hoping that the slackers will just drop the class. Neither option seems ideal.

Mid-term examinations are always a bit of a crap shoot. One can never be sure what one will find. Usually, the scores cover a range from good to bad. However, I cannot recall having seen a set of mid-terms with so many truly shocking, horrifically bad, answers. I guess this will have to be filed under the 'live and learn' category. I am really glad that this stint of grading is now finished though!

The CP


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