You may have heard the instructor’s line that he would teach for free – but he gets paid to grade.

I suspect that for most faculty, grading is one of their least favorite activities. It’s right up there with chairing committees, root canal surgery, and watching 1000s of nasty campaign ads right before an election.

We are required to do an impossible task in assigning grades.  We have to compress each student’s performance over a semester into a precise and valid score on a single quantitative dimension.

Half the students are graded below average, which is probably the first time that this has ever happened for most of our students. Grades can affect their career opportunities and they can pack a huge emotional punch in the gut to students’ self-esteem.

I like giving feedback to students, but deciding the correct numerical grades makes my head hurt. Deflating students’ self-esteem makes my heart hurt.

As my wife can attest, I tend to get grumpier than usual during grading time.

I have almost finished reading the final papers in my courses this semester and I actually am enjoying the experience.

This post describes my journey to greater satisfaction in grading.

Frustrating Grading Experiences

I have taught negotiation and/or mediation for many years and have used various assignments. I have been frustrated with virtually all of them. Until lately.

I started requiring students to write essays on a topic of their choice related to the course. I suspect that most students didn’t feel particularly interested in their papers and didn’t feel that the experience helped them develop knowledge or skills that they would use after graduation. For those students, writing a paper was just another hoop they had to jump through to “pass go” and get out of jail school.

I thought that most of those papers weren’t very good.   Students’ hearts and minds generally weren’t in these papers. I developed increasingly detailed instructions and eventually required students to submit rough drafts. Even after giving detailed comments and suggestions on their drafts, I still felt that most of the final papers weren’t very good. And I had a hell of a time trying to assign grades to widely different papers.

I have tried a bunch of other things I described in this article (as well as other methods) and I generally haven’t been satisfied with any of them.

I CAN Get Satisfaction

I now require students to submit three papers and each paper must analyze a single challenging issue in a simulation that they do in class. They write the first paper early in the semester and it is worth 15% of the grade. The second one is due in the middle of the semester and the last one is due soon after classes end. The latter two simulations are each worth 30% of the grade (with 25% assigned for course participation).

The first paper is 4-6 double-spaced pages and the second two papers are 6-8 double-spaced pages each. These seem like good lengths for them to write and for me to read.

The instructions are the same for each paper. On the first two papers, I give detailed feedback in “comment balloons” using the “track changes” feature in Word.

I think that it is helpful for students to do the “same” assignment several times so that they get some practice and learn my expectations. This is particularly helpful for students who don’t “get it” the first time.

At a session at the ABA conference, Andrea eloquently described her (and my) teaching goal of preparing students to continue learning throughout their careers. So I give students a one-page self-assessment form to complete after virtually every simulation. (I modify the forms for particular simulations, but you can click here to download a generic form, among others I use.)

Students don’t submit these forms to me. I do this to encourage them to internalize the habit of doing self-assessment for themselves and not just for external evaluations (though I tell them that completing these forms may help them write the papers that they do submit to me).

The key requirements of their papers are that they must (1) pick one challenging issue they experienced in the simulation, (2) identify alternative approaches for handling the issue, and (3) analyze advantages and risks of each approach. I think that this structure for reflection is a good generic process for learning virtually any type of skill.

The simulations involve very typical situations that lawyers encounter, which helps students get into their roles and take the assignment seriously.

Before students submit their papers, we thoroughly debrief the simulations together in class. We discuss what worked well and I especially ask them to discuss “what was hard for them.” I phrase the question that way to set the expectation that there usually will be hard aspects in their work and that difficulties are not necessarily due to their personal failings.

This approach is reinforced in the instructions for the papers, which state, “Experienced lawyers don’t always perform as well as they want and law students don’t either. This is normal when dealing with challenging issues. You can learn a lot from things that don’t go well. So don’t pretend that you (or your classmates) performed better than you think you actually did. You will receive a better grade for a candid and insightful analysis of problems than for a superficial presentation that avoids discussion of problems.”

Most students actually follow these instructions. Indeed, virtually all of the papers are sensitive and insightful, writing about important issues that they are likely to face in practice. And that’s what makes it a pleasure for me to read them. (In another post, I will discuss what they wrote about, which is fascinating.)

To be accurate, it’s reading the papers that I enjoy, not the grading. But I also find that the grading is a lot easier than in the past.

If this approach sounds appealing, try it. You might like it.

Of course, there are lots of other ways to assess and grade students. For some other ideas, see Volume 3 of the Rethinking Negotiation Teaching series, which is devoted completely to assessment.

Have you enjoyed grading? Would you like to describe your experience as a comment below?

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus and former director of the LLM Program in Dispute Resolution, at the University of Missouri, School of Law. He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an avid writer and contributor to Indisputably.org