Thursday, October 11, 2012

Well, call me chuffed with these essays!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a stack of undergrad essays to mark is in want of a lot of red ink (with apologies to Jane Austen.) But...but...but... I've just completed marking a stack of such essays and I hereby declare myself pleasantly surprised. Sure, I had the usual quota of relatively pedestrian, 'too-much-description-not-enough-analysis', and 'wanders from the question in places' examples. But there was not a single one amongst the lot that was so full of spelling errors and crazy grammar that it was borderline unreadable (the enduring lament of teachers everywhere). Nor did I have any that didn't include any references, were based entirely on a the textbook, or (even better) where the argument was wholly constructed on the shaky edifice that is  History Channel documentaries. (Yes, I have had to have the conversation more than once that the History Channel is not an appropriate source for academic history essays. We give you a course bibliography for a reason, folks.)

I'm particularly chuffed because this was not an easy assignment and, I have to admit, I'd kind of prepared for the worst. Its for an upper level paper that requires the students to chose a group of primary sources from the course reader and write an essay that locates them in their specific cultural, social and political context. They also need to provide a critical analysis of the significance of their chosen documents, both in their contemporary medieval context and for we historians.  The sources they can pick from are organised thematically around broad topics such as lay piety, death and burial practices, guilds, regulation of prostitution etc. so there is plenty of scope for individual interpretive approaches but also, I feared, plenty of room to go wildly astray.

Grades in my department/school are scaled, although the range is fairly flexible. (For upper level papers, the number of A grades can be between 15-30% while the number of C grades is 25-50%. Anything below a C is a fail.) Normally, my grades tend to weigh towards the higher end of that range for Cs (maybe I am just a tough marker). But this time, I'm pleased to say that the majority of students fell solidly into the Bs (35 - 50%). As always, I also had a few real gems that earned As.

Incidentally, when it comes to typing up my comments for each student (I handwrite comments as I mark, but also attach a typed summary page), I always save the A essays for last because it leaves me feeling positive and happy. Anyone else do this?


ZACL said...

How very satisfying and rewarding this stack of essays must have been for you.

Onwards and upwards!

thirteenthcenturyengland said...

I go further - in fact I normally sort a pile of essays that I plan to mark on a given day into increasing order of predicted excellence, so I finish with reading the good ones, not only commenting on them. Sometimes this can go astray - such as when a really good student just doesn't live up to expectations, and the danger is that this can be more of a downer than an average student doing an average job, however, all in all, it's a positive and happy way to do it.

Bavardess said...

Predictive reading - that's even better! I can usually tell within the first couple of paragraphs if the essay is going to be one of the average ones or a standout, but occasionally the ones I expect to be really good end up fizzling out.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I like your department/school's scaling system. It would be useful to me to be able to say that at least 25% of the student have to get Cs. As it is, I give more B-s than I should, because reactions to Cs tend to be so strong (my excuse is that such reactions can sometimes get in the way of learning, since the student is so busy being defensive that (s)he doesn't actually read my comments. Of course they often don't read my comments anyway).

Congratulations on the satisfying pile of papers. It sounds like a good assignment, well-explained, which in turn allowed the students to do their best.

Bavardess said...

I do like the school's scaling system. I think it allows for the kinds of variations you might get (e.g. more bright, engaged students in one year/semester than in another). I always find the gradations between B grades the hardest to judge. The Cs and As usually stand out from the first paragraph. I also like that in our school, there is allowance for a higher proportion of A grades at the 300-level (percentages are different for first, second and third year papers).

I know what you mean on the comments. I provide quite a lot of feedback in the hope of improving the students' knowledge and skills. Some of them get quite uptight about very minor points (usually the ones who have been given a B+ but think they should get an A!) but I'm sure others don't bother to read my comments at all.