Efficient teaching: exam writing vs. exam grading


Grading sucks. I hate grading. I guess even the best job in the world has its downside.

I hate grading because it makes me think about all of the less un-fun things that I could be doing at that moment. And I often do those things (like laundry, or dishes) instead of grading. Which only makes grading worse.

I’ve never actually given a scantron exam in a class that I’ve had the freedom to teach how I wanted. I haven’t had a massive class that’s required this approach (or a small army of student graders). I’m not inherently opposed to multiple choice exams, but I’ve mostly been in places where they were not appreciated, at least not in the kinds of classes I have been assigned.

One of the reasons I haven’t liked multiple choice exams is that writing a good one takes a lot of time. (And, even when I’ve used some of these questions on a paper exam, I find that they can contain a lot of hidden cultural biases that only come out when talking with students afterwards.)

If your exams aren’t multiple choice, then how can you do spare yourself grading hell?

You can’t. But you can lessen it.

Which is more annoying, writing an exam or grading?

Which is more annoying, writing an exam or grading?

This is just a working hypothesis. It’d be interesting to really know. But not interesting enough to delve into the education literature.

On one extreme, you could write an exam in ten seconds. It would ask:

Explain in detail the five most important ideas that you learned while studying for this class in the past month.

Very easy to write, very hard to grade.

When underthinking exam questions, then we could be in for a world of hurt when we have to grade the responses. You can’t necessarily create a perfect rubric up front, because you might get correct but unanticipated answers.

Students can put all kinds of crazy stuff down when you ask questions on exams. Sometimes, this crazy stuff is actually factually correct and directly answers your question. Even if the answer is not addressing the content that you were expecting the question evaluate?

Badly Worded Question: When the earth had more oxygen in the atmosphere, would the sky appear orange or not? Explain your answer with a sentence.

Correct answer: Yes. The sky would either be orange, or it would not be orange.

I have a really hard time marking points off a question which is fully answered correctly, even if the correct answer isn’t what I anticipated. (In fact, I promise I won’t do this to my students, as a part of a policy of transparency and fairness.) The onus is on me to write questions that directly get at what I need to know to assess their content knowledge and the ability to process it (Blooms taxonomy, yadda yadda)

So, if you make sure your exam is airtight going in, then grading it should be easier.

But writing exams is no fun either. So we don’t write the best exams in the first place. Maybe the memories of painful grading are enough of a stick to make us write tighter exams.

hat tip to Prof-Like Substance for venting about grading.

7 thoughts on “Efficient teaching: exam writing vs. exam grading

  1. I really hate grading too! The main reason being that I get attached to my kids, want them to succeed and hate giving out bad grades(doesn’t mean I don’t!). I’m only a TA though.

  2. “Only” a TA! You’re the one who can make the most difference, you’re there on the front lines.
    If it makes you feel better, I’d bet that the ones who are most apt to succeed are the ones who probably care the least about what grade they get.

  3. First, let me just say that I really enjoy the blog (you should, and have, thank(ed) Jeremy Fox for some crazy publicity). Second, as a Ph.D. candidate, I have had the opportunity to teach a “real” class this semester and just finished grading my first exams. Since the class was relatively small, I decided that a test full of open-ended questions would be fine. Wrong. I like teaching and look forward to doing it in the future, but I can definitely sympathize with the lack of enthusiasm for grading.

  4. Lately I have been having students write exam questions in a workshop style to get an idea for what makes a “good” question, a “great” question and then a “big picture take home” type of question where lots of links come together. I find I can use the base of their questions to help develop my own.

    • That’s great – I once experimented with getting students to write their own exam questions, picking from the lot. It didn’t work out at all – they were all dumb (and easy) memorization questions. Granted, I didn’t structure the activity for them. It was a good gauge for what they were thinking the salient material was. Maybe I should try that again.

  5. This observation is absolutely spot on. The time you invest in writing clearly defined and worded questions pays back ten times when it comes to grading. If you do this, you don’t have to wrap your mind around a new kind of answer, with its own mixture of true, false and misunderstood statements. It took me a couple of years to learn this.
    And yes, grading does suck. As an old teacher of mine said to me, “it’s right up there with murder.”

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