sweatin’ the small stuff

Today, I spent hours “grading” little writing assignments (many of them online postings) and other “exercises” we do in class, including the peer review.  Often, I don’t read every word of these writing exercises – it’s not possible when I have 65 students, each student doing something about 10 writing exercises throughout the semester.  I “read” very quickly, see if they put some thought and effort into the response, and give them 10 points – basically just for doing it. 

When I was in college – really it wasn’t that long ago – in a typical writing or English class, there were maybe 3-5 papers and that was  it.  Often, one final paper would make up 30 or 40 percent of my course grade.  No writing exercises and no “little” homework and classwork that were graded.  So, why all this “other” stuff? 

(image from keepcalmgallery.com)

The value of doing low-risk writing exercises, of course, is that they give students opportunities to utilize writing as a thinking process.  There is less emphasis on the product.  Think thing through and articulate them.  In addition, the repetition of writing (beyond a couple hundred characters on Facebook, Twitter, or cell phone) is important to improve writing.  You gotta write to write better.  Also, most of my students don’t put as much effort into things that are not graded.  I mean, they want “credit” for just showing up.  I don’t blame them: Grades are important to students – they were important to me when I was in college.  However, it seems harder and harder to engage students in learning activities with the focus on LEARNING.  It’s almost like they have to be tricked into learning through these seemingly frivolous exercises. 

These days, there is a big emphasis on “scaffolding” and facilitating learning.  Today’s students learn better when they’re DOING something and when they do something – which usually involves some sort of a product at the end – those “doings” need to be evaluated for learning outcomes.  Hence the endless grading of “the small stuff.”  True – in the grand scheme of the semester, it doesn’t take that much time, but often I find myself thinking, “I could be doing something else.” Not only that, sometimes I have to stop and ask myself about the value of these learning exercises…


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