Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Case for Being a Nitpicky Grader


I’ve always had a sense of the educator I didn’t want to be. To this day I remember the prof who became annoyed with endless questions and finally huffed, “My five-year-old could get this!” Student me, though stumped, decided to try work it out on my own. If I couldn’t get it, it was a relatively small thing on which to take a hit when it came time for exams.

These days when I come across a topic that seems ridiculously simple, but students aren’t getting it, I try to get their input on what the topic looks like to someone new to the subject. I use that input to come up with a more effective strategy to tackle it. I’m not that prof.

I used to not be the nitpicky-grader prof either. You know the one- they took points off for the tiniest infraction, and you could never get it exactly right. I’ve had a change of heart on that one, though.

When a student made a small error on an assignment, I used to point out the error and explain the problem, but not take off points. It’s a minor error, right? They’ll do better next time. But regardless of how carefully I explained, the same errors would show up in the student’s work over and over again. Then I started taking off a half point for those kinds of errors. Guess what? Suddenly students decided those small details mattered.

I was somewhat taken aback that the only way to convince them to do it right was making it costly to do it wrong. Suddenly the student who was a chronic non-labeller of graph axes is producing clear labels with proper units. The student not bothering to spell technical terms correctly (I mean, c’mon you have spellcheck for your homework for dog’s sake!) suddenly learns the spelling. Importantly, those errors also disappear from exams.

The distinction between formative and summative assessment is that formative assessment is meant to be low stakes/ no stakes, and help students analyze their work to improve. Summative assessment is the higher stakes measurement of whether they’ve met course objectives or not. Formative assessment involves helpful hints, and summative assessment involves correct or incorrect.

But as it turns out, unless there is something at stake to distinguish “important” from “whatever,” formative assessment is “I’ll take it under advisement” assessment, and summative assessment is “it seems you neglected to do so when the stakes were much higher” assessment.

I wasn’t doing any favours by letting things slide in the hope students got the message, so now I’m that prof.

Categories: Assessment, Challenges, Teaching philosophy | 2 Comments

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