Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Essays vs. Multiple-Choice: or, Grading is Really Hard When You're an English Teacher

I tweeted yesterday about the six+ days I just spent grading midterm exams for four classes. No wonder I haven't been blogging lately! Rather, each day I spent about four hours grading. More than that was just not possible due to brain strain; I graded until my eyes glazed over.

What did I grade? Well, many short-answer responses to literary passage analysis questions for my American Lit classes, plus vocabulary (handwritten) questions. There were about 40 of those exams.

For AP English Language, I read nearly 40 Synthesis essays on the topic of Beauty, and whatever its definition ought to be, plus multiple-choice (only 12 questions) sections and short answers.

So, in all, I just spent more than 24 hours grading. Then I had to curve grades for a some classes and chart results for my AP group, so that they can see what they might have scored on an actual AP English Language exam.

The extra calculations probably took about three more hours. Then I had to input all the grades and sort through all the paperwork. Tack on another two to three hours.

I finished at three o'clock on the dot (the deadline, actually) Tuesday. I worked late each night and woke up at 4: 30 a.m. some days, as well. Whew!

If I were a math teacher, I might have been done with grading oh, say, last Thursday? Maybe grading might have taken me four hours, tops? (I am just guessing; no offense to any math teachers out there.)

English teachers' workloads are just not comparable to other subjects, from what I can tell. English assessment grading not only takes days longer than other types of grading, but it's also just plain harder.

For one thing, reading student handwriting is never easy, and add to that the whole subjectivity issue, and the subconscious biases we teachers can build up when we keep seeing the exact same topic over and over. (To resolve the latter issue, I tend to offer an assortment of essay topic options.)

When I was in graduate school, I had a job grading essays for a large, lecture-hall class. I would grade perhaps 200 essays in a few days' time. At least I was not also teaching, so I had much more time on my hands. Looking back, I wonder if assigning multiple essays for auditorium-sized classes is even practical (certainly not, if the school doesn't hire outside graders).

It's a similar issue for the relatively new SAT essay. It's a great idea--offering an essay, ensuring that students must develop decent writing skills--but realistically, when it comes to, not so much.

Essay tests--which most English teachers prefer to give, or want to give, because they require students to prove that they can express themselves well, formulate strong arguments, integrate ideas, and make connections and inferences--are always extremely time-consuming to read and grade.

That's why most essays--when teachers are in a rush, and certainly this also applies to the SAT essays--can get only cursory reads.

I say this, and yet, I always end up spending much more time than I've budgeted on reading and marking essays. (I do, however, sometimes use a system whereby I circle writing issues on a rubric and attach that to the essays, rather than scribble all over them...which sucks up time and I'm pretty sure never even gets read.)

To help myself cope with the grading load, I might set a timer. Or, I set a stopwatch. I figure out how long I should spend reading/grading an essay if I am really focused and not distracted. Let's say the time is 3-4 minutes.

I mark down how much time I've spent on each essay, and if I start getting dilatory, then I mentally smack myself, take a quick break, and then start again.

I have to work rather fast on the grading or else it will never end. Also, it seems that students always want their essays back rather quickly--a teacher can tell students are feeling peeved when it's been a week and still no essay has been returned.

I don't blame them, and yet, as that 70s novel went, "I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can."

The solution lies in alternating essays with other assessments that are faster to grade--such as quizzes, particularly multiple-choice format. (Having a Scantron machine to grade these would be a Godsend.)

I've written several multiple-choice verbal sections of a national standardized test, so I know that's not something that can be done quickly. Still, once you write the questions (which can take a week--part-time, of course), the grading is pretty simple.

Some people might argue that an English teacher should never use multiple-choice (and I actually just had someone say to me--and I appreciate this--"Well, you're a teacher who is genuinely interested in what your students think, and in how they write, so you don't mind all that reading and all that grading time"). Well...

In a perfect world, perhaps English teachers would not ever test, and would only assign essays. But when we are pressed for time, as we nearly always are, what are the options? Also, what are the benefits of multiple-choice tests? Are there any, when it comes to English?

For one thing, with a multiple-choice test, you can cover small bits of material rather intensely. You can also offer students faster feedback on their comprehension and progress.

There are pitfalls to multiple-choice, however--among them, the Guessing Issue. You can avoid this by deducting a portion of the score to account for this (as the CollegeBoard does--though it seems rather mean-spirited, doesn't it?). You can also construct your questions in clear way so students know what to study in the first place, or know precisely what is being asked (then again, that could start feeling as if you are teaching to the test, although there are ways around that problem, too.)

You can also anticipate the typical test-taking strategies and work in some zingers and reverse questions. Although students will undoubtedly groan, the brightest will actually enjoy the battle of the minds.

The point is: make sure students understand that even if your assessment is multiple-choice, they still need to study and deeply understand the material in question.

I personally always read Cliff Notes and Spark Notes and make sure that my test questions do not resemble plot summaries or typical review guides in any way, shape, or form. The last thing I want to learn is that my students never read the actual novels or plays, that they skated by on "SparkNoting." Grrrr....

Show your students that they should expect the unexpected, even if the test you are giving is multiple-choice. Show them, too, that the old testing superstitions (that they can't have all choice D in a row, or that they should always pick the longest answer or the one that includes big words, for example) definitely do not apply.

Why do we test, anyway? In school, we test because we have to prove that our students are learning. But we also offer tests to get our students to study in the first place!

Please feel free to share any hints for faster, easier grading. All teachers, but especially English teachers, can surely use them.

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