Friday, October 1, 2010

Grading efficiently

Here is how I grade Theory homeworks.
1. Grade everybody's answer to problem 1, then everybody's answer to problem 2, etc. This goes much faster than grading all problems of the first homework, then all problems of the second homework, etc.
2. Read a couple of solutions by students who I know will probably get it mostly right.
3. After that, sketch a model solution; figure out the key points/keywords.
4. When reading a proof, scan it briefly to find the keywords. Ideally, someone using the right keywords has to have done the proof right, and someone missing a keyword has to be missing something in their argument.
5. Grade at a high level. Too much granularity means wasting time on unimportant details; some experiments have also shown, I have heard, that grades of the same exams by independent graders yield (paradoxically) more consistent results if the grading is more global. This means that I have to have a clear sense of "what really matters".
6. Occasionally give up. I typical spend the majority of my time on a tiny fraction of the homeworks (the ones that come up with a completely different approach, or from students who are unusually wordy and obscure, or a combination). Sometimes, if after some amount of time I still cannot figure out what their solution is about, I just add a note in the margin: "No credit -- I can't understand this. Come see me at office hours and if you can explain it to me you may get some credit."
7. Design homeworks so that they are easy to grade by the above method. In particular each question should have a reason for being there: it should test something specific, and then when I grade I am just looking for that key point. Example: ask for a proof by induction, in an application where there is a risk that the student may list the base cases wrong. When grading, I can then scan the whole proof and just zoom on the base cases. The rest is "noise" and I will essentially ignore it, although the student does not know it when he writes his solution. Some students then get annoyed because they will receive almost no credit even though, in their view, they got most of the question right; but they didn't figure out the one part I cared about...


  1. Don't you write the complete solution *before* giving the exam (if only as a simple way to check that you specified correctly the problem, giving all the data required for the solution that you have "in mind")?

  2. No, only a sketch. Also, my perception of which questions are difficult and which errors will arise may be wrong, so I can't plan the grading before reading a few exams.


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