Grading: It is personal, actually! — Aimée Morrison

[With her permission, we have reprinted below a posting by Aimée Morrison (Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo) that originally appeared on the Hook & Eye blog.]

Grading is personal. And I’m starting to recognize that, for my students, no matter how I frame my response to their papers (“This paper argues” rather than “You believe”, for example) they take it personally: the grades hurt their feelings, they feel personally slighted.

I don’t blame them. In fact, when I get graded, I have exactly the same reaction. I feel hurt, misunderstood, angry, sad, judged. I feel hopeless, or like a failure, or that my whole career is a sham. I drink. I cry.

Of course, I don’t stay there. I

n the last couple of years, I’ve come to understand that it is perfectly natural and understandable to freak out like this about a less-than-perfect peer-review. It’s okay to freak out. But. After a certain period (I take three days), you pick yourself up, re-read the review, and deal with it a little more dispassionately, because 90% of the time, the feedback is apt and valuable and attending to it will only make my work stronger.

So, I thought to myself, why not model this for my students, too? The whole process?

I handed back 40 first year response papers this week in class. While I did that, I projected a couple of peer reviews of my work on the screen. One was really positive: I told them this is the review we all want to get. And the other was …. less positive. In fact, I highlighted all the negative words (too descriptive, insufficient, inappropriate, inadequate, lack of, dont’ like the title, etc. etc.) in red. They gasped. I told them what I did when I got the review–feel sorry for myself, get angry, mope, drink, complain to my friends. I stamped my feet and pouted for them, in class. I called the reviewer names and questioned her intelligence. They laughed. Then I told them that it was okay that they probably felt the same way about how I’d responded to their work.

In fact, I said, I’m just going to sit here on the floor behind the podium where I can’t see you, and you’re going to take two minutes to complain about your marks to the person sitting next to you. And then we’re going to move on.

So I sat down on the floor, and told them they weren’t complaining enough. And then the room erupted in a storm of complaining and laughing. It was awesome. I stood up, and we talked about strategies for dealing constructively with the feedback they’d received.

I think it worked.

I used to give the graded work back at the end of class, telling them there was a 24 hour cooling off period during which they had to calm down before talking to me about their work. But it occurs to me that that disrespected and minimized the emotional reaction: I mean, I have always got super-emotional about being graded. It is personal, actually! Or at least, it feels really personal. It’s not wrong, it’s just part of the process. So now I model that to them, in the context of my continuing to be graded by my own peers. We go through it all together. And then we move on.

Getting assessed always made me feel awful–and for a long time I felt awful about my emotional reactions. It was a double-fail: not only was I sad and hurt, but I understood my sadness and hurt as evidence of my wussiness and inappropriateness as a scholar. I don’t want to make my students feel like that. So go ahead: feel shitty when you get feedback that diverges from your expectations. Set a timeframe for moping and crying and yelling. That’s okay. Later, we can deal with it. But for now, it’s all right to just feel your feelings. Because we all do.

I don’t know about you, but I feel a whole lot better now.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

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