Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Like": Awesome on Facebook, Not for Grading

(Time for more appreciation: My blog has been alive for about 5 months. Word continues to spread and I feel so lucky. Heartfelt thanks to everyone who is sharing and supporting my passionate message about student-professor communication. Students, please bring questions my way as you start school. Also, I'd love to hear your first impressions about your classes. You can reach me at chattyprof@gmail.com or "Like" The Chatty Professor page on Facebook. Your thoughts will remain anonymous and I'd be glad to help, or find another expert who will!

Regarding this week's post... I'm seeing some concerning advice over and over again. Here's my response to it. Read on!)

Let's talk about two different students: Student A and Student B.

(I know, you are blown away by my creativity in characterization!)

Student A came to my office all the time, frequently stayed after class to chat, shared career goals, family background, etc. We had a very good relationship; our conversations were always engaging and enjoyable.

Student A started strong: Early submissions for me to review. Excellent grades.

Later in the term? Student A's proactiveness fell off. Life apparently got in the way.

Unfortunately, when Student A started to falter, it was with an assignment that had a lot of points attached--200 points, to be exact, which could definitely impact an A-grade goal.

Student A wanted an A.

Student A ended up with a C.

(Not that there's anything wrong with that... remember this post? However, Student A strove for more).

Before I get on to Student B, let me be clear that Student A did continue to communicate with me. Not at the same level as when the A-work was happening, but Student A was honest that other personal situations were impacting work quality. 

Okay, now for Student B:

I'll cut to the chase and say that we had a similar excellent relationship. Student B submitted work early and achieved strong grades on speeches, outlines, and written work.

Student B kept momentum through the term. Not surprisingly, at the end, Student B's average was a 94.5%. Rounded up, 95% = 4.0 (I always round up).

There was never one moment in my mind where I thought, "I know these students really well. I see them all the time. They come to my office, they talk with me after class, they work really hard... therefore, I'm going to help Student A out with a higher grade because of a good attempt, or round up Student B's grade because of my familiarity with him/her." 

This post from Campus Splash (and don't get me wrong... I LOVE their material!) seems to indicate a different philosophy about subjective grading than mine: 

"...But going to office hours could change your professor’s mind – and maybe even help your grades."

So does a line from this post on freshman tips from USA Today College (another outlet I respect immensely): 

"Sometimes professors are more likely to give a good grade to a familiar face if they know you are trying."

Students wrote these posts and apparently they've had profs who offered a little boost based on the "familiarity, likeability criteria."

Am I saying that that profs never do this?

No. I suppose either some do, or students have a perception that some do.

My worry is that students read this advice (and there is far, far more of it out there than these two posts), and then hold out hope that this "familiar, subjective grading plan" could happen for them. There are many reasons why it doesn't, and many reasons why it never will for me.

(Now, I know some of you are probably thinking, "Ooh... I really liked Chatty Prof, but now I'm thinking she's sort of a hard-ass...")

I'll explain myself:

1.  Let's say I'm called into a grade dispute (and I'm proud to say that I can count those on one hand in 13 years--I'm a super-transparent grader who offers tons of samples, rubrics, early review. And I'm also a hard-ass. Kidding!). My division chair or dean is going to expect me to show hard numbers. I can't just say that the GPA spirit (you mean there isn't one?) moved me to give the student a different grade than he/she deserved because I knew the student really, really well.

2.  Okay, so what if I do grade a student that I know and like a teensy bit higher than another? Students compare grades all the time. "Like" is awesome on Facebook, but shouldn't be my criteria for grading. Let's not even mention my credibility as a fair prof if I grade based on how well I know a student. Gone. And, what if the student with a lesser grade also worked hard, but had a job that prevented him/her from becoming more familiar with me during office hours or staying after class? Again, not fair.

3.  At the core of my educator's soul, I wholly believe that grades are earned, not given. One of my degrees is in education. I believe in objectives. . .  I believe in outcomes. . .  I believe the children are our future--oh wait, that's Whitney Houston . . .

Seriously, I believe that grades should reflect a student's individual level of mastery of the material learned, based on the assignment's requirements. At times, I will take into account a student's individual level of improvement, such as quality of speech delivery from one speech to the next.

So what's the communication lesson here? (Because there always is one!)

First and foremost, my message from me to you--with love:

If you believe that some students get better grades because they chat up the professor a lot, and the professor seems to know them well, you probably aren't getting the whole story.

The reason those students are likely getting better grades is because in the midst of the chatting, the student and the prof are talking about the assignments more, the student is asking for help more, and the prof is reviewing the work... more.

Think about it: If you're hanging around talking to a prof about something you've seen on television, or about your mother, or about your job, a strong possibility exists that one of you is going to bring up an upcoming assignment. You might say, "Yeah, you know I'm a little worried about that speech." Or, your professor might move the conversation out of the personal and into work: "So, how's it going with your outline?"

Then, the comfortable relationship between student and professor creates a feedback loop.

Let's look at a conversation I might have with a student after the "chatty" is out of the way:

Student: "Yeah, you know, I'm really struggling with that outline. I have no idea where you find credible sources."

Me: "Well, where have you looked?" or "Have you talked to one of the librarians? You know they have Ask-A-Librarian 24-7, right?"

Me again: "You know, you can send me your outline so I can review it ahead of time. I'm glad to give you feedback."

Then, the student would hopefully take me up on that offer and submit work early, I would make comments/suggestions for improvement, the student would make the changes and possibly even ask if the changes are correct.

Voila! In so many cases, a better grade ensues! It didn't happen because the professor simply knew the student. It happened because of the conversation and subsequent feedback on the work.

I would not count on sheer familiarity with your prof translating into getting a little help for your grade. It's a gamble that you don't want to risk!

Want a better bet for your grade? Say these things:

-"Professor Jones, I'd like to meet with you to discuss how I can reach my grade goals in this class."
-"Are you willing to accept early work? How early?"
-"Once I submit work to you for review, are you willing to review again? How much time would you like to do that?"

If the prof refuses to review work ahead of time (I hear that some simply won't review), then do the work early anyway and ask him/her a couple of strategic questions:

-"Can you look over these two equations and make sure I'm doing them correctly?"
-"Can I run my thesis statement by you to see if I'm on the right track?"

Then, if you get a lower grade than expected, your comfort level with the prof could give you the courage to say:

-"Can you give me more information about what I could have done better?"
-"What part of the requirements did I miss?"
or even
-"Can I redo this and turn it back in?" (May not be realistic, but at least if you got a better grade, it would be based on action, not just the prof liking you).

Do you see where I'm going here? All of this conversation revolves around work, your involvement with the work, and your ownership and responsibility for the work.

Certainly, if your prof were to ever write you a letter of recommendation, he/she will discuss characteristics about you. However, hard examples or stories about you will revolve around tangible action. In other words, your work.

I'm going to close this post by quoting my tweep, Allen Grove, English Prof, Alfred University (@Gotocollege on Twitter). He made this great statement in a recent CollegeBoundNet tweetchat:

"Knowing your work ethic is more important than knowing your face."

I definitely welcome any and all comments on the subjective grading discussion. I think it's a hard one! Students, do you agree with the posts that I noted here? Colleagues, add your thoughts! 


  1. Great post, Ellen! I am going to do my best to get all of my fellow students to read this advice. It needs to be heard. I am just like "student B". I'm always talking to my professors. I pick their brains whenever possible and ask them to review work ahead of time so I can make the necessary revisions. A few students have said that I am brilliant and so smart, but I correct them -- I just work REALLY hard.


  2. Matthew, you know I think you ARE brilliant and smart because I see how you operate on Twitter and I've glimpsed your writing. However, your comment is right-on... asking profs for review is a huge grade-booster. I am so appreciate of you writing! Ellen

  3. Thanks for sharing. I have bookmarked this blog. and love to come back and read some good qualities of articles. Good Luck. :) Best Wishes, Team PC Support

  4. Thank you, Daniel! I'm having a ball blogging :-). I hope you will keep commenting! Ellen