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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Are You A Backwards, Forwards, or Sideways Grader, and How Does Your Grading Style Correlate With Your Writing Style?

Last fall, Gordon Smith did a post over at The Conglomerate about writing backwards vs. writing forwards. In other words, some professors do all of their research before writing a law review article and dutifully fill in footnotes as they write the body of the article. Other professors write first and ask questions later, i.e., write the body of the article first based upon what they know and then fill in the footnotes after most or all of their writing is done. And, of course, many professors fall somewhere in between these two extremes (these could be called "sideways writers," I suppose). Smith's post was followed by subsequent posts over at Volokh Conspiracy and here, and it prompted a question for me: Is there a correlation between the way that professors write and the way that they grade?

I fall squarely in the writing forwards camp, doing all of my research before finger hits keyboard and filling in Bluebooked footnotes with parentheticals as I write my articles. The same goes when I grade exams, under what I will call "forwards grading." When I draft my exams, I try to anticipate the possible answers that could be given for every question and create a preliminary answer key that assigns a maximum number of points for each issue and sub-issue. After students complete their exams, I skim through several of them to determine whether there are any additional issues that I need to add to the answer key.

Then, I begin the official grading process. When I finish reading the discussion of a particular issue on a given exam, I immediately go to my answer key and assign that discussion partial or complete credit (if the student adds a later discussion of the issue, I go back and change the point allocation). By the end of the exam, I have assigned all of the points, giving the student his or her final score. If the student mentions some good issue(s) I did not include in the answer key, I will add some points to the exam. If I think that an exam was exceptionally well written overall, I might add some points as well, and I might take away a few points for poorly written exams.

In talking with other professors, I know that many engage in "backwards grading" on exams.  That is, they read an entire exam and then assign a score to the exam (other professors assign a score after reading each answer to each essay question on an exam). And, of course, as with the writing process, it seems that many professors fall somewhere in between the two extremes. For me, the classic "sideways grader" is the professor who doesn't go into the grading process with an answer key but puts numbers in the margins of the exam as good points are made and then adds all of them up at the end of the exam to reach the final score.

Of course, there are pros and cons to each approach. Some pros to my approach are that:

-When students do a midterm or final exam review with me, I can show them the answer key, and they can see exactly where they got and lost points;

-I can ensure pretty good consistency between exam 1 and exam 100 (graded weeks later) by having the answer key to tell me how to assign points; and

-If I see something in a later exam which makes me realize that I did something wrong on an issue in prior exams, I can pretty quickly go back to those prior exams, see how many points prior exams got on the issue, and make changes accordingly.

There are also some cons to my approach:

-My guess is that my grading process takes a lot longer than backwards or sideways grading;

-Forwards grading might be too restrictive and unfairly work against students who "think outside the box"; and

-Forwards grading might overvalue content and undervalue style/organization.

So, what type of grader are you? Forwards? Backwards? Sideways? Why did you pick your grading style? And how closely does your grading style correlate to your writing style?     

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on April 9, 2009 at 09:51 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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I usually write the exam straight through, with things we've learned in class in mind. I then create a detailed grading rubric for all the things I'm looking for (with points for organization, style, and "other"). If it looks like I'm missing important class themes on the rubric, I revise the final to catch some of those themes.

After that, grading is straightforward - every answer gets scored to the minute points, plus some leeway for good/bad organization/style/other.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 9, 2009 3:47:58 PM

Thanks, Michael. Does your grading style correlate with your writing style?

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 9, 2009 4:02:30 PM

I guess mine does, to some extent. I'm an upfront researcher, prone to "one more book" syndrome. On exams, I also do a rubric prior to grading, although I do modify it after reading a few. But I might be more of a "sideways" grader, because I make my grading sheet for essays pretty coarse-grained, maybe 3 or 4 broad categories of points per essay. Within those categories I'm just looking for a good discussion of "X," but I don't have a huge amount of faith in my ability upfront to state exactly what points that good discussion has to emphasize.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 9, 2009 5:39:04 PM

Yes and no. When I write, I do background reading to get my arms around the subject and the literature. Then I write, then I fill in gaps, closely read other works for notes, etc.

If you consider the reading that one does throughout the course as "background," then I guess it is the same - I write the exam with that background in mind, and then go back later to fill in gaps (though I do that with my rubric, not by re-reading all the cases from the course).

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 9, 2009 7:30:04 PM

Personally, I like to write all the footnotes first. This can be a challenge, quite frankly, and the result is a body of text that consists of nothing more than a few hundred numbers. But at that point, it's all downhill: filling in the text between the numbers is the easiest part.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Apr 10, 2009 2:37:58 PM

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