Friday, December 19, 2008

EFL Teaching Advice: Grading

Grade A schoolGrading assignments can be one of the most difficult tasks for new teachers to learn. I am referring mainly to essays and other assignments that involve writing and creativity. Maths and sciences usually present more right or wrong marking potential though they also leave some room for subjective grading.

Grading guidance for EFL teachers working overseas can often be completely lacking.

How should you grade assignments in a fair and equitable way?

Create a Rubric

A rubric is a detailed explanation of exactly how a particular assignment will be graded. Teachers who prepare rubrics for assignments will benefit both themselves and their students. Of course, the question is: how exactly do you prepare a rubric?

The key is to start from the focus of the course that you are teaching. If you are teaching a straight grammar course, you can't fairly assign an essay. The likelihood in most grammar intensive courses is that you will segue into some sort of language function. In other words, you will teach your students how to apply specific language skills to more real world situations such as essay writing.

So let's assume that you have taught university aged students how to write essays in English and now you want them to produce a five paragraph paper on a particular topic.

You may wish to introduce a sliding scale rubric. For example, you indicate to your students that organization is worth 10 points. Each student starts with 10 marks for organization and you substract one mark for every instance where the organizational pattern was not adhered to. If they have four paragraphs instead of five, subtract one point. If they don't have a topic sentence in one paragraph subtract one point. If they don't use a transition sentence between two paragraphs subtract one point, etc.

Similarly, 10 points can be allotted for spelling and grammar. You can then deduct half a point for each grammar mistake. Perhaps you might assign more weight to actual grammar points you covered in class.

Finally, 10 points may be awarded for language usage and content. This section of the grading would not be on a sliding scale and would be far more subjective than the other two areas. This subjective aspect is a real dilemma that comes with assigning grades, especially in language teaching and liberal arts subjects in general. To make things as fair as possible, ensure that you make clear to your students what you expect.

This is an example of a very general and simple evaluation rubric for an assignment. Of course, rubrics can be far more detailed than this one. But having at least some sort of plan is far better than just marking according to a "feeling."

There are other obstacles to marking assignments as an EFL teacher.

Grading on a Curve

Grading on a curve may have some benefits in certain situations, but as part of a language class for EFL teachers working in Asia, it is almost completely worthless.

I encountered mandatory grading on a curve at a university I taught at in Thailand. It seemed geared towards making the teachers' jobs easier. When grading is done on a curve, it is simply an exercise in comparison. The best assignment produced by the best student becomes the standard and every other effort falls somewhere below that. It doesn't matter if the best student was already excellent before they entered the course and made no improvements while the student who gets a C made huge strides.

In an ideal situation, grading on a curve may offer a workable and fair system. If all learners in the class have been screened and are at the same level, the syllabus is clear and closely aligned to the class level, learning goals are clearly outlined, and a fair rubric is used for all assignments and exams then grading on a curve may be possible.

However, this ideal situation will rarely, if ever, exist in the TEFL classroom in Asia. Even when the perfect situation presents itself, grading on a curve doesn't make the most sense if your main goal is to benefit the students.

Regardless of whether you are presented with a situation where grading on a curve is expected, you will face further ethical questions about your assessment style.

Other Obstacles

Pure objectivity is a myth. There are numerous factors, aside from the work a student produces, that affect the way you will grade.

Your relationship with a particular student can't help but play a part in how you view them and the assignments they hand in. When a student makes a good first impression, you may feel obliged to help them maintain the early good grades they achieved.

As unlikely as it may sound, you may even grow to dislike certain students.

The best way to guard against such feelings affecting your objectivity is to mark assignments "blind." In other words, mask the names and identity numbers somehow so that you are only looking at the work and don't have an image of individual students in your mind.

As mentioned, grading assignments can easily become an exercise in comparison. Try to look at whether the student achieved the learning goals and also whether they improved on a personal level. If there are few restrictions regarding how many A's can be handed out, take effort into account when deciding final grades.

This does not fly in the face of the rubric advice. It simply means that a student on the cusp between a B+ and an A, and who has made a strong effort, may benefit psychologically from the higher grade.

Simply being aware of the potential pitfalls can help you to avoid them to some degree. Develop a plan and stick to it but don't be so rigid that you can't revise and update your rubrics and grading methods over time.

Click for Excel tutorial on tallying points and calculating grades


Anonymous said...

Great summary. Might I add that the best way to get good at grading is to become an EFL examiner at the first chance you get, e.g. to volunteer to be an IELTS, BULATS or FCE examiner. This isn't much good for beginning teachers as they won't accept you until you have at least 3 years' experience, but I learnt a lot when I became a BULATS examiner that has been useful in all kinds of other marking situations. The closest equivalent you can do if that isn't possible is to teach classes preparing for similar exams and use what ever you can find out from teacher's books etc to help you with marking fairly. In the good ole days Cambridge ESOL also used to give out the marking rubrics in the Handbooks, so if you can find an old copy you will be able to mark almost like a real examiner. These old Handbooks (and some exam textbooks) have model answers that can also help a lot.

Anonymous said...

This all makes sense from the point of view of individual development, if that were the only reason for school to exist, but many EFL programs in Asia and elsewhere operate with the assumption that the program is serving the needs of other institutions that will employ graduates or accept them as graduate students, so teachers may reasonably be expected to grade students on the curve. People who use the grades may have an implicit understanding that they are a relative ranking of students, or that they reflect a level of proficiency.

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