Scaling Mountains of Marking

As many of you know, I can get quite stubborn about the value of comprehensive feedback on student writing. I learned effective writing strategies as a student through tough, detailed commentary on my expression, then took the same approach when evaluating student essays and reports in courses I taught over many years. It always seemed common sense that this kind of feedback helps students learn not just how to avoid specific mistakes but to become alert and careful editors of their own work over time.

Admittedly, with large enrollments, this approach can be crippling, particularly with multiple large classes and quick turn-around goals. Experienced writing instructors tackling this problem in a Chronicle of Higher Education Forum (“Freshman Composition/Writing Courses: Class Sizes Up and Up? What to do?”) volunteered tolerable enrollment caps of up to 24 per section. The Association of Departments of English (ADE) supports even lower enrollments of “no more than” 20. ADE’s statement of policy and Alice Horning’s “The Definitive Article on Class Size,” explain exactly why small class sizes should be protected for writing-intensive courses.

Needless to say, instructors don’t have the power to set class-size limits. This year, some class enrollment caps have been set 30% higher than last year’s, and it’s up to us to find a way to maintain pedagogical standards when faced with mountains of marking. One strategy could be to give individualized feedback on the first assignment and then follow-up in-class exercises or mini lectures on common errors throughout the semester. Comments on the rest of the assignments would be limited to summaries of strengths and areas for improvement. Such summaries can’t fully replace inserted commentary, but they can encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning, and so instill a reflex that presumably is at the core of higher education.

You can find articles on how to mark efficiently elsewhere on this blog, but this year’s class sizes require some pragmatic cost-benefit analysis that we haven’t been faced with in the past quite as much. A Procom colleague, Susan Cody, who has served on teaching committees at Ryerson, drew my attention to an article on efficient grading methods that takes into account students’ possible responses to correction. You may also want to plough through the comments on the linked Chronicle forum for more tips and reflections, expressed with a little more passion than I’ve indulged in here.

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