TA Training Day - September 18, 2004.
University of Victoria, Learning and Teaching Centre
Response and Responsibility: Marking as a TA
PhD Candidate and Sessional Instructor
Department of English
This talk will discuss the marking process from the TA's point of view, including how to establish clear standards for marking, how to discuss marks with students, and how to grade responsibly while addressing one's own graduate workload.
Two questions to consider when marking:
1. what does it mean to respond to students' work?
2. what does it mean to set up an A+ as "the gold standard"?
* to the triangular relationship: student-TA; TA-professor; student-professor. Beware the "family" dynamic!
* to yourself: you are being asked to have a certain kind of authority without having the doctoral degree that is purported to give you that authority. It is not unusual for many TAs to struggle with issues of privilege and elitism.
* to the job: be clear about your expectations - of students; of the supervising professor; of yourself.
Now that you have this job, and that judging students' performance in the course is a big part of it, how can you do it with accuracy, compassion, and attention to your own work?
What are the advantages/disadvantages of your student perspective in your job as a grader/marker?
What are the common problems you encounter (or anticipate encountering) in grading students' work?
How to establish clear standards for marking: before responding in writing
Don't assume a universal standard; meet with your supervising professor; discuss standards; be specific; examples of papers; grading scale; ask questions.
Clarify your expectations. Consider the level of the course, the length/ breadth of the assignment, the professor's expectations.
* Read all of the papers before marking any of them. This will help you get a sense of proportion before you commit a word to the page.
* As an exercise in perspective, consider how you would do the assignment. What texts/areas/materials would you choose? What approach? What skills would you want to demonstrate? If you have done a similar assignment recently, review what doing that assignment was like.
* Discuss low marks and potential Fs with the professor before you award these grades in writing.
* Mark/grade so that you can be accountable at a second's notice. Can you explain this mark to the student who received it?
Handout: Grading Framework
Experienced instructors don't often use grading frameworks, but if you are inexperienced, they are a good place to start. Of course, no grading framework is perfect, so read it carefully and decide for yourself if this reflects the important skills and standards for your course. At the very least, such a chart will give you a framework to begin thinking about your own standards. Professors often distribute a marking scale with the course outline, specifying what they want to see in assignments. It is often easy to work up a grading framework of your own from the professor's guidelines.
Discussing marks with students :
• On the page: clarity and direction are key.
• Be concise in your written feedback; a page of feedback will often seem punitive to a first-year student, even if you have chosen your words carefully.
• Point out what the student did well, and then offer concrete advice for improvement. Example: "Your rhetorical style is convincing. Anchoring the paper with more textual analysis will make your next assignment even better."
• Offer two or three points at the most as goals for the next assignment.
• Stay away from commenting in any humourous or wittily sarcastic manner on the student's work. Such attempts, while often well-intended, backfire 99% of the time. Remember that the students perceive the power differential between you and them, even if you do not. (Robertson Davies wrote, "The wit of a graduate student is like champagne - Canadian champagne" and maybe this time, we'll let Professor Davies have the last word!)
• Do not command discussion; rather, offer it. First-year students, in particular, still see "being called to the office" as a punishment for poor performance. The TA and the professor can discuss the function of the office meeting in class, in order to reinforce the idea of meeting as a helpful tool. However, the best reference comes from another student who had a good experience of discussing an assignment with you.
• In person
• Keep in mind that many things are better said in person, where dialogue clarifies the point. Even brief casual discussions can be helpful; if you run into a student on campus and they want to talk about their paper for a minute, do it. They feel more comfortable and will be able to take in the feedback. Or, if they ask you in the few minutes before or after class, that is also good. Again, your job is to be prepared to discuss their work on short notice.
• Discuss objectives of the assignment when discussing the mark, and possible improvements. Students new to a discipline sometimes express their perception that grades are arbitrary. Show them clearly why their paper received the grade it did. Refer to the professor's outlined standards, the style of the individual discipline, and anything else that is appropriate to the assignment.
• Show an interest in the assignment, as an assignment that they have completed, no matter what the grade. Discuss their content or approach, their choices and their argument. Remember that they have worked on this and deserve some discussion that is about their work and not about their errors.
Responsibility and Your Workload
In the meantime, your thesis/dissertation beckons. I can't and won't tell you how to write that, but I will offer some practical advice, and some compassionate advice.
Practical advice :
• Keep an eye on your required TA hours. If your contract specifies that you work twelve hours a week, do your best to fulfill that. Keep in mind that the workload will fluctuate from week to week. When I worked as a TA, I often had weeks in which I would work more than my twelve hours because the following week would have only three-four hours of work, and so a balance would be maintained.
• Discuss a reasonable marking "turn-around" time with your supervising professor.
• If you have a lot of commitments (family, coursework, outside jobs, etc.), consider charting on your term schedule the weeks when you know you will have heavy marking deadlines to meet. Read the course outline carefully and plan accordingly.
• Mark the more difficult, time-consuming "problem papers" first, when you (and your perspective) are fresh.
• Mark steadily, as though you are completing stages of a long-term project.
• Stick to a time limit for marking each paper. If you find that you are taking longer and longer as you work through the pile, take a substantial break.
Compassionate Advice :
• Beware of the temptation to overachieve. Be clear and concise in your feedback and remember that there will be other assignments to mark, and other opportunities for you to give feedback to this person.
• Remember even ½ page of comments is too much for most people.
• Make an effort not to mark when you are tired or frustrated. With most graduate students' schedules, this is easier said than done, but the students whose work you are grading deserve the benefit of your full attention and your objectivity.
• Remember that you were hired because you know how to do this.