Grading Feedback

I’m finally done with grading. Well almost done. I’m still dealing with grade appeals. So what’s on my mind is some suggestions about grading, and I may write several posts on this theme.

It is important to give students feedback along the way about what your records show for them, especially if the grade depends heavily on lots of small things like daily attendance or homework. Even for test scores and such it is good to let the students see what your records show. The fact is, we sometimes make mistakes in recording grades. A system that assumes you never make a mistake is a bad system. If a student is going to challenge the accuracy of your records, you’d like that to happen in a timely fashion, not after grades have been submitted. And you shouldn’t be happy about students getting the wrong grade just because they didn’t challenge you.One way to give students feedback is your school’s on-line grading system. I don’t use ours because the interface is slow, clunky, inflexible and cannot handle the way I grade. Instead, I find it easy to use Word and Excel for this.

If you are part of the Microsoft/Windows world, you can easily generate grade reports for your students using Excel (or Access), Word, and Outlook. This is easy to learn to do and produces very high student satisfaction. Here are the basics. The trick is to initiate the merge in Word and from a Word document link to the data source. Let’s assume you have your grade data in a spreadsheet. The column headings are identifiers like names and the grade components like tests, attendance, homework. The rows are the students.  In Word, go to the “mailings” menu and the “select recipients” menu to link to the spreadsheet page with the data. The column headings will show up as merge fields in the merge field menu. You write your feedback form any way you wish, inserting merge fields as appropriate. You can lay it out as a table, or just free form text. Just don’t forget the field for the student’s name.  Adding a student email field is very useful, too. In large classes, I have found it helpful also to have a field for section number and TA name. Dating the output is a good idea, too. Then push the button to merge to a new document and, presto, you have feedback sheets, one per student. This lets you show students what you have for them in the computer and gives them a chance to correct clerical errors in a timely fashion. You can use the preview buttons to see what the pages will look like before you merge, and it is a good idea to merge to a file instead of a printer so you can double-check the results before sacrificing trees. Also you’ll want to keep an electronic copy of what you sent to the students.

Once you see how to do it, you’ll realize how easy it is to give a tailored report that fits your own teaching style. You can include explanatory text telling people how to interpret their grades or whatever. You’ll also want to include instructions for what to do if there’s an error, and a deadline for correcting errors. When you send/give out the reports, tell students (preferably in the report) what to do if they think there is an error in the records. It will be easier for you if the procedure requires them to use the feedback form you gave them, either annotating a paper form or replying to an emailed form.

The next step can be a bit harder to get set up but saves paper and instructor hassle and once it works it will keep working. If you also have Outlook and get its options set correctly, you can mail merge to email directly from inside Word. If it works at all, it works very easily. You have to make sure that the student’s email address is one of the fields in your spreadsheet/database. At my office, the default configuration did not have this capability turned on in Outlook, but it was an easy tech support fix to get it turned on. You can test this feature now, while it is summer.  Just set up a spreadsheet with name and email fields, and enter your own name and email and perhaps a couple of friends. I just used all three of my own email addresses. Then open Word and create a dummy document. Mine said: testing name <namefield> email <emailfield>. Then merge to email. If it worked, you’ll get the email, that easy. If you don’t get an email, it didn’t work. Tip: when it is for real, put yourself and your email address as the last line in your grade records so you can tell whether the email merge worked when you send to students. For some reason I do not understand, this only works for me if I choose the html option in mailing, and not in the text-only option.

A couple of tech notes: (1) This works the same way if you happen to have your grades in Access instead of a spreadsheet. You might be tempted to use the Access report function. Trust me, it is MUCH easier to initiate the report in Word. (2) If your grades are in a multi-page spreadsheet, you’ll need to create an export page that reads from the different data pages. As far as I can tell, Word cannot run a mail merge from more than one spreadsheet page (or Access table) at a time. Or do a separate report for each spreadsheet page. (3) Computed values will come through with 10 decimal places unless you overtly format them to fewer decimal places back in the spreadsheet. EDIT (4) Learned the hard way. Word reads ONLY the FIRST record in deciding how to format a field. If a field may have text or numbers, you need to make sure it has text as long as any longest record  will have in the FIRST record. This probably means you’ll want to create a dummy first record for this purpose.

Please feel free to use comments to explain how keep records and give feedback in other software packages, for example by using the report functions in a statistical package. I was very sadly and slowly dragged into using MS Word because I really prefer WordPerfect for most tasks, but MS Word’s mail merge function is one of its strengths. I could never get a WP mail merge to work without several trails, while a Word mail merge always works on the first try. My university supplies me with the MS products and Windows machines, so I have not used Open Office or Linux or Mac products, although I assume you can do the same thing more or less easily with them as with the Microsoft products. I actually use Thunderbird rather than Outlook for ordinary email, but Word won’t merge to Thunderbird, and the Thunderbird mail merge isn’t sophisticated enough to pick up data from other programs.

Advertisements

teaching about race (me too)

Belle just offered her great post on teaching about race posted both here at Scatterplot and on her own blog, responding to pitse1eh’s blog. Both got great comments and useful links. This made me want to dust off my own essay on the subject. The core of this is an article I originally published in Feminist Voices, a Madison newspaper, in January of 1998. I’ve revised this several times since, including some revisions for this blog forum.

It is something of a truism among sociologists that the hardest thing to teach our students is the idea of social structure. The US has an extremely individualist culture, and we tend to think of race problems as reducible to individual choices, either blaming poor people for poverty and the consequences of poverty, or blaming prejudiced people for not being accepting of difference. It is very hard to get past this, and understand why we are in structures that shape these behaviors and attitudes. Continue reading “teaching about race (me too)”

teaching question #1

How do you ask questions that guide a student discussion? I realize I’m a little old to be asking this question, but I’ve realized this is a teaching skill I don’t have. I know how to lecture and tell students what I want them to know. I know how to respond to student questions in interesting ways. I know how to run a class so students are comfortable talking and asking questions. I know how to facilitate and organize a discussion pulling together questions/comments initiated by students. I know how to ask good questions of someone who has just presented a paper in process. But I don’t know how to think about planning discussions in advance for a class session. I don’t know how to prepare to ask questions that elicit somewhat predictable answers that will help students “discover” the point you want them to learn or lead them to talk their way into a point you want them to get to, or that will encourage them to dig more deeply into a topic. I get the impression that some teachers do this. Is that right? I don’t think I learned this by watching when I was young because I did not go to that kind of schools. Can you recommend “how to teach” resources for this particular skill? Do you have tips or techniques?

advice for new assistant professors

As I’m in an advice-giving mood, I thought I’d post here something I wrote quite a few years ago.  This began as a lunch conversation with a departing grad student (who is now a dean) who asked me if I had any advice for her as she took her first job as an assistant professor.  I wrote it down later and it evolved over a few years.   I’ve gotten feedback from quite a few people that this was helpful, and some of you will doubtless recognize it.

1) Don’t take anything personally, especially not at first. People will probably treat you as insignificant, not because they think ill of you, but because they are socially inept. Most of us are comfortable with the people we already know, and are not good at being friendly to new people. The old timers ought to go out of their way to be friendly and inclusive to someone new (you) but they probably will not, and you should just chalk it up to poor social skills and nothing else.

2) Help integrate yourself. Even if you are normally more productive writing at home, work in the office a lot during the first year. Make a point of loitering in the hall when it is near lunch time, so people will notice you and think of asking you along to lunch. Continue reading “advice for new assistant professors”

getting credit

This is about giving academic credit on an independent study basis for doing service or work for a community or political organization, where the faculty member is doing this as an optional overload.  It is not about official service-learning courses, nor about official internships that are part of a coherent program.  A number of organizations set up programs where students get academic credit for working for them through the mechanism of an independent study.  Recent requests have raised ethical issues for me, and I thought this might be a good topic for more general discussion and reflection.  The ethical issues such arrangements raise are both academic and political.  Here’s my thinking: Continue reading “getting credit”